I Can't Stop Procrastinating At College—What Should I Do?

Dear Newsweek, I'm a third-year student in dental school. The last two years of university were really amazing. I was really productive and had great focus and discipline. I'm an INTJ personality type, which stands for introverted, intuitive, thinking, and judging, and for me, knowledge is a great part of life.

So, in these first two years of university, I studied really hard and achieved high grades. I wanted to learn how to program, so I started to take courses and got a scholarship for it. I made great progress with not only that, but also with studying a new language. I've always enjoyed what I do and didn't feel overwhelmed, bored, or less energized until the third year of my schooling, which is when I started to be a procrastinator.

I quit my programming and language courses and I can barely get through my college subjects. I spend hours thinking and daydreaming, with almost no sense of focus while studying. Please help.

Sara, Egypt

Woman with hands on head at desk.
A woman with hands on her head and facing downward while sitting at a desk in front of a laptop computer. iStock/Getty Images Plus

Understand What Your Needs Are Right Now

Alvaro Cea, a psychologist and life coach based in London, U.K.

First of all, I would like to congratulate you on your excellent academic grades. I get what you're saying about feeling overwhelmed, bored, or low on energy. It is not uncommon to feel this and start to procrastinate. In my experience, procrastination can become an unconscious coping mechanism in our minds. This mechanism protects us from moving forward, in the same way as overthinking or daydreaming can help us avoid fears or feelings of discomfort.

That is why it is important to understand that most of the time procrastination has nothing to do with time management. It is related to the regulation of emotions. Is there something that scares or bothers you? Can you identify any unusual thoughts, feelings, or experiences that occurred between your second and third year of college?

Sara, if any of these questions make sense to you, I suggest that you allow yourself to be in touch with any fears, sadness, or feelings of discomfort that you are experiencing right now. This can be a challenge, but it's also a great opportunity to understand what you need at this time in your life and reclaim your center. This process will come with a lot of energy to embrace whatever makes you happy.

If procrastination persists, seeing a counselor can give you a safe space and a new vision of how to take a positive step forward.

Ask Yourself What Has Changed

Richard Orbé-Austin, a psychologist based in New York City who is the co-author of Own Your Greatness

Are you burned out? Some of what you describe (e.g. procrastination, emotional distance from areas of interest) are signs of burnout. Do you find yourself studying an excessive amount of hours, with no time for self-care, then you may be dealing with burnout. To overcome burnout, you want to set good time boundaries, increase self-care, and seek support (e.g. mentors, counseling, coaching).

Have you become discouraged because the workload has become more difficult and do you doubt your ability to be successful? You may be dealing with impostor syndrome. Impostor syndrome is a phenomenon, where you feel like you are not smart enough, even though you are successful academically and professionally, and are constantly afraid of being exposed as a fraud. Overcoming impostor syndrome entails talking to trusted others about these feelings, recognizing that you are definitely smart enough, silencing automatic negative thoughts, and believing that you will be able to be successful.

Finally, are you in fact no longer interested in this subject area? If the daydreams are about other career paths, it may be useful to think about your other possible career options.

Ultimately, I'd want to know what changed during this third year to cause you to feel no longer interested in your college subjects. And doing so can help you to regain the energy and enthusiasm you had during your first two years.

Identify the Source of the Change

Matt Grawitch, Ph.D., a professor at the School for Professional Studies at Saint Louis University in St. Louis, Missouri with expertise in stress, decision making, and leadership.

The first thing to do is identify what might be at the root of this distraction. Were the first two years good because there were no other distractions of relevance?

Perhaps some non-school-related distractions have popped up (friends, romantic involvement) that have led you to lose some interest in the school work. These additional demands of interest are known as "want-to demands."

It's possible that the courses you are taking have become much more demanding and in-depth, and so are less intrinsically motivating, which could lead to increased procrastination or avoidance (the latter of which might explain the day dreaming).

The best advice is to seek support from on-campus academic or student counseling services, which many universities offer. That would give the greatest chance of identifying the source of the change in behavior and drive.

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