Academic Writing

26 Procrastination

Is procrastination always bad? Or is it a necessary part of your writing process?

What is it? What does it look like for you? For some people, having a writing assignment suddenly stirs a desire to clean, go for a walk, catch up on chores—do anything other than write. That’s procrastination. Vacuuming CAN be the same as taking time to think about your topic or assignment, unless you never get to the actual writing.

How to Use Procrastination

If you know that you have a tendency to procrastinate, you can analyze your habits to find a way to get back to productive work. If you just have difficulty getting the words onto the page, you might try some techniques that don’t feel like writing but produce results. Try some of these:

  • Bribe friends to listen and/or scribe. If you have more trouble with getting the words on the page, but like to talk over your ideas, invite a friend out for coffee or lunch in exchange for helping you out by writing down what you say about your assignment.
  • Use dictation software. Dictation software allows you to speak your ideas while the software captures your words onto the page. You may have dictation software already available on your own computer; it may be provided by your school; or you may find a free mobile application.
  • Use downtime to freewrite. If your problem is that you don’t have enough big chunks of time, use the time you do have for some freewriting. That means keeping a notebook or electronic device handy so that you can fit in a quick bit of writing while you are riding the bus, stuck waiting at an appointment, or in between classes. Some authors write entire articles and even books by writing in small chunks throughout the day. Try using your phone or other device to leave yourself a voice message, or use an app that records and makes a written transcript of your voice.
  • Set a limit to procrastination. Limiting procrastination may be necessary if you find that you just waste time, or you may need to ask someone else for help.
  • Use a time limit/timer. If you find yourself procrastinating with social media or some other distraction, set a time limit on that activity and use an alarm to let you know when that time is up. There are even apps that will do this for you! You may also find that setting a time limit on your writing makes the writing feel less burdensome. After a certain amount of time, you might even give yourself a reward.
  • Set aside writing time. If you find time to do everything but work on your assignment, then you may need to set appointments with yourself to ensure that you have enough time set aside to write your paper.
  • Get an accountability partner. Some people find that they accomplish more by working with another person or a group that they feel accountable to. Having a regular meeting or a scheduled check-in where you have to show your work can ensure that you get it done. Here are some potential resources for finding an accountability partner:
    • Join a writing group—even a group of classmates.
    • Ask a friend to check in with you.
    • Make use of your instructor’s office hour or visit your school’s Writing Center.
  • Ask your instructor for an extension. If you are writing a class assignment, your instructor may be willing to give you an extension. Be aware that the instructor may say no to your request. You have the best chance of receiving an extension if you have been participating and turning in assignments on time before the request, make your request before the actual deadline, are able to explain how you will use the additional time, and can show the instructor a draft or an outline so that she or he can see that an extension would result in completion of your assignment.

How to Fix Procrastination

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you will find yourself having to complete a writing task just before the deadline, without adequate time. Use the time you have to make the best effort possible. Peter Elbow, a prominent writing expert,  calls this “the dangerous method” because there is a strong chance that your work will not be good enough to meet the expectations of your instructor (or your audience, editor, etc.) But if this is your only option, it’s better to use the dangerous method than do nothing at all. (Note: If your assignment is to write a research paper, this method will not work if you start the night before the assignment is due. You may be able to write a draft or an outline, but you will not be able to complete the necessary research and write a long research paper in less than 24 hours.)

The first step is to figure out how much time you can realistically spend on the assignment. Then you can make a timeline that includes the tasks you need to complete. Here’s an example:

If you have an assignment due at 10 am on Friday, and you can start at 4 pm on Thursday, and you do not have class or work or major interruptions until 10 am on Friday:

  • 4-5 pm: Review assignment and materials you need to refer to in your writing; make an outline or a list of the topics you need to include.
  • 5-6 pm: Freewrite in 10 minute timed bursts, starting with an item on your list or outline. Whenever the timer goes off, review what you’ve written and decide to either continue on the same topic or move to another topic.
  • 6-7 pm: Eat dinner and take a walk (or whatever you do to recharge that also allows your brain to continue working in the background. For some people, this means solitude; for others, this involves other people.) You may be tempted to skip steps like this due to your worry about completing the assignment. Don’t skip steps!  if you want to work until midnight or later, you will need to take care of your body and brain to keep going. You will often find that when you return to your work, you have fresh ideas and perspectives.
  • 7-10 pm: Continue timed free writing until you have written about as many of the topics as you can in this time period. Take a short break every hour, and make sure that you move, drink water, and perhaps have a healthy snack. Set an alarm or timer to ensure that you get back to your work as planned. Save one chunk of time to make a Works Cited page; use one chunk of time to insert any missing quotations and/or citations. Resist the urge to constantly reread the first part to revise it to perfection. That will keep you from finishing your draft. Remember the goal is to FINISH, not to write a perfect introduction.
  • 10-11 pm: Complete the draft, making it into complete sentences and paragraphs. Write an introduction and conclusion if you don’t yet have these pieces.
  • 11 pm-12 am: Review your work. (Suggestion: use the reverse outline method, discussed in the “Revising” section of this text.) Make sure, as best you can, that all required parts of your outline are included. Review the assignment and compare it to your draft.
  • 12-7 or 8 am: Sleep. NOT KIDDING. Your body and brain need this time away from your work. When you get up, you will be better prepared to finish your paper by the deadline.
  • 8-9 am: Proofread and edit your paper. Do the best you can, knowing that you will not have time to catch everything or make the paper perfect.

Travel to class, turn your work in online, or do whatever you need to do to get your piece turned in. Remind yourself that while this is not your best work, you got it done. Expect to receive feedback about what could be improved.

Text Attributions

  • This chapter was adapted from “Procrastination” in The Word on College Reading and Writing by Carol Burnell, Jaime Wood, Monique Babin, Susan Pesznecker, and Nicole Rosevear, which is licensed under a CC BY-NC 4.0 Licence. Adapted by Allison Kilgannon.


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Advanced English Copyright © 2021 by Allison Kilgannon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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