Coping with performance demands and procrastination

In this module we describe briefly how one as a student can be affected by performance demands. On the following pages we present scientifically based tips on how you can cope with perfectionism and break the habit of procrastination in your studies.

Student in library
Photo: Unsplash

performance demands

Studying on a university level entails high demands on performance and needing to take on tasks that are demanding and challenging. You need to learn a lot in a short amount of time and be able to show what you have learnt in exams. It is not uncommon to feel that you never perform well enough (perfectionism) and/or that you get stuck in postponing what needs to be done (procrastination). Both perfectionism and procrastination can make student life burdensome, but it is possible to learn how to manage them. On the following pages you can read about:

  • Perfectionism
  • Coping with perfectionism
  • Procrastination
  • Breaking the habit of procrastination

About perfectionism

Introduction: perfectionism

Perfectionism can be defined in different ways, but one way to look at it is that you set very high demands in your own performance and are then very self-critical if you don't fulfil these demands (Hewitt & Flett, 1991). A person who struggles with perfectionism may also perceive mistakes as failures, while also doubting their own performance and ability (Frost et al., 1990). Perfectionism is not a diagnosis, and many people manage their studies and life well even with high demands on themselves. For some though, the perfectionistic demands and self-criticism become a heavy load to carry.

Perfectionism often displays itself in perfectionist behaviours that one hopes will decrease the risk of failure. Unfortunately, they are not helpful in the long run, but instead they maintain our fear of failure. Examples of such behaviours are:

  • Working excessively with tasks or doing them very carefully to decrease the risk of failure. Example: Continuing to study even though you already know everything for the exam, just in case.
  • Double checking and asking for calming reassurance. Example: Double-checking the syllabus several times to ensure that you have understood the course requirements correctly. Asking other people if they think you are prepared enough.
  • Organising your tasks to an excessive degree. Example: Spending a lot of time making "to do" lists on what needs to be done (sometimes instead of doing the actual work).
  • Comparing oneself to others. Example: Comparing results on an exam, comparing the hours spent studying.
  • Avoiding things that may lead to mistakes. Example: Not trying new things to avoid feeling that you failed if you didn't do it perfectly.

Next, we review a few steps that may be useful for people who struggle with perfectionism.

Coping with perfectionism

Tips: Steps to cope with perfectionism

Here are a few things that you can do to cope with perfectionism.

High demands are OK. You can handle your perfectionism without necessarily lowering your demands. Most often, it is what you do to meet those demands that make the perfectionism painful, and not the demands themselves. In other words, you do not need to performance worse in order to decrease the perfectionism!

Identify perfectionist behaviours. What do you do to avoid "failure"?

Experiment with your behaviours. When you have noticed perfectionistic behaviours, you can start to experiment with them. For example, what happens if you do not write a "to do list? Or if you do something new that you think will be difficult? The more you try doing things in new ways, the more you will learn about what happens to your perception of not being good enough, or that you always need to perform perfectly.

Decrease self-criticism. Critical thoughts about yourself are common with perfectionism. One often belittles one's own performance and find it difficult to accept positive feedback. Critical thoughts might be intended for you to "get your act together" and perform better but might instead cause you to feel sad and anxious (Dunkley et al., 2006). The self-criticism can even make it harder to achieve your goals!

However, it is possible to decrease self-criticism in different ways (Rozental, 2021). For some people it helps to treat yourself the way you would a friend. What would you say to a friend who is struggling with thoughts of not performing well enough? Others benefit from practising mindfulness with elements of self-compassion (Nadeau, Caporale-Berkowitz & Rochlen, 2020). Being aware of critical thoughts instead of regarding them as truth might in any case be an important first step.

Acknowledge when you do well. It is common to only focus your attention on their mistakes and allow them to define how well you have performed. Maybe you only look at the exam questions that you didn't achieve a perfect score on or obsess about a spelling error in a text that you submitted. If so, you can practice noticing what has gone well.

Balancing performance with other things in life. People who are perfectionists often focus a lot of their energy on performing in a certain area in life. Perhaps your studies are your main focus? As long as your studies are going well you can feel pleased, but if you fail at something it will affect your well-being greatly.

So a way of coping with perfectionism is to balance out your performance demands with other things in life, preferably activities that are enjoyable and that you do because you like them rather than for an achievement. If you are not sure what would be enjoyable to you, you can test it out! 

Photo: Unsplash

About procrastination

Introduction: procrastination

It is very common for us to sometimes postpone things that need to be done and that generally does not lead to any major problems. But for some, postponing may become problematic. What needs to be done might not get done at all and that can feel both difficult and frustrating. This is often referred to as procrastination and is very common. As many as 80-95% of students report that they postpone studying and nearly 50% report that they procrastinate to a degree that it becomes a problem for them (Steel, 2007).

Procrastination can work in different ways for different people. Some people postpone harder tasks and prioritise easier ones (e.g., checking your email instead of reading a difficult, scientific text). Other people postpone studying completely and do something more fun instead. It's common to put off getting started on a difficult task until the deadline is really approaching (e.g., not starting to study for an exam until the week before) and this can make you feel very stressed and frustrated at the last moment.

Breaking the habit of procrastination

Tips: Steps for breaking the habit of procrastination

Do you recognise yourself in the description of procrastination on the previous page? If so, there are things you can try to get started on things that need to be done (Rozental & Wennersten, 2021).

Don't wait for motivation to strike you. Plan for when you are going to study instead of waiting for the urge to study to hit you. If you wait for the urge, you might have to wait for a very long time, since starting can often feel unpleasant.

Start small! It's better if you plan to study for half an hour and then actually do it, rather than plan to study for eight hours and then end up postponing everything for the following day.

When do you work best? Are you for example the most productive in the morning? If so plan to study then rather than late at night.

Take regular breaks! A person who often postpones getting started often also postpones taking breaks, which makes studying even tougher in the long run.

Decrease distractions. Put your phone on "Do not disturb" and make sure that you study in a quiet environment. 

Student Wellbeing Centre

Student Wellbeing Centre is here for you during your study period for advice and support. We also offer webinars that cover several of these areas, which you are welcome to sign up for.

References: Perfectionism and procrastination

Dunkley, D. M., Blankstein, K. R., Masheb, R. M., & Grilo, C. M. (2006). Personal standards and evaluative concerns dimensions of ‘clinical’ perfectionism: A reply to Shafran et al. (2002, 2003) and Hewitt et al. (2003). Behaviour Research and Therapy, 44, 63−84.

Frost, R. O., Marten, P., Lahart, C., & Rosenblate, R. (1990). The dimensions of perfectionism. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 14, 449−468.

Hewitt, P. L., & Flett, G. L. (1991). Perfectionism in the self and social contexts: Conceptualization, assessment and association with psychopathology. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60, 456−470.

Nadeau, M. M., Caporale‐Berkowitz, N. A., & Rochlen, A. B. (2020). Improving Women's Self‐Compassion Through an Online Program: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Journal of Counseling & Development, 99(1), 47-59.

Rozental, A. (2021). Bättre än perfekt: Natur & Kultur.

Rozental, A., & Wennersten, L. (2021). Dansa på deadline: Uppskjutandets psykologi: Natur & Kultur.

Steel, P. (2007). The nature of procrastination: a meta-analytic and theoretical review of quintessential self-regulatory failure. Psychol Bull, 133(1), 65-94. 

Content reviewer:
Emma Rydberg