Why college is a hotbed of procrastination
College might be the best training ground for procrastination ever.
Yes, you read that right. If you wanted to train people to procrastinate, you would be proud of the current higher education setup.
Let us explain.
Procrastination is rampant among students, some statistics say that over 80% of students procrastinate.
Not good. At all.
But why is the number so high?
Here’s a list of reasons that conspire to make students less productive than ever:
#1 Social media = endless hyper-optimized social fun on tap
Evolution wired us to want to be a cool member of the tribe. A powerful, respected, high-status member. That way, we can easily secure a mate and prosper.
Now, that same drive plays out in college.
The desire for high status within a tribe is evident. There are clubs and classes and dinners and parties, and who doesn’t want to be popular and cool?
Now with social media, you can enhance your status by posting cool photos.
Good memes, self-deprecating photos, neat trips, inspirational achievements - it all serves to make you look better and cooler in your group. More status for you!
On top of tapping into our primal desire to belong into groups and be seen as a cool guy/gal, there’s the issue of dopamine.
Social media figured out how to hack our brain.
There’s this chemical called dopamine and it’s extremely potent. Dopamine makes us want things - new shoes, new cars, new information, new likes, new hearts, new comments…
And social media feeds and notifications are quick hits of dopamine that make us feel good.
So when you offer a student a way to be seen as more awesome, cooler and accepted and place it directly next to a boring textbook and lecture notes, how can they resist?
#2 Papers, studying = long work with no structure
Imagine someone tells you to fix the plumbing in a house down the street. You have to do it sometime in the next month, but no one cares when. You have no training and no one to hold you accountable.
When do you do it? Probably in the last few days.
That’s the situation in college. You get a fairly vague instruction, a lot of time to do it, no milestones, and no accountability. And on top of that, there’s extra pressure because you will be judged for it on an A-F scale.
And on top of that, you have this device in your pocket that constantly beeps and boops with messages of approval or interest from your friends, acquaintances or even romantic crushes.
That’s a procrastination recipe if we ever saw one.
#3 Fun vs work: fast feedback vs no feedback
Yet another problem is that studying or writing papers has no real feedback loop compared to social media.
What does that mean? Here’s an example:
Write a paper for 5 min - no dopamine, stress. It’s not fun. It’s antisocial. Post on Instagram - likes likes likes, no stress, status goes up. It’s fun. It’s social.
Activities that are interactive (two-way street) are way more fun than activities that are passive (one-way streets).
Games offer you feedback (points, rewards, items,...) for every action you take.
Notes, textbooks, and essays don’t. No feedback. No accomplishment. No achievements.
So if you have a choice between something easy, fun and social and something effortful, not fun, not social AND without any feedback, what are you going to do?
#4 College = fun
On top of all that, there’s this sentiment that college is about fun. It’s about having parties and enjoying yourself and doing crazy stuff, right?
Absolutely, have fun. A lot of it.
But also make yourself better. Learn stuff. Educate yourself.
It’s not either/or. You can have both.
College = learning + fun
But if what’s always associated with college is having fun and suddenly there’s a thing in your pocket that has endless fun available on it, what’s that gonna do?
#5 Grades and scores = external motivation
And another great contributor to procrastination is grades.
What’s the problem with grades, you ask? They are impersonal and external.
You’re not studying for a test to really understand organic chemistry. You are studying to get an A.
You’re not writing a paper out of curiosity about the media landscape post WW2. You’re writing it to pass a class.
It’s not about you. It’s about scores and grades.
Numbers, not people.
So instead of developing your own reasons about why you do a thing, you have an external reason forced on you⎼ A-F.
Why bother doing something out of curiosity or enthusiasm?
And to add to that external motivation, you have social media.
Like counts, comment counts, follower counts,... that’s what counts.
So you don’t even cook your breakfast for yourself to enjoy. You do it to eat and post it on Instagram.
You’re not going to interesting places to experience them, you’re going there to take a cool selfie.
You’re not thinking about your project or assignment, you’re thinking about what would be interesting and edgy to post on Twitter.
Everything is about numbers and letters.
That’s who you are. Not a person. A set of numbers.
No wonder procrastination is everywhere
There it is.
What makes college a hotbed of procrastination:
- Vague assignments without structure, milestones, or guidance due in the distant future.
- Lack of feedback when working - no points, no likes, no hearts.
- The belief that you’re supposed to have fun all the time in college
- Externalization motivation - it’s not about your actual abilities and developing them, it’s about letters and numbers.
- Access to infinite, social entertainment that gives us a quick hit of addictive dopamine and a dose of social approval.
No wonder students procrastinate.
PS: If you want to learn to procrastinate less, check out our other posts or download our Chrome extension to help you focus when working in the browser.