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February 7, 2003

SCRS creates anti-procrastination group to help students with academic anxiety

While the desire to put off difficult tasks is a little too familiar to most of us, procrastination's grip on some University students is loosening. The University's Student Counseling and Resource Services is creating a new support group for undergraduates to deal with procrastination as a consequence of anxiety.

"One of the principles of the group is there's no such thing as failure," said Susan Snapp, the clinical social worker responsible for the group. "For procrastinators, this is important because they've grown up in a society which defines procrastination as something that is within their conscious control...What it's about is that the procrastination is a manifestation of anxiety, a problem with anxiety that is impairing their academic progress and paralyzing them."

Snapp said she came to realize the connection between anxiety and procrastination during her work with a colleague helping a group of graduate students to end procrastination by teaching them better study skills. When Snapp began leading the group on her own, she based the therapy on her belief that anxiety about work performance was behind the procrastination.

While researchers estimate that as many as 70 percent of college students procrastinate, the type of procrastination the group aims to address is the habit of delaying activity that impairs students' day-to-day performance. "Procrastination becomes a problem for students when they have a history of it seriously interfering with their functioning in school," Snapp said. "The group is for people who have a chronic problem."

This kind of procrastination affects not only academic performance but also physical health.

"All students procrastinate," said professor Tim Pychyl of the Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University in Canada in a phone interview, "but it can get to the point when it's starting to affect your well being. Then procrastinators realize that it's probably impeding their best intentions."

Pychyl and doctoral candidate Fuschia M. Sirois presented a study of procrastination in 374 undergraduates at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association in Chicago last summer.

According to the study, chronic procrastinators are more likely to engage in avoidant coping styles, ignoring anxiety-causing problems. This can result in increased levels of smoking, drinking, or even physical illnesses like the flu.

While most psychologists deal with procrastination with a skills-based time management approach, Snapp prefers to deal directly with anxiety. She serves as the therapist or basic facilitator of groups of six to seven students. The groups meet for two hours once a week to talk about their procrastination, anxieties, and particular ways to deal with them.

"The task of everyone in the group is to listen to everyone and pinpoint what their particular anxiety is that's getting in the way of performance," Snapp said.

The students then write down everything they did during the week in order to discern where they ran into trouble. They also share suggestions for getting around the urge to procrastinate and staying focused. The session ends with participants setting very specific goals for the week ahead, which, according to Snapp, is difficult because procrastinators often have unrealistic expectations of themselves.

Pychyl agrees, but cites other causes in addition to anxiety as leading to procrastination.

"Some people are bigger perfectionists than others," Pychyl said. "Fear of failure and anxiety are certainly related. Some procrastinators are overly optimistic [about the time they have left to finish a task]. There are other causes as well."

Before students join the group, Snapp meets with them to discuss the problem and make certain that the group is the best means of helping them.

"I used to work with people individually on this problem," she said. "I found that usually procrastination is a chronic problem. It takes a long time for people to make changes. What's different about the group setting is that students are very nurturing of one another. They find a group of people that understand that calling themselves names is ridiculous. I think the energy of the group of people supporting each other makes a huge difference."

And although procrastination is a problem for the general populace of students (witness the proliferation of "cyber-slacking," as Pychyl calls it), some find the University particularly conducive to anxiety about academic work.

"Procrastination is something I commonly run into with students at this school," Snapp said. "There's an expectation that they should somehow perform perfectly. They're really hard on themselves with what they expect. I think it's enough of a problem to warrant some expanded service."

As part of that expanded service, Snapp e-mailed students in the College at the end of January to invite them to participate in the new procrastination groups. She plans to begin meeting with at least two separate groups of undergraduates, depending on students' availability.

"Student Counseling and Resource Services' mission is to make it possible for students to be as effective as possible in school.

This is such a pervasive problem I wanted to be in the position to serve as many people as possible," Snapp said.

Gidget Watson, an advisor in the College, works with 270 of the approximately 4,000 students in the College. "We see procrastination to a certain extent," she said. "I don't know that students tell us they procrastinate. We do get calls from professors [in which] they inform us that students are procrastinating."

While Watson was quick to note the time-management issues involved with procrastination, she supported more College resources being devoted to helping students cope. "I think the procrastination group should prove to serve students well if they are willing to go to the sessions and make progress," she said. "They must first admit that they are procrastinating."

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