Procrastination leads to bad marks

Shouldn't you be studying?

Are you reading this instead of studying? Then you’re procrastinating: putting off a pressing task. ‘Everyone has a tipping point. Unfortunately it’s always much too late.’
By Lyanne Levy / Video Luís Felipe Fonseca Silva / translation sarah van steenderen

problem predictors

Over the course of three years, Bernard Nijstad studied approximately a thousand first-year students from the Faculty of Economics and Business to figure out which factors could predict study issues. He found five: impulsiveness, procrastination, high school marks, a low ‘self-efficacy’ score, and the intrinsic motives for choosing a study programme.

‘High school marks speak to earlier performance. They give an overview of how motivated, smart, and disciplined people are’, says Nijstad. ‘Anyone who went to grammar school should be smart enough for university, but it comes down to motivation. No one will actually check whether students show up for class.’

So it’s probably a good idea to pick a study you actually like. ‘Some students decide on a programme that they think will earn them a lot of money. That’s not a great reason.’

Self-efficacy, the feeling that you’re good at something, also plays an important role. ‘People who feel they’re not good at something are more likely to procrastinate. They think it won’t matter what they do. They think studying hard is pointless because they’re no good at it. They feel that they might as well just not.’

Endlessly scrolling through Facebook, taking an extra long lunch break, succumbing to the temptation to binge watch a Netflix series… it’s all too easy to put off studying. But students who procrastinate too often find themselves unprepared for exams and also get lowers marks.

Bernard Nijstad, professor of decision-making and organisational behaviour, studied procrastination among first-year students at the Faculty of Economics and Business.

He made them fill out a questionnaire during the first week of the academic year, the first block asked how much they identified with statements such as ‘I do things without thinking’ and ‘I do a lot of impulse buying’. The second asked about their study methods, their marks, and the numbers of ECTS they had.

Tipping point

According to the data, students who tended to procrastinate while studying received lower marks, a result which may not be altogether surprising. ‘When the exams are far away, people tend to do fun stuff instead of studying’, says Nijstad. ‘But as they get closer, studying becomes more necessary. The decision-making process about whether to study or do something else changes. Everyone has that tipping point. Unfortunately it’s always much too late.’

He also saw a link between reported impulsivity and a higher tendency for procrastination. Most of the students who reported both were male. ‘They come here to study to become a manager, but they’re so easily distracted’, Nijstad says. ‘They’ll have plans to study but when a friend invites them to the pub they’ll go straight away.’

So that’s bad news, he says. The first block turned out to predict the students’ results later in the year. ‘A bad start often means a bad ending’, says Nijstad. The effects could even be observed in the second academic year. They were weaker because they were further away from the time of measurement, but they were there. ‘Procrastination is a habit. And some people tend to procrastinate more than others.’

Back on the horse

Only one category of students managed to overcome bad marks on their first round of exams: those who know they chose the right study programme. ‘They manage to get back on the horse. But people who feel they made a mistake about their programme won’t care about their bad marks.’

Watching other people studying really motivates me

Second-year students Ditte and Stijn, who both study international relations and international organisation, agree that procrastination is a major issue. There’s a reason Ditte always studies at the UB or her faculty building. She wants as few distractions as possible. ‘I don’t have a lot of discipline’, she admits. ‘Studying at home isn’t an option for me. I put my phone in flight mode because otherwise I’ll start watching YouTube videos or messaging and calling people. I always go to the library with my friends. Watching other people studying really motivates me.’

Last year she failed an exam because she put off studying until the last minute. Fellow student Stijn manages to just pass every single time. ‘My procrastination abilities are legendary. But I thrive under pressure and will often pull an all-nighter’, he says. ‘I usually end up just passing my exam. That means I have no real incentive to change my behaviour.’

Flight mode

He is often unhappy with that behaviour, though. ‘I know I could get a better mark if I had started studying on time.’ To prevent himself from being distracted he will often give his phone to friends when he sees them in the UB. Or he’ll put it in flight mode. ‘I also stopped listening to music when I study. It’s much too distracting. I’ll end up focusing on the music rather than the material I should be studying.’

In spite of all his efforts, he can always find something to distract him. ‘There are always things that are more fun to do than studying. I’ll find something fun online and just keep clicking and clicking. But I do keep up with the courses I really like.’

The pressure spurs people into action

Procrastinating is a very human behaviour – almost everyone does it – and in the end, it actually has its advantages, says Nijstad. Postponing things eventually leads to pressure, and postponing is impossible right before a deadline. The pressure spurs people into action: ‘At some point you can’t wait any longer. I need that pressure myself as well, especially when I’m writing. I’ll get stuck on a paragraph and can’t get out of that rut. But when I have a deadline I’m fine.’


Even the worst procrastinator isn’t a lost cause. Discipline can be learned. ‘It’s a habit. Taking away the distraction can help. So go study at the library rather than at home. Set yourselves multiple, shorter deadlines as a form of self-regulation. Do try to stick to them, though. Cutting up tasks into smaller ones with earlier deadlines also works.’

Certain programmes can also help make procrastinating harder for students. ‘They could start implementing module tests instead of one giant exam at the end of the block. Students would start studying earlier then. If you move up the deadline, they’ll have no choice.’

Students with a high score on risk factors that could impede their results – factors including impulsiveness and procrastination – were offered study coaching and courses. ‘The problem is that students who procrastinate are also less likely to show up to those courses.’

How to fight procrastination

Smaller bits

Does the idea of studying all day drive you crazy? Break your plans up into smaller bits. Tell yourself you will study for one hour. When that hour is up, you can make new plans. You’ll find the hour goes by really quickly and it’s easy to add another one, and another one… Before you know, you’ll have spent the whole day cramming.

avoid distractions

Facebook, cat videos, messaging your friends, checking Instagram… all these things are extremely enticing. Protect yourself from distractions. Put your phone on flight mode or turn it off altogether. Or use the free app Forest to plant virtual trees, which will only grow as long as you don’t touch your phone. The Chrome extension Stayfocused helps by temporarily blocking your browser.

Study with others

Studying isn’t all that different from going to the gym or eating healthier. As such, it’s much easier if you have someone else to help you. Find someone you can study with and meet up at the UB or any other study spot that works for you.

Set yourself a deadline

When exams are so far away that you can’t feel the pressure of the deadline, you have to up the pressure yourself. Give yourself tighter deadlines: tell yourself you have to have summarised a chapter of your book by the end of the day.

Reward yourself

Sure, you may not feel like studying right now, but procrastinating doesn’t feel good either. Because there’s always that voice at the back of your mind that keeps nagging at you. So reward yourself for doing the responsible thing: when you finish a chapter, you get to watch the next episode of The Haunting of Hill House. Netflix has never been so chill.


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