In order to excel in graduate school, you may have to start developing certain habits and practices. Some of these include dedication, sacrifice, anxiety, and for many, a dash of perfectionism.

Perfectionism, however, can be both a blessing and a curse.

On the one hand, perfectionism allows you to push yourself farther than perhaps you thought you could go and to produce work that is of a higher caliber.

Unfortunately, perfectionism can also lead you down a dark road. As we all know, nothing is ever perfect, and if you expect your work to be, you will always find it lacking. For many people, this creates a self-destructive cycle of feeling like the work is never going to be good enough.

As a result, people experience anxiety from those worries, and then avoidance to help cope with the feelings of anxiety. This is procrastination.

The Link Between Perfectionism & Procrastination

Stöber and Joormann [1] found that there are links between procrastination and perfectionism. Mainly, they found that individuals are worried about the criticism of others, but when in situations of low stress, they are actually able to lower their standards.

Another article, by Burka & Yuen [2], found that procrastination is a common occurrence that can have serious consequences. They cited impaired academics, lost work opportunities and strained relationships to be some of the negative consequences of procrastination.

If you’ve ever worked with adolescents or young adults (and grad students), you’ve probably heard the statement, “but I do my best work under pressure!” While that may be true for some, it is not true for most.

In my experience, when the students (or peers) who I work with are procrastinating, they are usually not getting enough sleep, their work has often not been proofread and is full of mistakes, their ideas are not as developed as they could be, and their overall work is not their best.

Given that graduate students often tend to be more perfectionistic, it seems likely that they would often experience procrastination as one of the ways to cope with this kind of anxiety – even if at times it can be detrimental to their overall goals.

Working Around Procrastination

Because procrastination can be so harmful, it is important to figure out ways to work around it and to avoid the consequences associated with it.

One of the best ways I have found to beat procrastination is to break projects into smaller pieces.

It can be overwhelming to think of completing a huge project, writing a paper, or applying for internships, but it can feel much more manageable to complete smaller parts of larger projects.

When you break projects into smaller chunks, you accomplish two things:

  • As you complete each successive chunk, there is a feeling of accomplishment and motivation.
  • The project as a whole begins to feel less overwhelming.

Example: A 20-Page Paper

If you have a 20-page paper due, imagining the time and effort that has to go into accomplishing that task may feel monumental. If you sit down the night before or even a few days before the paper is due, it does, in fact, become monumental!

I would suggest breaking a project like this into sections. Papers often have an introduction, a body (which can further be broken down into multiple sections) and a conclusion. Instead of tackling the paper as one entity, tackle each of these sections separately.

Let’s imagine I am writing a paper on the effects of dog kisses on stress. I know my paper needs to be about 20 pages long and it’s due in 3 weeks.

The first step is to gather my research. For a paper that size, I can estimate that I might need 10-15 articles for the introduction. So now, it’s time to start my article/book search. I’m going to have to go through a number of articles before I find ones that I want or are relevant to my paper, and this entire process takes me a number of hours. Even imagining sitting down and reading through numerous articles might feel too overwhelming, so plan that you will spend a set amount of time – two hours, for example – searching for and reading articles for your paper.

All you have to put in is two hours, no more, no less. Most people can tolerate two hours of research. Plus, you will have probably found some articles that are appropriate, and now you’re on your way forward.

If I do this for two or three days, I have probably found enough articles for my intro and my paper in general.

The next step is to read the articles if I haven’t already done so already. Depending on how you work, this could mean either just reading the articles or taking notes in addition to reading. Again, set aside a couple of hours a day to get this done. By the end of the week, you should have gathered all of your necessary articles and read them. You might be ready to work on writing your introduction by the weekend.

“But…This Seems Complicated, and I’m Doing Fine”

This process may seem drawn out.

But remember: you’re moving forward on your project, when before you may have done nothing at all.

Following this process, you would continue to do this for each subsequent section of the paper, breaking things down into small chunks.

Now, some might say, “this takes longer, and I get my paper in on time, so what is the big deal?”

First off, I’m a big proponent of doing what works for you. If procrastinating works and you are getting the grades you want, continue to do what works for you.

However, most people who procrastinate find that their work is sloppy due to the time crunch, and they may experience feelings of disappointment or guilt for not getting the work done earlier.

When actually completing the work, there are often feelings of pressure and stress due to the fact that there is a very close and threatening deadline. This leads to people pulling “all-nighters,” sacrificing their social lives and self-care management.

Try it Out

By breaking things down, you potentially eliminate a lot of stress and negativity.

Another benefit of starting work earlier and having designated periods of time to work is that it potentially frees up more time for you to be social or do the things that allow you to have a life…and practice self-care!

Next time you’re facing an intimidating, big project, try this advice and break your project into small pieces…and in turn, beat procrastination!


[1] Stöber, J. & Joormann, J. (2001). Worry, procrastination, and perfectionism: Differentiating amount of worry, pathological worry, anxiety, and depression. Counseling Therapy and Research, 25(1), 49-60.[2] Burka, J.B. & Yuen L.M. (1983). Procrastination: Why you do it, what to do about it. New York: Addison-Wesley.

Joy Zelikovsky, PsyD, LPC, MA, MPhilEd, MSEd
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