How to Help Students with Procrastination
Katie Rose Guest Pryal, JD, PhD
Parts of this essay are adapted from Katie Rose Guest Pryal, A LIGHT IN THE TOWER: A NEW RECKONING WITH MENTAL HEALTH IN HIGHER EDUCATION (U. Press of Kansas 2024)


There is a longstanding belief that procrastination is a manifestation of laziness, or just not caring about the work a person must do.

This belief is wrong.

As psychologist Devon Price, an expert on procrastination, has pointed out, “laziness does not exist.”[1] According to Price, procrastination is driven either by “anxiety about … not being ‘good enough’” or “by confusion about what the first steps of the task are.”

Contrary to popular belief, Price points out, “procrastination is more likely when the task is meaningful and the individual cares about doing it well.” In other words, when a person cares deeply about a task, the person can become paralyzed by the fear of failure.

Students will procrastinate; it is inevitable. We must learn what procrastination is and how it works so we can help our students.

What is procrastination?

According to psychologists, procrastination is “the voluntary delay of an intended act despite the awareness that this needless delay will be detrimental in the longer term.”[2]

Procrastination is thus something that the procrastinator is aware that they are doing, and that they are also aware will hurt them. Students (and faculty) who procrastinate are not lazy, or bad workers, or poor planners. They are struggling with a real psychological problem.

A recent study on procrastination found a link between feeling awful about yourself and procrastination. Procrastinators “have a chronic tendency to cognitively dwell on their dysphoric feelings [feelings of profound unhappiness] and on negative self-relevant information.”[3]

In other words, procrastinators chronically focus on their bad feelings about their lives in general and on bad feelings about themselves. Together, these bad feelings create chronic self-doubt, which leads to procrastination.

Researchers have found that “procrastination and depression were linked significantly.”[4] Indeed, these researchers found “the association between depression and procrastination-related thoughts was stronger” than they had expected it to be.

What Can We Do?

If a student of yours is struggling with procrastination, there is a strong chance that they are also struggling with depression or anxiety. If a student feels stressed or anxious about a task, they are more likely to procrastinate.

And many of our students do suffer from stress and anxiety during law school. Data from LSSSE reveal how widespread this problem is, with over half (54%) of respondents noting stress or anxiety at a level of 6 or 7 on a 7-point scale:

You can think of procrastination as a cycle. Because of a stressful environment, a person’s mental health, awful life events, or all of the above, a person—we—feel poorly. Perhaps, because of these factors, we even develop depression or anxiety. Because we feel poorly, we cannot do our work. When we cannot do our work, we feel even worse, beginning the cycle again.

Institutions and faculty can intervene in this cycle. Yet we rarely do as much as we can to help. When asked whether their schools helps them manage stress and anxiety, a full 30% of LSSSE respondents say their schools do “very little” in this regard.

Instead, we can ask ourselves:

  1. Are we creating a needlessly stressful environment? If so, what can we do about it?
  2. Are we adequately tending to our students’ mental health? If not, how can we do so?
  3. Are we creating enough flexibility for students who are going through tough life events, such as the birth of a child or the death of a loved one? If not, how can we do so?

Remember, your students want to impress you. This desire starts on day one. Thus, they put pressure on themselves because the work is meaningful, as Price puts it, and if they procrastinate, it is for this same reason.

In the classroom

Try this teaching technique to lower the pressure on your students at the beginning of the semester. Assign a very low-stakes assignment the first week of class. Something small—a case brief in a lecture, or a one-half page reflection essay in a seminar. (You don’t have to grade them.)

Tell your students: “I want you to put in 70% effort on this. I do not want 100%, 90%, or 80%. If I see anything higher than 70%, then I will make you redo it to make it worse.” You will get laughs, and some bafflement. Give them till your next class to do it, and then collect them (on paper, via course software, it doesn’t matter).

You will find two things have occurred. First, usually all of your students will turn in the work because the 70% rule lowers the stakes and allows them to beat procrastination. You’ve told them that it is okay to turn in crap, which means it’s okay to be imperfect.

But the second thing you will find is that your students will turn in great work. You will get far fewer 70% assignments than you would expect. Without the pressure of perfect, students can achieve greatness.

You’ve set the tone for the rest of the semester: it’s okay to be imperfect. You just have to get it done. And great is pretty darn good.



[1] Devon Price, “Laziness Does Not Exist,” Human Parts, March 23, 2018,, See also, Devon Price, Laziness Does Not Exist: A Defense of the Exhausted, Exploited, and Overworked (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2021).

[2] Alison L. Flett, Mohsen Haghbin, and Timothy A. Pychyl, “Procrastination and Depression from a Cognitive Perspective: An Exploration of the Associations Among Procrastinatory Automatic Thoughts, Rumination, and Mindfulness,” The Journal of Rational-Emotive and Cognitive-Behavior Therapy 34, no. 3 (September 2016): 170.

[3] Flett, Haghbin, and Pychyl, “Procrastination and Depression,” 180.

[4] Flett, Haghbin, and Pychyl, “Procrastination and Depression,” 182.