So it’s January, that time of the year when we make unattainable promises to ourselves in the hope that this year will be a life-changing year. Whether it’s exercising more, studying harder or drinking less we all have extreme visions of what we’ll be like – fit, intelligent, sober machines – just a couple of months into the new year. We all have such good intentions for our future selves that it’s hard to understand why much of what we promise ourselves never happens the way we planned.
Statistics tell us that just 8% of New Year’s resolutions are successful yet we still continue to make them, confident in our future self’s ability to change. So why do we often end up making the same promises every year? One answer would be that we are all perpetual procrastinators. The future is one place where anything can get done – a 3,000 word essay on a Sunday morning? Easy. A light jog at 6am before a lecture? Sure. No kebabs ever again on nights out? Simple! You don’t even like kebabs! But when it comes down to it, present choices are never so good. After all, isn’t it easier to bodge the essay, sleep an extra 30 minutes and not have to go to the supermarket for salad? We’ll do all that next week, right? Wrong.
The link between New Year’s resolutions and procrastination is a stronger one than you might think. In the same way New Year’s resolutions are made in a mindset of pure ambition for the future, procrastination also sees tomorrow as a mystical place where any amount of work and exercise, along with everything else, can be done.
The science of how to stop procrastinating
The (easier said than done) solution is to counter your need for instant gratification by outsmarting your base human instincts. In You Are Not So Smart, a book analyzing the human condition and the way we commandeer our lives, David McRaney writes about how to stop procrastinating. “In the struggle between should versus want, some people have figured out something crucial – want never goes away. Procrastination is all about choosing want over should because you don’t have a plan for those times when you can expect to be tempted. You are really bad at predicting your future mental states. In addition, you are terrible at choosing between now or later.” This understanding of our own human weakness is vital for understanding why we procrastinate and therefore how we can stop doing so much of it.
In a study conducted in 2002 by Dan Ariely and Klaus Wertenbroch, students of three different classes were given the task of completing three essays in three weeks. Class A were to hand in all three essays on the final day, class B could pick three different deadlines for each essay but had to stick with those dates, and class C were required to hand in one essay each week. The results showed that class C, with three deadlines equal amounts of time apart, did the best. Class B, the class which had the freedom to choose their own dates, came second and most tellingly class A, the class given the most amount of time, did the worst.
The experiment shows that although rational thought might tell you to opt for maximum time to submit all three essays, this is not the best choice as there is no bind to ensure students make use of the entire three weeks given. Most students in class B realized the benefits of equally distributing the essays – those in tune with their own tendencies to procrastinate – but the overall grade was brought down by those students who had chosen also to submit at the last minute. Those were the ones who didn’t recognize in themselves their propensity to procrastinate and were too confident in their ability to self-regulate.
How to stop procrastinating: Tell the world
One way to bind yourself to your promises is to make yourself accountable by telling anyone and everyone what you plan on doing. The idea here is that you are less likely to be inclined to disappoint others – out of embarrassment or shame – than you are if you just have yourself to answer to. This works for studying as well as other resolutions but the flaw is that, in the end, only you know what work you truthfully have completed.
Time management skills: Reward yourself in intervals
If you want to learn how to stop procrastinating, you basically need to brush up your time management skills. One way to do this is to reward yourself in intervals. Many students find the prospect of a reward is a sure way to boost motivation and essay writing morale. The reward can be anything that gets you at least a little bit excited and it needn’t have to mess with any of your other dietary New Year’s resolutions! Maybe a cup of tea, a five minute YouTube clip, or an actual conversation with a friend (remember those?).
Or maybe you’d like a surprise picture of a kitten for every 100 words you write of your dissertation at Written? Kitten! or some darker motivation in the form of Write or Die? Having small benchmarks to reach helps you to break down your work into manageable chunks and by rewarding yourself in intervals there is always light (or a kitten) at the end of the essay-writing tunnel.
(N.B. you’re going to want to back up any work you do on sites like these as frequently as possible and make sure you proof your work meticulously, but, of course, you knew that.)
The Pomodoro Technique
The Pomodoro Technique is another example of the many time management skills you can learn on the web – although essentially all you need is a timer and the basic guidelines to follow. The Pomodoro Technique works by following five basic steps:
1. Prioritize a task
2. Set your timer to 25 minutes or a similar doable amount.
3. Work on your task until the time is up.
4. Take a short (5 minute) break.
5. Reset the timer and repeat. For every four 25 minute “pomodori” you complete, you get a longer 30 minute break.
The Ulysses pact: Tie yourself to a mast…
Remember the story of Odysseus, anyone? The ‘Ulysses pact’ refers to the episode in which Odysseus ties himself to a ship mast knowing that he wouldn’t be able to resist the Sirens’ song. This provides an analogy to describe how we can bind ourselves to our promises by recognizing our weaknesses and preparing for them. This awareness of self is sometimes called metacognition and, you’ll be pleased to know, as we get older we get better at it.
In short, to learn how to stop procrastinating, you might have to be prepared to take some pretty extreme steps: face up to your own weak spots and try to remove temptation as much as possible. Then set your timer, decide on your reward, tell the world you really mean it this time, and get to work…
Image credits: Imgur; 9gag.com
Have you figured out how to stop procrastinating? What strategies work best for you? Share your tips in the comments below.
2. Block online distractions
There are apps that block your favourite sites for a particular period of time so you can study. Use them! They are actually helpful. If you reach deep down in your soul you will find the determination to do it, or if not, just ask a friend to do it for you.
3. Fill your room with motivational quotes
It might seem silly, but it works for some of us. If you keep reminding yourself what the main purpose of your journey is (in this case, why you came to university) you may find these quotes quite helpful. Here’s a really cheesy one to get you going: “Don’t quit. You’re already in pain. You’re already hurt. Get a reward for it!”
4. Make your room study-friendly
If you live in halls and the shady light and white walls make you feel like you're in a horror movie, don’t worry. Buy posters, a good lamp, put some photos on the walls and make it look like you own the place. Also, buy a plant. Green is a good stimulant for studying and it creates a peaceful atmosphere.
Try to find your spot where you can be Zen and let some natural light into the room.
5. Stop making jokes about studying
No, the word ‘studying’ is not a combination of the words student and dying. No, you are not uncool if you study or read. You are at university. Get over yourself. You are here because you want to learn about something that you supposedly enjoy. And you know what’s really cool? Having a degree, finding a good job that you love and having tons of money. But in order to get the degree, you must study. It’s a vicious circle.
6. Learn how to say no to people who corrupt you
We all have that friend who goes out all night but still has the right answers to everything the next day in class. Well you, my friend, are not as special as he is. Stop telling yourself that if he can do it, you can too, because if you could, you wouldn’t be here reading this.
Make a plan to not have massive parties during the week. Five days of study, two days of party. Some people don’t party everyday, but that doesn’t make them geeks, dorks or whatever you want to call them.
7. Sleep in order to study efficiently
Sleep. As much as you can. Research tells us that each day a person should get eight hours of sleep, do eight hours of work and have eight hours of relaxation. No one told them how unrealistic this is. As a student you should get at least seven hours of sleep in order to function as a normal human being, but we all know that is easier said than done.
If you can’t sleep try drinking some hot milk, watch a really boring movie or start counting sheep. If those don’t work, go to a doctor. It might be serious.
8. Clean your room
A dirty room will never let you study and it will not magically clean itself as it did at home. Your parents are not here to tidy your mess or tell you to “study or get grounded”. You’re an adult. You’re mature. Tidy your room. You will see how much better you feel and how willing you will be to study once you have a clean place to do it in.
9. Go to the library
If you feel like bed is your best friend and you can’t stand not cuddling it all the time, then get out of your room and go to the library. Find the inner power to do it.
There is nothing else you can do in a library but study. If you do happen to do something apart from study, you will feel the judgmental looks of other people. Libraries are a perfect environment for those who need a quiet, well-lit space.
10. Reward yourself
Instead of doing 10 minutes of reading and one hour of chilling, do one and a half hours of reading and reward yourself with a 30 minute break for chocolate, tea, gummy bears or whatever else makes you happy.
11. Make a plan and stick to it
Try to prioritise your essays and your reading by making lists and organising your subjects. If you plan to study for two hours, then make it two hours – not less. You will feel satisfied in the end when your teacher asks a question that you actually know the answer to.
12. Just do it
You just have to remember what your goals and dreams are and stay focused. You can’t be good at what you do, if you don’t know anything about it. At the end of the day, it all comes down to how badly you really want something and how determined you are to achieve it.
Maia Bondici writes for The Square, City University's independent student newspaper.
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