If you’ve ever wasted hours trying to persuade yourself to start studying, even for days on end, know you are not alone. What you’ve experienced is called procrastination, and research has shown that 95% of us procrastinate regularly, to some degree.
Procrastination is what has led you cramming for an exam the night before or struggling to finish an assignment on time, despite the fact that you had a month to complete it. If you are bragging about how good you are at completing tasks at the last minute, chances are that it is just a way to cope with your procrastination. After all, in all those cramming moments, you probably promised yourself that, next time, you wouldn’t allow things to get so out of hand. I know this from experience.
When it comes to learning, procrastination-induced cramming can be a serious problem. Good learning is a bit by bit activity, and it shouldn’t be done all together. To draw an analogy, it is like adding new layers on a brick wall; you need to let the new layers dry before adding more.
- To understand more about how to space out your learning, see my article on spaced repetition.
What actually is procrastination?
Procrastination can be defined as the process of postponing a task perceived as unpleasant by your brain in favor of a more, temporarily, pleasant task. This process offers instant gratification, but its long-term effects can be pretty disastrous, ranging from a failure in an exam to, in more extreme cases, getting fired.
When grasping what procrastination is, a natural question arises. Why do people procrastinate? Shouldn’t the fear of the severe consequences stop us from procrastinating? Well, research has found out that when you are ready to start a perceived-as-unpleasant task, the actual pain centers in your brain light up. Yes, you actually feel pain. It is only natural that your brain, at that moment, makes its best effort to avoid the task and the pain; it is what it is programmed to do.
This shift from a painful state to a more pleasant, gratifying one is what makes procrastination share features with addiction. And like all addictions, it encourages behavior that is neither deliberate not voluntary. But, in the end, what procrastination really is is a habit, and, like all bad habits, it can be changed.
Can procrastination really be changed?
In a very interesting finding, researchers discovered that, despite their initial activity, the pain centers of the brain become fully inactive shortly after starting working on the task at hand. It seems like all the hard part of procrastination is in starting, which makes things quite simpler.
It’s also noteworthy that procrastination is an active process, in the sense that you actually choose to work on a different task instead of the one you actually should. Therefore, to beat it you need to change the focus of your process back to what you should be doing. You don’t have to motivate yourself from scratch, like you would have to do if you were battling with laziness.
How to beat procrastination
Accept that you are procrastinating
Let me state this. Procrastination is normal! You need to stop feeling bad about it. It is an absolutely reasonable human emotional reaction, which we are now called to overcome. We need to let it go in order to resume full control of our time and focus, but it’s not something we should beat ourselves over!
Identify WHEN you procrastinate
Unless you are putting off a learning task to do something that is actually more important, you’re probably procrastinating. If you have a to-do item that you’ve been carrying over for days, or if you fill your days with unproductive activities, again you are probably procrastinating. Starting today, try to identify all those moments and be conscious of them. This is step 1, and probably the most important, to start tackling procrastination.
Identify WHY you procrastinate
There are many reasons why people procrastinate. The most common is finding a task boring or unpleasant, but it’s not the only one. Poor organization is another, as it leaves tasks unprioritized, making it harder to actually identify what you should focus on.
Being overwhelmed by a task or subject is another major reason. Having a mountain of learning ahead on a single subject can be very intimidating, making any other activity seem more appealing. Surprisingly, perfectionists, which can make even simple tasks overwhelming for themselves, are major procrastinators. It seems that the fear of sub-perfect performance is more daunting than the one of not completing the task.
For all the occasions you identify that you’re procrastinating, try to figure out why you’re doing it. That way you will best know which of the available strategies to deploy.
Understand the anatomy of a habit
In her very successful course “Learning How To Learn“, Barbara Oakley described the anatomy of a habit as having 4 parts. First, the cue, also known as the trigger that puts us into habit mode. Second, the routine, which is what we actually do in reaction to the cue. Then, the reward. Each and every habit, good or bad, is sustained and reinforced by rewards we, consciously or not, give ourselves. In the case of procrastination, it is that instant pleasure we feel when changing our focus. Finally, the last part is the belief. That is the underlying mindset we have about our habits and our ability to change or sustain them.
- To learn more about empowering mindsets, see my article on growth mindset.
Focus on the process, not the product
The best, and easiest, way to fall into procrastination is to focus on the product of your studying, instead of the process. When focusing on the product, you are thinking about the 10-page report you have to write, the 500 pages you have to read, the 300 new vocabulary words you have to learn. This makes the learning at hand intimidating and overwhelming, kicking your procrastination into gear.
What you should do is focus on the process. That can translate to focusing on hours of daily studying on the subject, or pages written per day. This way you get a more attainable short-term goal to work and not procrastinate on. To provide an example, it is much easier to commit to reading a book for 20 minutes a day, rather than committing to read 25 books in a year.
The Pomodoro technique (!!!)
As instructed by Barbara Oakley, there exists a very powerful technique to beat procrastination, by focusing on the process. That is the Pomodoro technique. A simple technique, based just on a timer (any timer works), suggests studying on 25-minute focused, distraction-free sessions, followed by 5-10 minutes of relaxation. Every 4 pomodoros, as they’re called, you get a longer break.
Utilizing this, you can focus on one Pomodoro at a time, instead of getting overwhelmed by the size of the task or how boring it feels. Also, notice that you are not bound by the 25-minute rule. Feel free to spice up the technique by changing the intervals as it suits you.
Working on the cues
One of the most important changes you need to make to avoid procrastination is to minimize all distractions. Having an e-mail or a social media notification show up on your screen while trying to focus is a sure-fire cue to procrastination. Avoid sitting close to a TV, mute, or even better turn off, your phone, and disable email and social media. Also try to study somewhere, quiet or not, where you don’t get distracted by every sound. In short, create a haven to learn/study in, with as close to no distractions as possible.
Working on the routine
However much you work on controlling the cues, there will always be more. After all, some of them are internal. To avoid getting sucked in procrastination, you need to build a new ritual (think plan) in reaction to your cues, or even before they occur.
- Utilize a planner journal (or any piece of paper) to write down a weekly to-do list before the beginning of each week. Also, write a daily to-do list for the next day every evening. That way you will always know which task is the priority at any given moment.
- Start each day by tackling the most important and/or the least pleasant task first, when your willpower is at its maximum. This way you will be able to concentrate on more enjoyable work without having this boring task looming over you for the rest of the day.
- Plan a quitting time. Cal Newport, author of the great book on focused work (and studying) “Deep Work“, earned his Ph.D. from MIT while finishing his workday at 5 p.m. Utilizing this you ensure that you will tackle all your studying timely, in order to move on with your day at the planned time. Without it, you are studying without a predetermined finish-time, which removes most pressure and allows for procrastination to cripple in.
- Keep yourself accountable. It is amazing how much more motivated and disciplined people are when they are accountable to someone. Ask a friend to check up on you, or use a service like stickK, where you can put money on the line to keep you accountable on your process.
- Don’t start something else. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, there’ll be a procrastination cue that will make you really want to do something different. Instead of opening Facebook or a video game, for instance, get up and walk around for a couple minutes. Then get back, set a Pomodoro timer and focus on studying for the next 25 or so minutes. This way you can avoid the potential downward spiral.
Working on the reward
As we saw, every habit exists due to a reward associated with it. It then stands to reason that you should reward good habits to keep them alive. If you complete a task or a Pomodoro, reward yourself with a treat, like a slice of cake or your favorite coffee, or a couple of minutes of surfing the web. For bigger accomplishments, provide yourself with matching rewards.
Working on the belief
The final part is to work on your belief, that you actually can overcome procrastination. You are already working on it by reading this article! Utilize your community to discover more examples of what works and what doesn’t. Read articles (like this one) and books to discover new techniques on how to overcome learning struggles like procrastination. Changing your mindset will make you more effective in learning more than any other change!
My struggle with procrastination
People who know me will tell you that procrastination is probably my biggest nemesis. I’ve been struggling for years to get to a point where I can be productive with my day.
As an example, when I started this blog and was trying to write my first article, I couldn’t focus on writing more than 2 sentences without getting distracted. In order to be able to write a new 1000+ word article weekly, I had to figure out a way to not procrastinate.
To achieve that, I utilize many of the aforementioned techniques. To begin with, I’ve set up a designated day in the week when I sit down and write my next article. That helps me block all other tasks for that day and focus on this one, most important task. Beyond that, in that day I go to work outside, as I get easily distracted when I’m on my main computer at home, where I’ve got all my notifications enabled and all my video games installed.
In order to minimize distractions, I write each first draft on paper, with my laptop turned off. This way I allow myself to get into the flow of writing uninterrupted. If I still struggle, I set Pomodoro timers for writing and I spend the breaks surfing the web guilt-free.
Finally, I reward myself with a coffee I really enjoy, which I get at the beginning of my writing session. I do it this way because I want to reward the fact that I’m right there, writing, rather than the finished article. Oh, and as far as accountability is concerned, I’m committed to a weekly article here, making myself accountable to all of you.
Procrastination is something normal, which we all experience. But it is also an obstacle to us becoming the best version of ourselves and learning what we want to learn.
The first step to overcoming it is identifying when and why you procrastinate. Then choose the techniques most suitable and available to you, combine them as necessary, and utilize them to overcome procrastination.
Call to Action
Utilizing what you learned in this article, you will soon find yourself stronger in the battle against procrastination. As you start winning it, you are going to have various achievements and/or struggles, which I’d love to hear about. Post on the Facebook group, or contact me directly!