Are you aware of the most recent addiction sweeping the university? Its like a plague, moving from one student to the next. Thousands of marks have been lost because of it. It’s name… procrastination!
Alright, slightly melodramatic, but also technically true. Procrastination is a normal part of life, both in university and beyond. While you might think it a typical ‘student’ thing, any experience in an office or in the field should show you that people are just as likely to get nothing done and something done. The good news is that your experience with beating procrastination in university gives you an extremely valuable set of skills. Just like planning skills, avoiding procrastination where possible can help you save time. A person who cannot manage their money will always be poor, no matter how much money they earn. Similarly, a person with poor time management skills will always be short on time, no matter what they’re doing.
The 301 Service has a workshop dedicated to beating procrastination you can find where available here, along with the rest of the workshops we’re offering that term. If you fancy popping in, there’s also some worksheets available in reception, and where available a 1-1 tutorial can focus on time management. Here however, I’ll summarise the techniques I’ve found the most valuable personally. Your mileage might vary! I’d encourage you to try out as many techniques as possible to find one that works.
And remember that you are only human, nobody expects you to avoid procrastinating entirely! Procrastination is something to be managed, but not something to be entirely eradicated!
1. The Pomodoro Technique
A classic and proven method of avoiding procrastination, the Pomodoro technique has you work in intervals with breaks in between. There are many apps, free and paid, which have built in timers and diaries to help you in using this technique.
The science behind it is that there is no such thing as true multi-tasking. Sure, you can do two things during the same time period, but the brain cannot focus on two tasks at the same time. Instead, you constantly swap your attention back and forth between the two tasks. There is an opportunity cost to this, and you will never use your full cognitive ability on any one task, instead working inefficiently. I’ve tried during my PhD to split writing tasks with playing specific games or watching television. This might be fine for very practical, tedious tasks which don’t need your full attention. For everything else, you’ll either spend time watching the TV, or you’ll ignore it entirely. There is no in between.
The Pomodoro technique allows you to avoid multi-tasking. During, for example, a thirty minute period, you will focus on one single task. Distractions, such as wanting to check your phone, sending or replying to an email, booking an appointment etc. should be written down on a notepad next to you. When the timer is up, you have a short break to address these smaller tasks and distractions. With this, you can hopefully keep the minor distractions to a minimum, as these often become larger distractions. One moment checking my email and I’m online. These machines are designed to make you pay attention to them for as long as possible. With the Pomodoro technique, you can train yourself to avoid that slippery slope!
Social Smoking is Still Smoking… So is Social Procrastination
Do you know somebody, it might even be yourself, who claims not to smoke or drink, but will indulge themselves in a few when they’re with friends who are doing the same? Often, this is just a cover to make ourselves feel better about the activity, which we know might not be socially acceptable. For example, drinking alone often tends to be a sign of alcoholism, but there are just as many people with drinking problems who only drink when they’re in a social setting, and therefore don’t believe they have a problem. Its just that they constantly seek out such social settings.
The same can be said for procrastination. Studying can be a lonely activity, so often its a good idea to form study groups, formally or informally. Don’t get me wrong, this can be a great idea. Not only can it keep up your morale , but you can talk about each other’s work, correct each others mistakes and generally help each other not to procrastinate! However, be wary of falling into the trap of social procrastination. You’re all there to study not to relax in the pleasant surroundings of the Information Commons. Before you know it, your five hour revision session only included about thirty minutes of revision.
Consider taking a set of headphones so that you can cut yourself off from the group conversation in general with music. Then, you can select when you want social interaction. Consider pairing this with the Pomodoro method or similar scheduling systems. You can work together, but also break together so that you stick to working during work time, and enjoy the company in social times. If a group just isn’t working out, then you might consider working alone or with a different group. Just like any other addiction, some people are enablers, and will tempt you (knowingly or unknowingly) against your better nature to procrastinate with all the tools of peer pressure, usually to make themselves feel better about their own. The best way to beat this sort of procrastination is to remove yourself from temptation!
There is no ‘Perfect Mood’, but there are ‘Bad Moods’
Some people like to only study when everything is perfect. The room has to be just the right temperature. One must not be too hungry or too full. There should be snacks of just the right sort, and coffee must be drank at just the right time before the session begins. It must be placed just before other obligations. Two hours before the lecture? I just won’t have enough time to focus. Two hours after the lecture? I’ll be too tired by then. And what if I have to go out tonight? I might as well just watch Netflix instead.
If these sound like excuses, its because there are. If we all waited until the ‘perfect’ time to start working on a project or goal, nothing would ever get done. It is a fact of life I have struggled to internalise that often I will not be in the most productive mood, but most moods can be productive-ish. I might not write one thousand words in one sitting, but I will write one hundred, and ten times that I’ve done just as well as I was when I waited. Recognise those thoughts for what they are, the essence of procrastination. You don’t want to work, so you are grasping for any reason to avoid it. Don’t fall into this trap!
This being said, please don’t work yourself to the bone. There will be times where the work you produce will not be of a good enough quality to justify the pain you’ll inflict on yourself. Your time is better spent on rest, recovery and self care. Procrastination is when you avoid doing work for poor reasons, not when you take the rational decision to take a break from work you would like to do soon because you simply aren’t up for it. There is a happy medium in deciding when to work, and when to take a break.
Planning to Work is not Work.
Planning is an essential part of good time management. With large academic projects, time spent planning is often time saved later down the road. But often, planning to do something can be a way of avoiding actually doing it.
I once knew a friend who would take great lengths to write long plans, colour coded, with time assigned for each element, all first in a planner, then online, then on her wall. She would highlight each reading meticulously and then transfer that to written notes. All this before a word was put to paper. Yet, when it came down to it, all that planning was overkill, a way for her to feel like she was doing a lot, when actually she was avoiding the harder task in favour of one she could do easily. Just like in office settings we criticise the idea of forming committees and having talks and action plans regarding relatively straightforward tasks, so should you recognise when you’re planning for the sake of it to avoid the challenging task of academia.
Avoid Talking Too Much About What You’re Doing
Similarly, you might find yourself eagerly talking to peers about your goals, what your study schedule is like etc. yet find yourself not doing that at all.
Personally, I’ve found myself waxing poetic about the fact that I’m doing a part-time degree as well as working, and how eternally busy I am, while at the same time I tend to spend more time than I’d like to admit relaxing and working on personal projects rather than my academic work. This is because it is a proven fact that we tell our peers about our work seeking validation. Once we receive this validation that we are indeed hard-working people, we have no psychological incentive to actually follow through with our claims. Receiving validation for planning to do something is a replacement for the validation one gets from their peers when they actually have done it. To keep yourself motivated, recognise when you’re talking too much about what you’re going to do, rather than what you have already done.
This doesn’t mean avoiding any discussion of what you plan to do. Rather, recognise when it becomes unproductive to do so, and when its more for the sake of your ego than for any practical reason.
So in summary…
Procrastination is something that everybody does, but like any vice, it can become a problem. I’ve found myself in trouble I shouldn’t have been because I didn’t plan properly. I should have been using these techniques years ago. Sadly, I didn’t, any I’ll never get some of that time I wasted back. Learn from my mistakes and the work of the scholars who have identified these ways we procrastinate and ways we can avoid it, and make the most of your time at university!