Some of the greatest thinkers, writers and artists of all time have been huge procrastinators, notoriously taking days, or even sometimes years, to complete a famous work of art or write a book. Author Victor Hugo famously set up self-imposed house arrest to force himself to finish the iconic Hunchback of Notre Dame classic novel. Leonardo da Vinci, in the process of painting the Last Supper, would leave his painting untouched for days at a time, and the Dalai Lama once explained that as a student, he would only “work and study without laziness in the face of a difficult challenge or an urgent deadline”.
Why have even some of the most brilliant people of all time struggled with procrastination? For some of us, it may be the innate fear of failure that stops us from starting, but for others, sometimes only an important deadline can provide some much-needed adrenaline to get things done. Either way, the consequences of procrastination can be feeling stressed, rushed and anxious to finish an upcoming task against what can seem like all odds. William James, known as the “Father of American Psychology,” stated that “nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an unfinished task.”
So even though we all know the consequences, why is procrastination so common and what can we do to stay on track and prevent it from impeding our success?
What is Procrastination?
Procrastination is generally defined as the act of unnecessarily delaying or postponing a task usually up until, or even sometimes past, its deadline. Often against one’s better judgement, procrastinators spend time distracting themselves with easier, more enjoyable tasks to delay starting a task that may be physically or mentally taxing. Often, modern technology offers an endless and tempting escape from the realities of a student’s to-do list, distracting your brain from the anxiety and stress of an outstanding task, whether it be at the hands of a social media rabbit hole or binge-watching a new tv show.
One study found that 75% of college students considered themselves “habitual procrastinators”. So how can one “beat the odds” and overcome procrastination?
Tips to prevent procrastination:
Keep track of your workload.
The first step to managing procrastination is understanding your schedule so you can figure out how to prioritize your tasks and manage your time. Balancing school work, sports, family time, sleep and a social life can be tricky- but getting organized can help you figure out when you have time for certain things. Using a planner to organize your assignments and get reminders of upcoming deadlines is a great way to help yourself stay on track even when you’re super busy. MyStudyLife’s online student planner app enables students to keep track of all their classes, tasks, assignments and exams – anywhere, on any device. The best part? It’s free (and with no annoying ads).
Don’t make the mistake of only planning out your school work- be sure to add your extracurriculars, social plans, appointments and anything else you need to do. This allows you to better plan because you’ll be able to see when things are too hectic, or when you’ll have time to do your schoolwork. This can all be done on MyStudyLife’s app and then you can see your week at one glance
Just get started.
When dealing with a particularly daunting task, just getting started can feel like a monumental chore. However, psychology has proven that once started, your brain becomes fixated on a task until you finish it, known as the Zierganick effect. If you can get yourself to just work at something for a few minutes, an outstanding task becomes harder to ignore as your brain craves the satisfying feeling of completion. Getting started can be as simple as writing the first line of an essay or writing a study plan of important topics to cover.
Another helpful tip can be to define your absolute minimum to-do-list for the day, which should be one or two things you must complete by tomorrow. Focus primarily on completing these urgent chores, and then worry about the others if you have time.
Do the hard and important tasks first.
Although it may be tempting to get a bunch of easier tasks out of the way, doing the opposite can be better to overcome procrastination and wire yourself to be more productive. Our daily biological clocks, known as our Circadian Rhythm, are set up so that we are often at our most alert at about 10 am before many of us face a mid-afternoon energy crash. The harder a task is, the more energy and better focus we need to complete them. It, therefore, makes sense to do the hardest and most important tasks first thing because starting them in the middle of an energy slump can make things more difficult, creating the tendency to put a task off for another whole day. Completing a hard task at the start of your day will also motivate you to keep your productivity up.
Break up your tasks.
As a student, major assignments or important test prep will inevitably be time-consuming (Rome wasn’t built it a day!), and sitting down to start an 8-hour school work session is a dreaded picture!
Instead, plan and break up a long task into smaller, more manageable chunks. One popular method is to follow a Pomodoro Timer, whereby cycles of 25 minutes of focus and 5 minutes of a break are used to increase productivity and help time management. Suppose you have 5 chapters of your History textbook to read and take notes on- assign each chapter 25 minutes of focus and reward yourself after each one with a mini-break to make a larger task easier to manage.
Another proven method is to apply the “two-minute rule” coined by James Clear in his book “Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones.” The two-minute rule explains that the best way to tackle a large task is to start with a simple 2 minute “pre-activity” before diving into the challenge. For example, instead of deciding to study your entire semester of Chemistry before your upcoming exam, start by doing one practice question for 2 minutes. This will get your brain into gear by assigning yourself bite-sized tasks until you feel motivated and focused enough to work on the larger task at hand.
Manage your environment.
Do you work in a setting that encourages completion of the current task or one that encourages procrastination? When temptations are visible and easily accessible, you are more likely to get distracted by them and hence procrastinate.
The most obvious distraction for students today is phones, as the mere presence of a cell phone may be distracting enough to reduce focus. A recent study found that having your phone out and in sight, even if you are not using it, can make you perform 20% worse than if you had put your phone away due to the constant inflow of notifications and temptation of entertainment. Think about putting your phone in another room, or adding time restrictions to apps like Instagram and TikTok so you can’t use them when you were planning to study. Consider using tools like white noise to quiet background noise or switching up your physical location (try a library or coffee shop) to reset your focus.
Don’t be hard on yourself.
Let’s face it- managing a busy life can be overwhelming and stressful. It’s important to recognize and acknowledge when you are feeling this way, to prevent exhaustion and potentially even burnout. Taking healthy breaks is just as important as being productive, so know when to step away from your work and reset your mind. Always make sure to schedule some fun activity throughout the week- whether it be seeing friends, playing your favourite sport or watching a movie with your family, and if you are overwhelmed, don’t be afraid to speak to your loved ones, a teacher or a friend to seek advice and support.