“I’ll do that tomorrow.”
We’ve all heard that before. When we’re confronted with tasks, be it the assignment imminently due or that email you were supposed to deal with last week, we have a tendency to push back. But why? And how can we stop procrastination to actually get stuff done?
Procrastination versus productivity
I think it’s worth defining procrastination so we can self-diagnose.
Procrastination is the action or habit of delaying or postponing something, particularly that which is requiring immediate attention.
Procrastination comes in two forms: the delay and the start. The delay is where we know we should really start on that task but instead complete everything and anything else first. Then the time comes where we sit down and say “OK, now I’m going to do this.” — the start. The start is a grinding, unproductive daydream phase where you sit and stare until the clock hits midnight and you give up with little to nothing done.
The Doom Loop — it’s emotion not organisation
To visualise procrastination we can look at Joseph Ferrari’s ‘Doom Loop’. Ferrari’s research shows how procrastination is a product of your emotion not your organisation.
Instead of being disorganised and lazy, you will put off tasks because you’re not in the mood to do them. When you’re in that mood, it’s an endless spiral of procrastinating and blank sheets of paper.
So, how do we get in the right mood and break the loop?
Step 1 — Break It Down
Procrastination is always a product of a big task. When your to-do list is filled errands like ‘print worksheets’ and ‘clear out desk draw’, you’re guaranteed to feel like a superhuman at the end of the day. But when all that’s left on the list is ‘start assignment’, you’re almost certainly going to be spending your day twiddling your thumbs. Larger tasks are always less attractive to tackle as the end satisfaction is further away.
That means we need to turn larger tasks into smaller, achievable chunks.
Instead of just adding a big job onto your inbox or to-do list, spend some time at the end of the day breaking down the task into manageable chunks.
For example, if your task is to write a report, don’t put ‘write that report’ into your to-do list. Break it down:
- ‘Plan report contents’
- ‘Find resources for report chapters’
- ‘Write report introduction’
- ‘Write up draft report’
- ‘Get draft checked’
- ‘Tweak and perfect report’
- ‘Write report conclusion’
Now when you next come to planning your day, add in the next chunk on that list. Then when it comes to it, you’re not sitting around putting off starting ‘that report’, you’re getting on with ‘planning report contents’. So many of us fall into the trap of making a revision timetable that just says “two hours of Biology”. Instead try planning to make your mitosis flashcards and do a Biology practice paper- having tangible tasks that you can actually achieve (and which have a defined endpoint) will skyrocket your productivity and sense of accomplishment.
Step 2 — Get Started
‘The secret to getting ahead, is to get started’ — Mark Twain
Procrastination is a pre-work struggle. Most of us will find that once we finally do get stuck in, it all becomes easier.
So once you’ve got those manageable chunks into your revision timetable, sit down and do it.
Step 3 — Take Breaks
Everyone needs a break. If you try to study non-stop and block out your urges to take a breather, your quality of work and mindset will deteriorate, fast. It’s important not to be too hard on yourself and ensure you’re planning much needed breaks into your revision timetable.
The decision of when to take a break depends on the type of work you’re doing: are you trying to be creative or productive?
To be creative, as the authors of this HBR article—Jackson G. Lu, PhD candidate at Columbia Business School and Modupe Akinola and Malia Mason, both associate professors at Columbia Business School—write, breaks should be planned into your revision timetable and take your mind away from your task. This prevents you from hitting a creative roadblock, which is not always noticed as you’ll continue to create redundant ideas and mistake those for progress.
If your goal is to be productive, breaks should be more spontaneous. With being productive, driving through your to-do list, you’ll start to notice when your mind goes off and you’re losing traction. Instead of driving through poorly, you should take this as a sign to stop. Get up, move and do something while keeping your mind on the task. As this Wall Street Journal article highlights, productivity breaks should be mindless tasks which take you away from your job but keep you focused, so you don’t fall out of that productive drive.
As we realised how crucial break-taking is to making study time effective, and how hard it is to know when to break, we’ve made this a fundamental feature of Adapt. Adapt automatically creates your perfect revision timetable, and lets you either schedule breaks in yourself, or just take them spontaneously! If you take one spontaneously and don’t get your task done in the time you planned for, Adapt will simply move it to another day to make sure you get it done.
So next time you try and power through a long study session, be sure to get up, move around, run errands and give yourself time to refresh- and make sure you make your revision timetable in Adapt.
Step 4 — Optimise the Environment
It’s no revelation that our environment shapes our mood. Placing yourself in the right environments do wonders to stimulate your creativity and productivity. Your environment is not just about the room you’re in. It’s also about the people you are (or aren’t) surrounded by, the music you are (or not) listening to and the time of day you’re choosing to study.
The second point is to vary your environments to keep your mind engaged. Through our market research for Adapt, students success stories repeatedly spoke of how varying their environment led to a massive improvement in their level of concentration and motivation.
Beat procrastination by choosing the best location, friends, playlist and time of day to tackle your work, and switch it up.
Step 5 — Reflect and Improve
Sometimes these tricks will work for you, sometimes they won’t. It’s important to keep track of your work and progress and reflect each day on what went well and what didn’t. If you make this a habit of each day, you’ll soon create a personalised workflow that maximises what you can get out of each day.
Ask yourself reflection questions at the end of the day and then plan my next day in light of these answers. Two I like to ask myself:
“Did I prioritise the right things today? If not, why, and what can I do to prevent it tomorrow?”
“Did I struggle to concentrate today? If so, why, and what can I do to prevent it tomorrow?”
In Adapt, we ask you one simple question- after you’ve worked on a topic, rate your confidence. We incorporate these ratings into your revision timetable. The less confident you were, the more frequetly we’ll plan for you to revise that topic.
Step 6 — Look After Yourself
Once you’ve got the plan, mindset, and environment in place you’ll be well on your way to prevent time wasting procrastination. Though, it misses one key ingredient which has a huge impact on your work: your health.
Here’s a scene most students can relate to: it’s early evening, you’ve been sat at your desk all day long trying to study, snacking on junk food and feeling the damage of last night — how much work have you got done? Your health permeates your work ethic and mood. Given that your mood is the determinant of procrastination, your health can make or break your productivity and work flow.
That means, decent sleep, a healthy diet and regular exercise, especially used as a break from studying, is part of the answer to beating procrastination.
The Anti-Procrastination Plan
Taking onboard these seven tactics is guaranteed to see your study time improve. All it takes is a new approach to your day of studying to adopt the mood changing and reflecting exercises.
- Spend 10 minutes a day breaking down your to-do list
- Start doing as soon as you sit down to work
- Set a timer or be aware of your unproductive mood to break effectively
- Choose the right environment for your task and mix it up
- Ask yourself reflection questions at the end of every day
- Sleep, eat and exercise well
- And if this still doesn’t work? Use Adapt, and we’ll plan everything for you!