If you often find yourself putting off studying or scrambling to complete projects at the last minute, you are not alone. In fact, up to 95% of people acknowledge significant difficulties with procrastination in at least one area of their life. As the new school year approaches, you may already be dreading the homework, assignments and exams that previously led to procrastination and last-minute cramming.
If this sounds like you, here are a few strategies to help you stay committed to your goals and be more productive this school year:
Understand why you say “later” when you would be better off doing it now.
The first key step toward positive change is understanding why you are putting things off. Two major factors that influence our decision to procrastinate are (i) how unpleasant a task is, and (ii) the length of time we have to do it. The more unpleasant the task and further away the deadline, the less motivated we feel to tackle it. However, putting off a task tends to increase feelings of anxiety and dread as the deadline approaches. This, in turn, makes the thought of starting the task even less appealing, and typically leads to further procrastination. Recognizing this cycle when it happens can mean the difference between doing and delaying.
Human beings are wired to think short-term in most situations, and our natural instinct is to avoid painful or unpleasant situations whenever possible. Although this “pain avoidance reflex” serves us well in many circumstances, an excessive focus on avoiding discomfort can lead to procrastination and cost us in the long-term (e.g., binge watching Netflix programs instead of studying for an exam can have a significant negative impact on your grades). To address this procrastination tendency, try a technique known as “telescoping”’; before making a decision to do something now or later, ask yourself how this decision will impact you in five minutes versus five days versus five months, and focus on the long-term consequences when making your decision.
Break it down
The hardest part of almost any difficult task is getting started. This is because we tend to think about the effort required to complete the entire task when evaluating whether or not to do it (e.g., feeling overwhelmed when imagining writing an entire essay in one shot). To overcome this issue, start by deciding how much of the task you could feasibly complete with minimal effort (e.g., writing for 20 minutes), and commit to doing just that much before taking a break or giving yourself a small reward. Many people find they actually get a lot done once they get over the initial hurdle of getting started (e.g., completing 45 minutes of work versus the initially planned 20 minutes). By repeating this process, you will begin to feel a sense of accomplishment, and the task will seem less daunting as you make progress toward its completion.
Just say “no” to distractions
Limiting access to the distractions that most often get in the way of completing tasks (e.g., TV, video games, social media) can go a long way in maximizing our productivity. We are most productive when we devote our undivided attention to one task at a time. To limit procrastination, try working in a distraction-free environment and commit to giving a focused effort until you have finished a certain amount of work (e.g., reading one chapter) or spent a designated amount of time on a task. Additionally, try putting your phone in a different room so you aren’t seduced by the flashing light of a new text or e-mail, or consider using computer software (e.g., “RescueTime”) that is designed to limit access to distracting websites like YouTube, Pinterest or Snapchat.