By Pat Bowden, published September 5, 2017.
How often do we wake up full of good intentions for the day, then look back afterwards to realize we haven’t done many of the tasks we planned? Sometimes we have simply been run off our feet with essentials, but what about the several checks of Facebook, the book we kept reading or the mindless web surfing or television watching? How often do we know full well we should be doing a particular (usually disagreeable) task, but still spend time avoiding it?
What is Procrastination?
Procrastination is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “the action of delaying or postponing something”.
Procrastination in Action
Study is a very common victim of procrastination. We may decide to start studying, but when the time comes to actually put in the work, the range of excuses to avoid it is a wide one. We often find that we urgently need to shop for clothes, cook an elaborate meal, take the dog for a run, phone a friend or research our family tree. Writing is another activity that often suffers because of procrastination. Take the example of me writing this post: I thought of some ideas, created a new document, drew up a Mindmap, then made Mindmaps for some other upcoming posts and went shopping.
Eventually, I decided enough was enough and set up a Pomodoro timer so I would concentrate solely on this post for 25 minutes. I don’t expect to finish in 25 minutes, but a few Pomodoros should do it.
Four useful techniques for overcoming procrastination
- Barbara Oakley of the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) Learning How to Learn tells us to focus on the process rather than the end result. You may have enthusiastically enrolled in a 10-week MOOC, and can now see your spare time for the next ten weeks disappearing in front of the computer. Instead, think about watching a video or two (perhaps at 1.5X speed) each day, and enjoy the sense of achievement as you mentally or physically cross the watched videos off your “to do” list.
- Large tasks such as doing a MOOC can be broken up into small, achievable sections. Look at the outline of the MOOC. Is it divided into weekly modules? Check how much time is recommended for each. Usually, the modules have fairly similar time commitments so you can open up your calendar or diary and decide just when you will schedule your MOOC time. Usually a regular time each day, or perhaps five days each week to give yourself a break. Block off the times and treat them as appointments that shouldn’t be changed.
- Another useful tool to help us organize our study time is a calendar or diary. Noting daily tasks helps. Setting times for each task helps even more, otherwise you may find that by the end of the day, a few things have taken up far more time than they should have, and other tasks remain undone. Daphne Gray-Grant of Publication Coach explains how to schedule effectively. Although her focus is writing, students can also benefit from many of her tips. She also discusses creating small easy habits so that our big tasks can be easily achieved over time.
- Barbara Oakley also explains that Pomodoros help us overcome the pain of procrastination by giving us an achievable time frame (we can manage to fit in 25 minutes). It also keeps us focused for long enough to overcome the brain’s natural feelings of pain at the thought of doing a necessary and sometimes difficult task. She explains that the neural pathways used by the brain when contemplating what we need to do are the same pathways that register pain. Getting on with the job rather than thinking about it will overcome those natural pathways and neutralize the pain.
Don’t forget rewards. Our brain loves rewards. They can be simple, such as giving yourself permission to look at Facebook for a few minutes after completing a Pomodoro. They can be large, such as a weekend away or a television marathon after finishing a big MOOC. Anything that we can look forward to, as long as we give ourselves the reward after we do the task and don’t cheat by taking the reward too early.
A Final Thought
I only needed two Pomodoros before I was into the groove and able to continue and finish without needing to start up a third, even though it took me well over an hour to write this. What strategies do you use to put off procrastination?