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The psychology of procrastination

Elhana Sugiaman

Research tells us that 80 to 95% of students procrastinate. In my view the real number is 100%. We all do it. We do it often. And we do it more than we’d like to. I still procrastinate to this day even after reading and writing a lot about it. The epidemic isn’t entirely curable but it is entirely manageable. So if you’re reading this article as part of a glorious episode of time-wasting, worry not. I have four quick tips to share with you that will help you get ahead of those deadlines and creeping exam dates. Let’s start with the most effective.

1. Write a Sh*tty First Draft

It’s exactly how I wrote this article. If there ever was a magic pill to beat procrastination, this would be it. All other solutions seem incremental at best, while being okay with starting a sh*tty first draft works almost all the time. It’s one of a few hacks that can make you prolific in how much you achieve.

Try it after reading this article. You will find it liberating when you decide to sit down and bash out a sh*tty first approach to whatever needs doing (you can always refine it later!) Fear of failure and perfectionist tendencies fade when you use this method. And if it can work for the prolific novelist Anne Lamott—who writes in her book, Bird by Bird, that the only way she can pen anything is by starting with really sh*tty first drafts—it can most certainly work for us mere mortals.

2. Be Lazy and Take the Path of Least Resistance

I started drafting this article by writing a paragraph on sh*tty first drafts. It was the easiest bit of advice I could write and that’s where I started. The rhythm for everything else followed shortly after, and so did the motivation to get anything done. Unlike what Instagram memes will have you believe, people that get sh*t done don’t always rely on moments of inspired motivation. In fact, they have no particular super powers other than the ability to eat the proverbial elephant (or whatever other insurmountable task awaits them) one bite at a time.

So, if your work seems overwhelming, and for this reason you find yourself paralysed to do anything about it, try to pick out the easiest bit to crack on with. Allow yourself to be lazy enough to start with the easiest part of a task. And if no such thing exists, break down your work until you have portions that are small enough for you to only need a few minutes of effort for their completion.

3. Don’t Stock Your Fridge with Ice Cream

Some believe that to beat procrastination you have to summon lots of willpower to get moving. But willpower is fickle. I don’t trust it and it appears psychologists aren’t so sure about it either. Indeed, some research shows that willpower is like a muscle (it can be exhausted with use), while other studies refute such claims and find no evidence for what psychologists have termed “ego depletion”.

Regardless, it’s important to understand that willpower—much like motivation—is not reliable. Sometimes you’ll have lots of enthusiasm and energy to start your work but in most cases, you’ll be running on reserves. This is where common diet advice can help: if you’re trying to lose weight don’t stock your fridge with ice cream. Which is to say, if you’re trying to get your work done, distance yourself from temptations.

You know what your instant gratification cues and culprits are (mine is an iPhone and Twitter). Instead of fighting to resist them, why not simply place them out of sight and out of reach so you don’t have to exert any willpower to resist them? In fact, next time you’re at your work desk, try switching off your phone completely and tucking it away in a bag or under your bed. You’ll be impressed at how much you can achieve when you’re phoneless!

4. Use Instant Gratification to Your Advantage

This was the penultimate paragraph I wrote and it was also the hardest. I had a vague notion of what I wanted to say but had no idea how to express it effectively. So, I simply went back to the first and second pieces of advice: (1) I allowed myself a sh*tty first attempt and (2) I took the path of least resistance by going meta on the process. In addition, the third piece of advice was already taken care of with my iPhone tucked away and out of sight so I could focus on just writing this article. What does that have to do with instant gratification? Probably nothing, but let’s see if I can stretch things a bit and make a worthwhile point.

Instant gratification is all about quick wins. When we’re stuck, bored, and can’t get on with our work, we reach for something that can bring about quick resolve. A quick hit. A snappy reward. Facebook is especially good at fulfilling this urge. Every time you log in, you’ll find a luring red number (it’s red for reason!) on the notifications icon begging to be tapped. You instinctively click away and find all the new but completely useless and irrelevant things you’ve missed out on. You’re instantly gratified! How can you use this to your advantage? The secret is in the psychology of it all. Indeed, it’s possible to have such instant gratification with your work if you can find a few quick wins within it that can spur you ahead, just as I did with this paragraph, which I hope isn’t utter nonsense.

Can you cure procrastination? Absolutely not. However, it’s possible to manage it with the ideas in this article, which no doubt lead to a less stressful and more academically successful life at uni. However, if all else fails and you leave things till the last minute, miraculous efforts and all-nighters have been known to save degrees. It just isn’t something I’d want to bet on.

 

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