By Elliot M.
It’s no secret that many, if not most, students have suffered from procrastination at some point during their academic years. It’s especially frustrating when you feel like you have no power over your ability to get things done. In this article, I’ll discuss a few ways to break the habit of procrastinating and to finally take control of your life.
Why do I procrastinate?
You may procrastinate because you are overwhelmed, you feel like you don’t know what to do, or you aren’t getting enough sleep. Oftentimes, students procrastinate for more than one of these reasons.
When you are completely overwhelmed by the sheer amount of work you have on your plate or when you just have no idea what steps you need to take to accomplish your tasks, you may tell yourself that you’ll “get to it later” when you have more energy or when you’re in the “right” mindset.
Most importantly, if you aren’t getting a proper amount of high-quality sleep, you are much more likely to heavily procrastinate the next day because you’re feeling tired and unfocused.
And this is an endless cycle. You procrastinate during the day because you don’t have the energy needed to focus on your difficult tasks. As a result, you try to make up for lost time by staying up later in the night to work on these tasks. This leads to less sleep since you still have that same 9:30AM class the next morning, and you simply repeat this habit until you feel like you’re barely sleeping.
How to stop procrastinating
Method 1: Mental Contrasting with Implementation Intentions
There are two things you need to try first to stop procrastinating. The first is a method called MCII, which stands for Mental Contrasting with Implementation Intentions. Studies have shown that MCII has created tangible results in reducing the test subjects’ time spent procrastinating.
MCII is completed in two phases: 1) mental contrasting and 2) implementation intentions.
Mental contrasting is the contrasting of a desired goal with the reflection about the obstacles in the way of achieving that goal. This phase has been shown to increase the likelihood of invoking a sincere commitment in achieving the goal.
Here is what you need to do to mentally contrast your goals and your obstacles:
- Actually pick up a pen or pencil and write down a feasible desire. Perhaps it’s the desire to sleep earlier.
- Write down a positive outcome of this desire. Continuing from the example from step 1, a positive outcome of sleeping earlier would be the ability to be productive the next day and to be focused during class.
- Write down obstacles to the wish. What’s something that will prevent you from sleeping earlier? Exercising right before you plan to go to bed? Watching Netflix at 10PM?
The second phase, implementation intentions, is a concrete plan that details when, where, and how the individual will take action. For this phase, you need to form if-then statements that will guide your behavior. Be as detailed as possible and write down more than one if-then statement if necessary.
This is effective because we are often too vague with what we want. The mental contrasting phase helps us commit to a task, but without more, the desire is still too vague to act upon.
- If it is 9:30PM, then I will start wrapping up my studies.
- If it is 10PM, then I will stop whatever I am doing at that moment and get ready for bed.
- If I am getting into bed to sleep, then I will shut down my phone and put it on my nightstand.
Hang up your MCII plan on the wall in your room as a constant reminder to develop this habit.
Method 2: Daily Detailed Scheduling
Another great way to stop procrastinating is to plan what you are going to do the next day every night.
Get out a calendar and write down exactly what you are going to be doing each hour of the day from waking up to going to bed. During this process, visualize going through your schedule and try to predict what can go wrong in your day based on your past experiences.
Tiny decisions you make early in your day may greatly impact what you are going to do for the rest of the day. These things eventually snowball until you’ve suddenly realized that you’ve wasted half your day or even that valuable hour you should have spent studying.
For instance, what could be the harm of checking your phone for messages and social media first thing in the morning in bed? You may inadvertently get distracted by something you see in your social media newsfeed or by something someone texted you and end up spending an hour in bed scrolling downwards before getting ready for the day. Hello procrastination.
Now you’re starting your day late and perhaps skipping breakfast to head to class. In class, you’re starving because you skipped breakfast and, as a result, unable to focus (and so on).
Instead of repeating this dreadful process every morning, you could write in your calendar for 9AM, “Get out of bed and make breakfast. Don’t look at my phone until eating breakfast.” When you get out of bed immediately to start your day, you are more likely to have a more productive day.
Plan out the rest of your day hour-by-hour like this and don’t forget to give yourself some breaks during the day. There’s absolutely no reason to spend every waking minute studying, and if you are, then you’re probably not doing it right.
To further reinforce the benefits of this method, you could also reflect upon your day every night while planning your next hourly schedule to see what worked and what didn’t. Then adjust gradually every day until your routine is perfected.
Method 3: Introducing Artificial Deadlines
Creating personal deadlines for yourself is also a great way to stay on track. If you have a paper due in two months, set a personal deadline on that assignment to be done within the next 3 weeks.
For tasks that are much larger, break them up and create artificial deadlines for each major milestone. For instance, if you’re planning to produce a proper review outline, don’t wait until 3 weeks before finals to begin. Work on the outline throughout the semester, adding new concepts as you master them by the end of each week.
When you have much more time than necessary to get something done, there’s no reason to drag your feet. Letting small tasks pile up will just end up overwhelming you, and most likely result in further procrastination.
Method 4: Mini Dopamine Detox
The mini dopamine detox is basically a way for you to unplug for a little while to increase your motivation to study later. This works especially well when you are feeling burned out.
In our world today, we are constantly bombarded by external stimuli like social media or advertisements on the street (have ever walked through Times Square in NYC?).
When we take part in any activity we find even mildly interesting, our brain releases dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that your body produces to send chemical messages between neurons. It’s known as the “feel-good” neurotransmitter and is associated with our reward system.
When your body is exposed to more and more of a certain neurotransmitter, your neurons start decreasing the number of receptors to receive these chemical messages. Thus, when you are constantly bombarded with dopamine in your daily lives, the effect of dopamine starts to weaken until you just feel like you’re never satisfied.
“Dopamine is the molecule of more.” – Daniel Lieberman, M.D.
So how do you perform a mini dopamine detox? Strictly avoid using or consuming any of the following for an hour or so:
- Electronics (phone, laptop, games, etc.)
- Stimulating food
- Coffee or tea
- Talking with people
Here is what you CAN do or consume during this time “off.”
- Journaling (reflect upon your day, plan for the next day, etc.)
- Food you usually eat on a daily basis
- Take a walk
- Meditate or sit around doing nothing the entire hour
Some people may argue that exercise elicits dopamine. To be extra clear, you aren’t fasting from dopamine. You are getting away from the instant gratification activities that flood your brain with dopamine without you having to do much.