Fighting procrastination is easier than you think

This is part 3 of a three parts assignment for the Learning how to learn course on Coursera. Also check Part 1 - Your brain on thinking and learning and Part 2 - Chunking concepts to solidify and compress topics.

Procrastination is one of the biggest woes when we’re trying to learn something hard. It’s our escape valve when we don’t want to do something that looks painful or boring. As Parkinson’s law clearly defines it:

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.

We suffer from procrastination until the last minute, when we cram for exams or pull all nighters to deliver that important project that was scheduled for a while. Worse, we avoid taking long term commitments, like writting a book, because it will take too long, all in the name of procrastination.

But what is procrastination?

Procrastination if the act of avoiding something that has to be done because we assume it is going to be painful. It’s a habit we acquire to protect us from the bad feeling we have when we’re about to perform a specific task, like studying for that next calculus exam.

The thing is, studying calculus isn’t going to cause you any pain. In most cases, once you get over the anticipation of doing the work, the pain just goes away. All the supposed suffering you would have by studying calculus just disappears the moment you start doing it. We procrastinate because of the anxiousness we’re feeling before the task, once you go over that hill, you’re good to go.

Simple, isn’t it? Just stop doing it and you’re good to go, right?

Not quite.

Breaking habits

Procrastination wires itself as a habit and habits are naturally hard to break. When performing a habit, your brain is in energy-saving mode, you are almost unconsciously performing it and this is a good thing, it saves energy for other important stuff your brain is doing or you might be focusing on.

Habits are built in 4 pieces:

What we want to do is to apply our willpower to the routine step and change our response to the cue. The key to fighting procrastination isn’t being it our whole day, no one has enough willpower to wrestle it like that, what we want instead is to apply some of it just after we get the cue to provide a better response.

The first step is to start noticing the cues that send you into procrastination mode. Text messages on your phone, having email/facebook tabs open all the time (with their addicting notification counts), being disrupted while concentrating at work, start noticing how these small things take you out of flow state and send you to do something else. Silence your phone, close the email/facebook/twitter tabs, switch to a less disruptive environment for work or go to the most silent spot at the library to study. Removing the cues that trigger your procrastination is already halfway into effectively fight it.

Then, when you still get a cue after trying to remove them, change your response. This is the only time you have to consciously apply willpower, to change the routine you will perform when a cue comes up. A simple way of doing it is to have fixed time slots for your work/studying tasks, like doing Pomodoros.

The Pomodoro technique was developed by Francesco Cirillo and it consists of having fixed 25 minutes stints of focused work with brief breaks. During a Pomodoro, you can’t do anything other than the work that’s right in front of you, if a cue comes up, you shut it down and continue whatever you’re doing. In a couple minutes you’ll have a break and will be able to procrastinate a bit before starting the next pomodoro, so there is no need to be desperate.

Make sure you also reward yourself when you do that. Creating these small rewards causes your brain to notice there are rewards in doing the actual work as well instead of thinking that rewards only come when it is procrastinating. Doesn’t have to be something big, you could buy that new Blind Guardian album, go for a walk in the park or listen to one of your favorite podcasts.

Focus on process, not product

Many times we avoid long term commitments because we think they’re too hard, will take too long or we will never be able to do it. When I was doing my final college essay, it always felt like I would never finish it, because I couldn’t even start it!

My main problem back then was focusing on having the essay done, the product. If, instead, I had focused on the process of doing it, I wouldn’t have had to pull all nighters to finally deliver it.

How does that work?

Instead of focusing on I have to write the essay, I would think I have an hour to work on the essay every weekday. Look at how this is reframed, instead of forcing myself to think I’ll have to produce something (which would kick in the procrastination response), I just say that I’ll have this whole hour to do work on it, whatever it is. There is no need to produce something out of this hour, but I surely will because there won’t be a reason to run away from it.

This simple change of perspective removes the pain of I have to produce an essay and turns it into I have an hour to work on it. It’s like deciding to read a book every month, you´ll fall behind and give up when you see you can’t keep up with it, if instead you decide to read fifty pages of a book every day you’re much more likely to get it done. How many 1400 pages books do you have hanging around, right?

Go small to go big

The main takeaway you should have is that focusing on small, daily or every couple of days tasks is much more productive and causes much less procrastination than having large, hard to achieve, goals. There is nothing that makes you more driven than constant progress, setting up your goals in small pieces gives you this sense of getting somewhere that is really hard to have when it is about some future product that feels like it will never be finished.

As much as it is hard to fight procrastination, if you start to consciously change your responses to the cues, define clear and quickly attainable goals and give you a couple nice rewards whenever you get stuff done right, you’ll definitely be at a better position. Whenever you think your days aren’t long enought for what you do, think about what you did, which parts of your day were you doing something that wasn’t productive? Could you have used that time in a better way? Could improving your usage of that time give you some more leisure time later to enjoy your friends, family or just hanging around?

Avoiding procrastination isn’t only about being more productive at work, but also about having more time for yourself. If you can be more productive and finish your chores faster, you’ll end up with much more time to do other enjoyable activities.

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