Maybe you believe that if you do tasks when you’re not feeling in the mood to do them, then the quality isn’t great. Or maybe you think that you won’t do anything well unless you’re really at the top of your form. It could be that perhaps procrastination is getting in the way. Think about it! Do you put off paying your bills on time? Do you leave Christmas shopping till the last minute? Do you put off writing a thank you note until it’s too late? If you answer “yes” to each of these questions then you probably are a procrastinator.
We all procrastinate sometimes, but research indicates that 20 percent of people chronically avoid difficult tasks and deliberately look for distractions—which, unfortunately, are increasingly available. Procrastinators may say they perform better under pressure, but more often than not that’s their way of justifying putting things off. However, with a little effort it is possible to overcome procrastination. You can tell if you’re a procrastinator if you do the following:
The following suggestions are what I have been doing successfully for the last 25 years or so working with doctors to help them pass their exams.
First, have a concrete plan. My suggestion is that for actual intake work (i.e. reading texts, going over summary notes, memorizing material of any kind) you do this only in the mornings up to 12 noon. The reason for this is that the pre-frontal cortex, that area of the brain that integrates and absorbs material, is more active in the mornings, and you are more likely to remember material studied in the mornings. Avoid studying or trying to do creative tasks in the afternoon, as the pre-frontal cortex is less activated and you attend less easily during the period from 2 to 4 pm. This is the time to do those automatic, mundane tasks which don’t require too much thinking. From my experience, I have found that doctors who are sitting exams feel they learn and remember more if they study in the mornings.
Second, don’t give in to wanting to feel good. Learn to recognize that you can have negative emotions without acting on them. You are procrastinating if you say “I’ll feel more like study tomorrow”. Acknowledge the negative emotions, but get started anyway. Progress on a small goal provides the motivation for another step forward. Once you get going, the negative emotions may well pass. My favourite saying is the Nike slogan, “Just Do It”. It’s a little like pressing the snooze button several times after the alarm goes off in the morning. It gets harder and harder to get out of bed and you leave it to the very last minute. I used to do that all the time, and finally I realized how stressed it was making me. It took a couple of weeks to break the habit, and now I just automatically get out of bed when I hear the alarm – no thoughts or emotions. I just do it! Well….most of the time!
Third, we only have a finite amount of willpower each day. Research by Roy Baumeister and his colleagues has repeatedly found that an effort of will or self-control is tiring; if you have had to force yourself to do something, you are less willing or less able to exert self-control when the next challenge comes around. This is called Ego Depletion. So if you have an exam in the morning and have exerted self-discipline and self-control, but then have another exam in the afternoon, chances are that you may not perform as well in the afternoon as you may give up earlier than normal. The exertion of self-control is depleting and unpleasant. Partly ego depletion may be due to a loss of motivation. After exerting self-control in one task you do not really feel like making an effort in another. However, other research by Baumeister and colleagues found that the nervous system consumes more glucose than most other parts of the body, and effortful mental activity in the morning leads to a drop in blood glucose level. So to overcome deterioration of performance in the afternoon, keep your glucose level up with occasional little sugar treats, like jellybeans.
Fourth, reduce uncertainty and distractions. We’re most likely to procrastinate on tasks that lack structure. So in addition to making your task concrete, it’s important to reduce the uncertainty about how to proceed. In fact, because the pre-frontal cortex does fatigue, I would suggest that you change topics every hour, starting with a topic you don’t particularly like, and ending with a topic you like. In this way, you are more likely to maintain your attention. Make each hour 50-55 minutes, put a marker where you left off with the topic (don’t expect to finish it in 55 minutes!), and in that 5-10 minutes get up out of your chair and do some physical activity (e.g. going to toilet or getting a cup of tea, even 10 push-ups if you feel so inclined), before sitting down again to another topic. It doesn’t have to be a major change of topic, could be just a sub-topic. Reduce the available distractions before you start studying. Turn off the email, put your phone on silent or airplane mode, isolate yourself as much as you can, and make sure the environment around you is working to strengthen your willpower and focus, rather than undermining your efforts.
If you are a procrastinator, you might find that you look for a distraction, and checking email is just about tailor-made for this purpose. I know I have to put strict times on myself for looking at my emails, otherwise I’d be checking them all day and wasting a lot of time better spent on other things.
It may be that you are distracting yourself as a way of regulating your own emotions, such as fear of failure. However, if you use the four deliberate strategies mentioned above they can keep you one step ahead of procrastination.
Dr. Patsy Tremayne