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Students: 11 top tips to beat procrastination

19 Sep 2019

This piece is by Olivia Mak, one of our Stagecoach Student Ambassadors. Find out more about our student ambassadors.

A new year, new assignments and a new you? the same old story? Wouldn’t it be nice if you could just tackle those essays and exam revision with the focus of a Jedi master and the efficiency of Santa Claus on Christmas Eve? If one of your new year’s resolutions is to have a more productive year and to smash those assignments, you’re in the right place. Prepare for a new you (or a version 2.0 of yourself, if you like, for those more technologically-inclined).

Know thy enemy

If you’re reading this, the chances are that you’ve battled valiantly against the procrastination beast but have found that, much like an unwanted earworm, it just keeps inconveniently reappearing. So perhaps a good starting point would be an examination - you’re welcome for the reminder - of the foundations of procrastination. After all, to defeat the enemy, you must know the enemy - knowledge is power, right? 

Procrastination is essentially a habit and these all have the same 3 aspects: the cue to procrastinate (anxious feelings or distractions), the habitual response (e.g. checking notifications, comfort eating etc.) and the subsequent rewarding feeling (from avoiding the task). These form a vicious cycle that gets repeated…..and so we end up putting the ‘Pro’ in procrastination. 

Pomodoro technique


Pomodoro is Italian for tomato!

A good way of hijacking the system and breaking the vicious cycle is to practise tolerating discomfort. The Pomodoro technique is a popular technique for doing this and achieving short bursts of productivity. Tasks are broken down into short, timed intervals, usually of 25 minutes (a ‘pomodoro’), spaced out by 5 minute breaks. After 4 such intervals (or ‘pomodori’) of pure study, you then take a longer break of around 20-30 minutes to enable you to recharge. The idea is that you laser-focus completely on your work in those intervals; in doing so, the rewarding feeling you get when taking a break will eventually become associated with the achievement of those intervals of work.   

Creating a to-do list

to do list

Part of the anxiety - the cue to procrastinate - may come from being overwhelmed by the myriad of tasks you need to get done. This can lead to apathy, which very quickly morphs into procrastination. Tackle the procrastination beast by creating a to-do list on paper. 

Setting goals


One of the most important strategies in the procrastination toolkit is to set goals. There are 2 different types: the overriding, long-term goals and the short-term, strategic goals that help you to achieve them. 

It’s always important to keep in mind the end goal i.e. why you’re studying your course and what you hope it will lead to or help you achieve. Maybe it’s a stepping stone onto a Master’s or PhD course? Or perhaps you need to achieve a 2:1 to apply for that coveted graduate job? For motivational thinking to be truly effective, however, it has to be allied to a realistic, pragmatic approach by balancing it with a careful consideration of the obstacles that stand in your way. For example, maybe your weakness is your propensity for checking your Instagram feed whenever you’re stuck or perhaps you don’t have access to a certain paper needed for your essay. Thinking about the potential hindrances to your work sheds lights on what you need to do to overcome these and achieve your long-term goals.

When you’ve remembered why you’re here, at university and in this self-sabotaging predicament, the next step is to break down your to-do list into specific tasks (or goals). The goals also have to be SMART. Make your goals Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound. For example, when revising, you could set yourself the goal ‘I’m going to make flashcards on key concepts covered in each lecture (measurable) in the last 2 weeks (specific), spending an hour per lecture. (time-bound)’. Assuming you’ve left enough time before the exam, this is also achievable and relevant to your goal of achieving a good mark. By making your goals smart, you convert the intangible desire of the long-term goals to tangible steps that you can take to accomplish them. 

Planning your study

Now you know what you need to do, structure your days by creating a plan of where and when you’re going to study. Designate specific periods of the day for study as well as for relaxation. It helps to build in a degree of flexibility by overestimating the time it will take for certain tasks as you will have a contingency plan for setbacks or unexpected situations that crop up. Prioritise your work according to urgency and importance. Also think about how you can best utilise other parts of your day, for example, using the dull commute on the bus to skim-read a paper for your essay, thereby freeing up some time for relaxing when you get home. By setting a schedule, you are mentally committing to studying at certain points of the day and are on your way to developing self-discipline. 

Optimise your study environment


So you’ve got your long-term goal in mind, a to-do list of tasks ready for you to tackle and a plan for when and where you’ll tackle them. Now you’ve just gotta make sure that you’re ready and willing to study. Give yourself the best chance of that happening by eliminating clutter and distractions - put that phone away. Or failing that, go to the library. Try not to study on your bed - you will only fall asleep or procrastinate as it’s so comfy.

If you can, print physical copies of journal papers rather than using electronic versions (don’t turn on the laptop - it’s a yeast culture festering with temptations; before you know it, an hour will have passed and you’re still, inexplicably, amusing yourself with videos of skateboarding cats). Or if you do need to use your laptop for studying, consider installing a site blocker add-on to your browser.

Get started

coffee desk

The best way to increase motivation is by getting started, so sit at that desk, grab your lecture notes and start highlighting or scribbling away. Yes, of course this is easier said than done (otherwise you wouldn’t be sat here procrastinating and reading blog posts on how to not procrastinate). No, you’re not too tired / have better things to do / plenty of time (delete excuse as appropriate). You can still make a small start / partying is not going to land you that dream job, is it? / that time will fly, you last-minute slacker. 

There is never a perfect time to start but once you’ve got that first bit out of the way, you will find that most of your tiredness seems to almost magically disappear and there is nothing else in the entire world that you would rather be doing. Your motivation has started spreading like wildfire. This may also be because of the Zeigarnik effect, a state of unease generated by an unfinished task, which creates an urge in our restless brains to see it through to completion. So even just a few minutes work’ can create an anxiety that will have us itching to get the work done.

Give yourself regular rewards

coffee and cake

Treat yourself after a productive period of work for your herculean effort. That's one small step for man, one giant leap for procrastinating students. So make sure to schedule regular breaks and rewards. Self-control and willpower are like a muscle and will strengthen in the long-term with use but they will also tire, so recharge them by treating yourself when you’ve achieved your short-term goals. (Warning: don’t do this the other way round in the hope that treating yourself to that hot chocolate from Costa will somehow motivate you into doing some actual work - it doesn’t work and you will be poorer for it, both financially and morally-speaking…….trust me, I’ve tried). 

Be compassionate to yourself

Now I don’t deny that there will be times when you will be consumed by an exhaustion so crippling that you wonder if you’ve just come straight out of a sleep deprivation experiment (this is not the same thing as the mental tiredness you feel at the mere thought of studying). This calls for flexibility - adapt your daily and even hourly schedule according to mood and energy (for example, doing easier, less mentally-taxing tasks such as references when you’re particularly tired or unmotivated). Ultimately, the idea is to stop the root of procrastination in its tracks by doing whatever and however much is possible with whatever resources you have (both mental and physical). 

When those niggling doubts creep in and threaten to undermine you, fortify your armoury by remembering all the times in similar circumstances where you’ve battled through your procrastination and been successful. You’ve hurdled those obstacles before and you’ll do it again. 

Procrastination and perfectionism 

Procrastination is often linked to perfectionism; it’s the belief that if you can’t do a piece of work perfectly, there’s no point doing it at all. Avoid this all-or-nothing thinking by cultivating a growth mindset and changing your perspective so that you come to see mistakes as learning opportunities. It’s ok for your work not to be perfect - you’re only human after all and therefore imperfect anyway - and you never know, it might be good enough for what you’re aiming for. Even if it’s not, use the feedback constructively to improve your next assignment. 

Procrastinate productively


Finally, if all else fails and you succumb to procrastination, at least do it productively. Do something that is good for your body and mind and that will help you to feel more motivated to return to studying. Go for a walk or a run, eat energising and healthy snacks and practise mindfulness. If you can’t defeat the enemy….then at least weaken it and take solace in the fact that so many people share the same daily battle.  

Disclaimer: these methods are not fool-proof; in the process of writing this article, I deviated from the task no fewer than 7 times (......the irony, I know). The struggle is real.


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