November 5, 2019

Just Do It ... Later? How to Beat Procrastination

We really do love to put the 'pro' in 'procrastination', and our future selves certainly do not thank us for it.

Just Do It ... Later? How to Beat Procrastination

"I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by." Douglas Adams

Once upon a time, there was a girl who had to write a 500 word report for one of her classes at university. She had a couple of weeks to finish it, so she wasn't too bothered about it at the moment - she had better things to do, like watch the latest season of Black Mirror.

'No biggie' she thought to herself. 'This'll be EZPZ'

So this girl, being the smart and sensible human she was, waited until the last week to make a start on it. And then promptly freaked out.

Because, rumour had it, the assignment was supposed to be (gasp) 2,000 words. Not 500!

So, two days before it was due, the girl decided (albeit through almost-teary eyes and gritted teeth) that enough was enough. She set everything else aside to try and maintain pure concentration on her report. Door? Locked. Phone? On vibrate. Chair? Uncomfortable. At that point, nothing else existed besides the bright blue light of her laptop.

Alas, the first couple of hours went by like treacle on a cold day, with her only managing about 600 words by night. The temptation of Black Mirror proved too strong to resist. She gained an (un)healthy paranoia about technology, her guitar skills improved loads, and that spot on the wall suddenly looked very interesting - but this was not what she had been planning. It was only when the imminence of a deadline and possibility of failing the course registered in her mind had she reached her breaking point. And so, on the last day, she managed to complete the remaining 1,400 words. And submit it at 11.58pm.


As you may have picked up, that girl was me.

So what did I learn from this? I learned a couple of things. One, that writing a 2,000 word report in two days is totally doable. And two, that my procrastination was really stressing me out.

I needed to change. Stat.

That's why I'm here to share a couple of tricks for overcoming procrastination. And trust me when I say they will make your life SOOO much easier.


The Pomodoro Hack 🍅

Time moves on

All hail the Pomodoro technique, which has been drilled into my brain by literally every person who I've complained about procrastination to. This technique is based on research (yes, science) which shows that a 'pomodoro', i.e. a 25 minute intensive session followed by a 5 minute break is the optimum regimen for increasing focus and getting stuff done. After 4 'pomodoros', you can even take a longer 15-20 minute break.

This method is tried and tested by many, including myself, and will help you to power through work and focus your attention on the task at hand.

But why does this work? Well, for starters it encourages you to work with time instead of against it. It instills a sense of urgency, because you know that you only have 25 minutes to get as much done as possible. Also, our brains naturally go through peaks and troughs in concentration when we focus (like how we zone off 20 minutes into lectures) so by mimicking this work-break cycle it can help keep our attention spans on track.

Eating beforehand 🍴

Food styling by Rhubarb & Beans.

Fuelling your body will fuel your brain! I know for a lot of us it can get quite tricky to make something that is both healthy AND will leave you feeling full enough so that you won't need to get up for a snack all the time.

Something like oatmeal will help you release energy slowly. If that's not your style, try incorporating eggs into a meal; they’re really versatile and inexpensive and packed with all you need to stay satisfied and energised. Nuts and fruits or trail mixes are also very good snack options especially if you don't want the hassle of actually making food!

But with whatever you eat, make sure that you do not have any caffeine. Yes, that includes you, coffee lovers! While it can give you that initial sharp high and kick-start your concentration, caffeine is pretty much the complete opposite of slow-release energy, and you'll find out very quickly that it will not keep you focused for as long as you would like. At least, not when you're drinking like 10 cans of Monster and needing to go to the toilet every 5 minutes as well.

The Powers of Psychology 🧠

Many of you will have heard at one time or another about Pavlov's dog experiment. Every time before feeding dogs, he rang a bell. The dogs eventually learned that bell = food, so when it rang again they automatically started salivating even before the food was brought out! This is an example of classical conditioning.

Similarly, operant conditioning is when an individual changes their behaviour according to the consequences of that behaviour. It occurs through reinforcements and punishments. So as an example, I received a positive reinforcement (a fairly good grade), when I procrastinated on that 2000 word report.

'Huh, I guess I got a decent grade after all'

The net result was that I was rewarding myself positively for poor behaviour. And each time I procrastinated, I was strengthening this conditioning. The more I avoided, the more I wanted to avoid.

So what should you do? Instead, try to positively reinforce a high probability behaviour with low probability behaviour. In English, doing something you enjoy can make it easier to do something you don't. BUT only if you put the pleasant activity after the unpleasant one!

Remember how granny always said 'eat your veggies first, then you can have your dessert?' Yeah, that's pretty much what this principle is about. Pleasant activities are reinforcing, and when you put reinforcing activities after something, you get more of that something.


Chances are, that by reading this post about procrastination you are procrastinating yourself. But that's okay! Remind yourself every now and again that nobody's perfect. Even this guide may not cure your procrastination habits, but it should at least prevent any tears being shed in the library (been there, done that).

So take a deep breath, keep calm and as Nike famously says,

"JUST DO IT"