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How to beat procrastination at uni

Elliott DE

It’s so easy to get distracted these days. Fortunately, we’ve got experience overcoming it, find out how to beat procrastination at uni.

Procrastination. It’s a key issue that affects all students, graduate or post-graduate, and is the major source of complaints for everyone who is feeling the push when it comes to assignment due dates and upcoming exams. I have had various difficulties, at differing levels of severity, with the procrastination beast throughout all my university experiences. Indeed, one of the key issues I have when studying is staying on track and not getting distracted. Procrastination is my enemy, and the enemy of most students I know. There are various methods that have been presented as techniques to beat procrastination at uni, though I haven’t been particularly taken by any in the ‘mainstream’. After successfully completing three degrees (including law and medicine!), and currently completing my PhD, I hope that I have some good insight as to how you might beat procrastination in your own studies!

Break it down into manageable portions

One of the ways I’ve found of beating my procrasti-demons is breaking down my working time into more manageable portions. When you look at any single task you have (i.e. a 50% assignment), it often looks like a huge mountain to climb and it may take hours. Instead, I look at my time in smaller blocks, maybe even 20 or 30 mins at a time.

I might say to myself, ‘OK, you work for 15/20 mins, you get a 5min break to watch a YouTube video, go for a walk, or get a tea’. This short burst of activity can produce a high amount of work, with the prospect of a tangible reward in the very near future!

There is actually a mobile app that can help you with this – I don’t personally use it, but I have colleagues who swear by it - called ‘Productivity Challenge’. It’s entirely customisable – you choose how long your work sessions are, how long you want your short breaks to be, and how many productive sessions in a row earn you a longer break. You can have up to 4 projects to split your time between – useful to see how much time you’re spending on different subjects! You also get to ‘level up’ and gain achievements as you work – the number of hours you work and your consistency are tracked and you progress through ranks from ‘Unrepentant Slacker’ through ‘Demoralized Drone’ and right up to the top ranks!

Diverting discussions from what I do to beat procrastination, I will stay on the subject of technology and what my more advanced colleagues do! Another app, called ‘Habitica’, can help you set goals each day/week and so forth, and rewards you with points when you complete them! It was originally made to be a ‘role playing game’ for real-life… for all of you Diablo, World of Warcraft, and Dungeons & Dragons fans out there, this one is for you! Incidentally, you can also gamify other aspects of your life too! Check out ‘Zombies, Run!’ or the ‘Hogwarts Running Club’ for fitness, which has helped some of my friends!

Get started

Back to beating procrastination at uni. The main problem that most students face is actually starting – this massive weight you feel on your mind when you have several tasks due has a name – it is the Zeigarnik Effect. Your brain feels uncomfortable and continually pesters you with tasks that you need to start, and complete – to calm the Zeigarnik effect, it is best to write a to-do-list. Putting it on paper helps your brain deal with the incomplete tasks, and then will help you categorise and prioritise! Be strategic with your to-do-list – are you in a good headspace to learn a language, or would it be better to just sit down and do something simple like inputting data for your research job? Categorise, prioritise and strategise!

Now that you’ve got your to-do-list, break those big tasks down into little ones! Make the large, daunting jobs into small, discrete concrete tasks. Instead of looking at your 50% assignment and crying, break it into a few categories. For example:

  1. Reading the criteria sheet
  2. Choosing your subject title
  3. Collecting references for the assignment
  4. Reading through references and taking notes
  5. Write an introduction etc.

If that isn’t helping to motivate you, or you need an extra push, try to visualise why you are doing this. Is it just because your lecturer told you? Or is there another personal meaning? You might want to complete the assignment, so you can complete your degree and look after your family, or you might need the degree to move into a certain career. It is vital to try to find personal meaning in each task that you do!

Besides these discrete tips, there are some big picture things you should think about too:

  1. Firstly, working in the wrong environment can make you succumb to procrastination. This means that you need to avoid from television, electronics, friends, and loud places; anything that might distract you. I often need to ask my roommate or family member to literally take my phone from me!
  2. Secondly, it is so, so vital that you eat well and exercise regularly. Helping your body get good nutrients effectively around your body is key to beat procrastination.
  3. Thirdly, if you are purely studying and finding that you are never beating procrastination – the best thing I found for this was to do more. Get a casual job (or a few! I had 3-4 going through medical and law schools), get into a research project, make sure you see friends regularly, or do some community volunteering work. When you are short of time, that is when you are at your most productive.

At the end of the day, different things work for different people – nevertheless, I hope my reflections on how to beat procrastination at uni have provided you with some ideas to help you with your study and everyday responsibilities.

Elliot DE is a current PhD Candidate, Medical Doctor and Law Graduate. He is also a GAMSAT Humanities Tutor at GradReady GAMSAT Preparation Courses.