Have you ever experienced a day where you nailed all the items on your to-do list and you felt so accomplished and so proud? A day later, despite knowing how great it feels to knock out your work, you just can’t find yourself motivated to even get started. If that sounds like you, it’s completely normal, but also something you can easily overcome. Here’s how.
It’s important to understand that procrastinating is human nature, and those who achieve top results in college and medical school aren’t immune to procrastination. Instead, they simply know how to deal with it more effectively. Even in creating this video, I had to rely on two of these five techniques, otherwise, I would have pushed it off for later.
Why Do We Procrastinate?
There are countless theories and explanations as to why we procrastinate. What I’ve found that resonates the most with me and the students I tutor is some combination of the following:
- Something else is more enticing than the work at hand
- The task at hand seems intimidating, boring, or frustrating
- There isn’t enough time to make meaningful progress on your task
- You’re too tired to spend the energy on it
- You didn’t plan for it
Based on the source of the procrastination, the point of friction preventing you from getting your work done, we can attack the problem with one or more strategies. If you find it discouraging that overcoming procrastination takes so much effort and strategy, don’t be. Remember that forcing consistency and discipline with your intended behaviors will lead to them becoming habits, which are much easier to sustain.
1 | Something Else is Enticing
When the source of resistance is that something else is more enticing, you have one of two options: either make other things seem less appealing or make the work at hand become more appealing.
To make temptations less desirable, consider adding points of friction to make them less appealing. For example, if you’re anything like me, your phone is likely a big distraction. It surreptitiously robs you of productivity. In brief, micro-moments where you feel your work is challenging, it’s easy to grab your phone reflexively to release some tension. To make this less appealing, or at least less automatic, I have a few wireless chargers set up in rooms where I’m likely to be working. I put my phone on the wireless charger, and they’re strategically positioned to be out of sight and distanced away from where I’m working, meaning in order to pick up my phone it won’t be automatic, but rather intentional.
If your distraction is TV, increase friction by working in a space away from the TV or even remove the batteries from your TV remote. If it’s friends or your significant other, study in the library or someplace else where you cannot talk to them.
To make the work at hand more desirable, consider what environmental tweaks would make the process more fun. When I first got my iPad mini in medical school, I was so amazed by the retina display and was so eager to use the new gadget that I found myself powering through Anki cards like never before. After doing that enough times, it became a habit that stuck.
Other ways to make your work more enjoyable include listening to music, finding a study partner you mesh well with, or gamifying the task at hand. For example, you could reward yourself after completing each 25-minute study block, or Pomodoro, by eating a little bit of your favorite treat. Having a good study partner adds some level of accountability and social interaction that’s a net positive, so long as you two don’t distract one another.
2 | The Task is the Problem
If the task at hand is the problem because it seems intimidating, boring, or frustrating, the fix is to reframe your relationship to it. There are two main ways to do this.
First, deconstruct the task into smaller bite-sized chunks. When you run a marathon or cycle a century, you don’t set your goal from the start of running 26 miles or riding 100 miles. Instead, you focus on one mile at a time, one after another.
Similarly, rather than telling yourself that you need to study two chapters of biochemistry and get through 25 practice problems, focus on just a single section within one chapter. Like an enzyme reducing the activation energy of a reaction, this reduces the activation energy of you getting started, and we all know that’s the hardest part. Once the ball is rolling, it’s much easier to keep going beyond your initial goal of just 1 section.
Second, transform your goal from output-oriented to input-oriented. In other words, if the task is to get through 10 physics practice problems, reframe the goal to doing a single 25-minute work block, or Pomodoro. This not only makes the task seem more manageable, but also sets a discrete timeframe, rather than the nebulous amount of time it takes for 10 physics practice problems, which is highly variable on how difficult or complex each question is.
3 | Not Enough Time
If you feel like you don’t have enough time, you simply need to rethink your relationship to being crunched on time.
Parkinson’s Law states that work expands to fill the time allotted to it, meaning the more time you set aside to complete a task, the more time that task will actually take. I found myself paradoxically more productive when I had busier days packed with commitments. The reason is that when you’re short on time, you will force yourself to complete the task in less time than you initially anticipated. The key is to find the right balance. If you’re too aggressive, you’ll find yourself feeling overwhelmed, but if you’re too lax, you’ll be leaving efficiency potential on the table.
Don’t forget that most tasks lend themselves well to partial completion. You don’t always need to complete an entire task in one sitting. In fact, one of my friends in college told me he didn’t like studying for just 30 or 60 minutes since he felt like he couldn’t get in the zone. I felt differently, that having an intense burst for 30 or 60 minutes allowed me to intensely focus and immerse myself without distraction, knowing the work was time constrained into a short period and I didn’t have to worry about mental endurance.
4 | Too Tired
Being too tired is one that I can relate to the most, and for that reason one that I’ve had plenty of time to experiment with. A couple of things have helped me overcome fatigue to squeeze out the last couple hours of meaningful work before calling it a day without guilt.
First, I find if I’m in a relaxed posture, such as sitting in a comfortable chair, on the couch, or in my bed, I’m much more likely to fade into a relaxed state with zero intention of getting anything done. Rather, working at my standing desk or even sitting on countertop stools without backrests at my kitchen island keep me alert. Remember, our body posture influences our mind, and vice versa.
Second, I consider whether or not a nap would be a good idea. If it’s before 2 PM and I have been short on sleep, I’ll do a power nap of 13 minutes, which is what I found is the best duration for me. Any shorter and I don’t feel refreshed, and any longer and I’m likely to feel groggy. I’ve spoken about how to get the most out of naps in another video, which you should watch after this.
And third, the act of physically moving is a highly reliable way to get me back into gear. If I haven’t exercised, this may be the time to get a workout in. But I tend to get my workout in by early afternoon these days. So in most instances, this translates to moving around my apartment and tidying up, doing chores I need to get done anyway. That can be laundry, the dishes, cleaning, or something else physically productive that isn’t mentally taxing. And if even that seems like too much to handle, just tell yourself to do it for 5 minutes and that you can stop after that. More often than not, you’ll find it easy to keep going.
After getting the physical kickstart, my energy is restored and I’m able to get to work.
5 | Consistency
And finally, perhaps you didn’t plan for the task, and it escaped you in the busyness of the day. Time-blocking your days and using your calendar as designed is the most powerful tool I’ve come across in overcoming this.
Once I added my daily workouts to my calendar and planned meetings before and after, I found my consistency and performance during those workouts improved. By creating the routine, I no longer had to wonder when I was going to exercise, only for it to get too late and have to push it back to tomorrow.
If you make it a routine to study every afternoon from 3 to 6, that consistency will reduce the activation energy of getting started, and you’ll find it easier to overcome your procrastination.
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