None of us are immune to procrastination. It sneaks up on us all, some worse than others. And although it may feel good to push things off at the time, procrastinating can have dire consequences, especially for premeds and medical students.
Let’s go over the science behind why we all procrastinate and what actionable steps you can take to overcome it.
Build Motivation to Avoid Procrastination
Piers Steel describes an equation useful in understanding procrastination. He argues that:
Motivation = (Expectancy * Value) / (Impulsiveness * Delay)
Motivation is the willingness to do work; essentially, the opposite of procrastination.
Expectancy refers to how much you expect to succeed at doing the task, thereby getting the anticipated reward. The more you expect success, the less likely you are to procrastinate.
Value refers to how much you enjoy doing a task and how much you will enjoy the reward. The more value you derive from the task or reward, the more likely you are to get straight to work.
Impulsiveness refers to your tendency to get distracted by other things. High impulsivity lures you to Instagram or Facebook instead of the work at hand.
Delay refers to the time it takes to receive the anticipated reward. The longer the delay, the more likely you are to procrastinate, as you perceive the payoff is a long way away.
The goal is to maximize expectancy and value, as they are directly proportional to motivation. Meanwhile, you want to minimize impulsiveness and delay, as they are inversely proportional to motivation.
Now that we have a framework of what comprises motivation, let’s go over actionable steps for how to use this equation to our advantage and overcome procrastination.
1 | Break Down the Steps
Break down any task, whether it’s studying for an exam or completing a project, into smaller steps. Doing so will increase expectancy in our procrastination equation, as smaller tasks seem much easier to accomplish than large projects.
While everyone has a different sweet spot, I find being hyper-specific with timelines very helpful. For example, if I need to study for an exam next week and I have several lectures and practice problems to go through, I will take a few minutes to think about which lectures and practice problems I should complete each day. I then put everything into Things3 (my to-do app of choice at the time). You can view an example of a highly-structured daily and weekly timeline I created on Excel in my Step 1 Study Schedule video.
This high level of structure works for me and my personality, but it definitely does not work for everyone. Experiment and figure out what works best for you.
2 | Keep the Tasks Small
The hardest part of getting work done is starting. One of my favorite study hacks to remedy this is the Pomodoro Technique, a structured method of timed studying. In short, you work in 25 minute blocks, each separated by a 5 minute break. During each block, you focus on a single task.
This technique revolutionized my study habits. You may be thinking, how does that strategy help you get started on work? Going back to our equation, this method increases expectancy.
When I sit down to study and tell myself I need to study for five hours, I get distracted quite quickly. When I instead tell myself I only need to study for 25 minutes, the task becomes far less daunting. It becomes much easier to not only get started but also to stay focused for the duration of the work period.
3 | Set the Bar Low
This is yet another trick to increase the expectancy in our equation. Make the goal less than what you are actually capable of.
I have used this recently for my own meditation practice. When I originally set out to meditate 20 minutes every day, I only got around to it a couple of times per week. It felt like I never had the time to actually sit down and do it.
Instead, I lowered my expectations by aiming to meditate for just two minutes every day. By lowering the bar, I found myself meditating most days. Surprisingly, even though I set the goal at two minutes, I almost always exceeded it once I got started.
4 | Create Enjoyment From the Experience of Studying
Do you ever feel like your work is boring? Do you struggle to understand what you want, or do you have unclear priorities? What if you don’t actually support the immediate outcomes of the task? These examples all point to low value.
Going back to our equation, increasing value will help us overcome procrastination. So how do we increase value?
One method is to give yourself a reward for completing a task. For example, you can reward yourself with a healthy and tasty meal or hanging out with friends after—and only after—you finish your chemistry homework. If you need help with self-discipline, check out our self-discipline article for high-yield tips.
Alternatively, improve the experience of the work itself. As you progress in your medical education, the work gets more and more focused on material you actually enjoy. However, at the beginning, you may have to grind through subjects you do not find as stimulating.
To improve the experience of studying, consider mixing up your study environments or listening to great study music. If you want a taste of my own personal study music, check out the Med School Insiders newsletter, where I share one of my favorite study songs each week.
5 | Use Parkinson’s Law to Your Advantage
The idea that you can complete your task at a later time can crush even the most productive individuals. Enter Parkinson’s Law.
Parkinson’s law states that work expands to fill the time allotted to it. In other words, if you have only 30 minutes of work to do but allot two hours to do it, you’ll end up spending the entire two hours on it.
I use this technique frequently by creating artificial deadlines that force me to get work done more efficiently. These artificial deadlines decrease delay from our motivation equation, thus decreasing the likelihood of procrastination. The trick is to not be too aggressive with your timelines, as this can lead to unnecessary stress. With time, you’ll get more accurate at gauging how long a task will take and what your optimal threshold for productivity is.
Use this to your advantage by creating deadlines for each of your subtasks that you created from tip #1 above.
6 | Be Deliberate With Your Study Environment
We can all agree that distractions are one of the biggest productivity killers. Avoiding distractions through sheer willpower is unlikely to be fruitful in the long-term. Rather, approach it prophylactically by crafting a work environment that minimizes distractions. In doing so, you decrease impulsivity from the motivation equation.
For me, this translates to placing my phone on airplane mode, putting my Mac on do not disturb mode, and going full screen with the work at hand. If working at home distracts you, then opt for a library or coffee shop.
Above all, make sure you minimize your digital distractions. I have found that any other type of distraction pales in comparison to the focus-killing nature of notifications from your phone, smartwatch, or computer.
7 | Understand Your Tendencies and Personality Type
The issue with advice, in general, is that one suggestion can work wonders for one person but not for another. Of the previous six tips, I am doubtful that any of them will fail you, but I am confident that some will work better than others.
A big part of optimizing your own life—whether productivity, study habits, diet, exercise, or anything else—is understanding yourself. One of the tips that did not make this list is accountability. That is because it is highly effective for some people but significantly less so for others.
I go over how you can determine your personality type, as well as specific strategies for each personality type (such as accountability) in my Four Tendencies video.
The Extra Push You May Need
I’d love to hear from you on what other tools, tricks, or hacks you use to overcome procrastination. Have you found loss aversion useful for you? How about accountability groups?
Share what has worked for you with the rest of us in the comments below. Let’s make it a team effort to combat procrastination.
If you need that extra push, Med School Insiders has you covered with guidance and coaching on efficient study methods or one-on-one help with material. Our team of doctors and top performers will work with you to maximize your potential!