How is doing research for a paper like procrastinating? Both existed before the internet, but now you can do them both so much faster.
Imagine you’re a college student trying to put off working on your finals in 1992. All your on-hand entertainment is restricted to physical media. Your CD of Nirvana’s Nevermind. Your VHS copy of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Your Super Nintendo with Super Mario World. Fast forward 21 years and you can stream thousands of songs instantly through Spotify, watch hundreds of movies instantly on Netflix, and buy hundreds of games instantly through iOS or Steam. It’s a procrastinator’s dream come true and greatest nightmare.
If you can watch a movie instantly instead of putting on your coat, driving to Blockbuster, finding a movie, and coming home, that means you should be able to spend less time on your movie break, right? Even if you know that’s technically true, it’s hard to force your brain to accept that logic.
Our brains will always seek out the path of least resistance, which leaves students with two options: (1) drag your brain kicking and screaming into forced productivity or (2) trick your brain into thinking it’s not working on that thing you don’t want to do. Here are a few ways to pull off option #2.
Approach your work from a new direction
Let’s say you’re working on a paper. You’ve been sitting in front of your monitor for the past two hours and all you’ve managed to do is type, delete, and retype the first sentence about 100 times. Stop what you’re doing. If you know you’re not getting anywhere, there’s no point in doing the same thing over and over again.
Instead, ask yourself new questions: How will the first paragraph after the intro begin? How do I want my paper to end? What citations am I going to use? How do you format an online article in APA style again? Don’t worry about whether or not what you write is final, just search for that point of entry. It’s always easier to work on a paper after you’ve started.
Change your surroundings
The ideas you have in your dorm room are not the same as the ideas you have in the library. When you start feeling stagnant, consider a change of scenery. This can be an effective way to slide from procrastination into increased productivity. Bring your laptop on your coffee break and set up a new work space in the cafe. Just make sure to commit at least an hour or two to the new setting, otherwise you’ll just get restless.
The video game industry has figured out that people crave feedback from the things they accomplish, however meaningless. Use the same trick on your own brain. Come up with a list of achievements for your paper. Write 500 words. Complete 5 pages. Finish the bibliography. You can do the same for studying. Memorize 50 Spanish verbs. List all the regions of the brain. Keep a checklist next to your work space and make a mark each time you “unlock” an achievement. It sounds silly, but you might be surprised at how quickly your brain is tricked into registering each achievement as a reward.
Give yourself more (yes, more) things to do
Taking finals is the academic equivalent of a marathon. You have to maintain a steady momentum if you want to make it til the end. That’s all the more reason not to burn yourself out focusing on a single, seemingly insurmountable task. Instead, make a list of around 6-10 things to do. You don’t want too few, because then it’ll be too easy to put them off. You don’t want too many, because then you’ll feel overwhelmed.
Your goal is to maintain the feeling of constantly moving forward. That’s essential to keeping your brain from rebelling. Even if one of those things is something as minor as cleaning your dorm or apartment or selling the textbooks you don’t need anymore, you’re still squeezing a little bit of productivity out of your procrastination.
Put one last thing on your list you’ll never get around to doing
I’ll admit it, this is kind of a weird one, but it’s always worked for me. Maybe there’s just some part of my lizard brain that is always happy with getting my things-to-do-list down to “good enough.”
Whenever I’m planning out the day, I always put more on then I’ll be able to do. That way, I always feel like I’m slightly behind, which, strangely enough, always helps me stay on track. It’s a way of preserving momentum from one day into the next. I’m never completely finished, but I’m always completing tasks as a way of putting off other upcoming ones.