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5 Ways to Procrastinate More Efficiently During Finals

Credit as always to Bill Watterson.

Credit as always to Bill Watterson.

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.

Unlock achievements

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.

How Not to Design Your College Schedule

There’s an art to designing the perfect college schedule. It’s a delicate balance between leaving time for your responsibilities while leaving ample time for a total lack of responsibility. It’s a way of spacing things out enough that you don’t overburden yourself, but keeping it tightly clustered enough that you can have long stretches of no work at all. Your perfect schedule is a set of fingerprints, totally unique to you. That being said, there’s a handful of horrible mistakes I made (or at least observed) when mapping out that elusive perfect schedule, so here’s a handful of caveats of things that might sound like a good idea, but really, really aren’t.

Don’t cluster your classes together (too much). Here’s something that at first seems like a bad idea, then seems like a counter-intuitive great idea. Stick with your first instinct. Some people will try to cram all of their classes into as few blocks as possible, but that’s just a one-way ticket to exhaustion. The more you cluster classes, the less downtime you’ll have to process information after the class ends.

Avoid classes at dinner time. My freshman year I took a number of 6:30 pm classes. Big mistake. While the idea of “Hey, I get to sleep in as late as I want” sounds pretty great at first, double check which hours you’re sacrificing in order to sleep more. Which hours would you rather have to yourself? 8-10 am — where everyone is either in class or still asleep — or 6:30 to 8 — when everyone’s either eating or socializing? You’ll just end up having a bunch of early-bird dinners by yourself.

If you must take a late night class, make sure it’s not art history. I took one night-time art history class and it was AWFUL. Why? Because once the class starts, the lights go off and the slide projector comes on. An hour and a half later they come back on, jarring half the class awake again. I wish I’d saved some of my notes from that class, since there was always a very clearly identifiable point where my notes stopped being recognizable as words.

8 a.m. classes aren’t as bad as they seem. (They’re worse.) I’m sure there are some very disciplined people out there who can handle these, but the average college student should stay far, far away. The problem isn’t waking up early. The problem is that college life leads to a lot of unexpected late nights, whether you’re partying or paper-writing. It’s better not to have that rub up against your classes. You woke up ridiculously early in the morning for high school. Once you start working, you’ll most likely start the day at 9 am.  Cherish the years when you can start your day at 10 or 11 am.

Don’t take Fridays off. One of the Holy Grails of college scheduling is the permanent three-day weekend. But it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. It’s too tough to be social on a Friday by yourself, since most of your friends will still be in class. It’s even tougher to be productive, since, no matter how you try to trick your brain, it’s still Friday. A better approach? Take Monday off. It’s trickier to pull off, but if you do, you’ll feel like you added an extra day to the week. The weekend raps up, every one gets back to work, but you still have a day to yourself to sleep in late and prep for the rest of week.

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