This video is a must-see for everyone.
Tim Urban’s explanation of procrastination is pure genius.
I do not consider myself a procrastinator – at least, I do not admit to myself that the times I don’t do what I set out to do on a given day might be due to procrastination.
I do get heaps of things done. I get all the things done that there are deadlines for, and I have a bazillion of my own projects on the go. I am definitely not lazy. I work hard, every single day. There are legit reasons that sometimes other things get in the way, right?
But there are important things I don’t get done. For example, I have not yet achieved my goal of making a new Nerdy Swot post every week. Nerdy Swot is extremely important to me. It should be easy to whip up just one post per week, right?
Well, yeah. In a way. It’s easy for me in the same way that reading a chapter is for students with every intention of nailing a subject. It’s easy to do, and it’s super-important, but we need peace and quiet to pay proper attention, and to think it through so that we get it right. People are yelling at us to do other things. So we prioritize according to who shouts loudest, and that’s almost always a looming deadline set by others.
Sometimes, we do have the time to pay attention, but our brains are just tired. So instead of doing a thing that requires our cognitive best, we make use of the time by doing something that is a little easier on the brain. ‘Researching’ on the internet, kinda like Urban describes, or ‘just this one episode’ on Netflix which accidentally becomes two whole seasons.
For example, this morning I sat down with my first coffee, within minutes of waking, to write another few pages of my book. Not quite awake, I decided to make best use of the time by adding in references. Multi-functional efficiency: kick-starting my brain whilst also closing some of the fifty tabs left open in my browser. Yay.
Next thing I know, it’s mid-afternoon. I’ve made myself a 90-year life-calendar, just like Tim Urban’s (don’t even think about it!), whipped up two Nerdy Swot printables, spent two hours writing a post, started a new to-do list, gaped in shock as my PC crashed in front of my eyes, run an off-schedule anti-virus scan, freaked out about some auto-save conflicts before realising that no work was actually lost, and started writing this post. Consequently, I have added no references to my book and two extra tabs are open.
This doesn’t happen to me every day, but it does happen often enough that I’m scrabbling to catch up every weekend. It seems I am a procrastinator after all. A functional one, but a procrastinator nonetheless. That is news to me – a person who is supposed to be a highly disciplined, self-motivated, over-achiever. All these years, I have rationalized my unfinished projects as victims of interruption and over-supply of ideas. But truth is, it would seem, that I let it happen.
Students, in particular, rationalise procrastination as a normal student thing. It’s all over every student meme, right? Procrastination is hilarious, right?
So why all the guilt?
The guilt is because we tell ourselves that any time spent not focusing on the tasks we need to do means that we are lazy. Or undisciplined. Or even not cut out to be whatever it is we are aiming to be.
But consider this: The act of deliberately learning involves a high cognitive load. When we sit down to learn, we expect to learn everything in the materials (because who’s got time to read one chapter three times, right?). But did you ever wonder why the same material is repeated in chapters and lectures and activities and assignments? It’s because it’s not possible (without photographic memory) to learn every detail, of every thing, all at once. Human brains are not designed to be spent working at 100% cognitive capacity all the time. Adrenaline might kick us into high gear, but that comes with some serious side effects. None of us mere mortals are at our best all the time.
To make matters worse, learning is more than just remembering. Even for fact-based topics that require us to memorise dates or formulae, true learning requires making sense of those facts: What do they apply to, when they are they relevant, how they can be used, why there are limitations, what the implications are… Sorting all that out involves some serious thinking.
Let’s consider how we think about thinking. Who makes time in their schedule to think? Is it allocated space in your timetable? Probably not. But just sitting there, thinking about how all the new things you’ve learned fit together in the greater scheme of things is not goofing off.
If we don’t take time to reflect on all the information floating around in our heads, it stays floating around for a little while, and then just disappears. Our brains throw out what it doesn’t know how to file. This is why last-minute cramming for mid-term tests might be successful in the short-term (if you can pull the right idea out of the floating mass), but if you don’t sort out that mass, you forget everything by the end-of-semester exam.
What’s worse, is that if we are worried we won’t remember what we’ve tried to memorize, we get stressed. Stress is exhausting, and it reduces capacity to think properly. A boost of adrenaline might be handy on occasion, but it’s a dangerous long-term strategy.
So we can use the panic monster to pull off an occasional all-nighter to get a job done on occasion, but it’s not likely to be our best work. And we can’t do it all the time. Studying for a degree is a long-term goal, employment is a long-term endeavour, and if we want to make best use of life, we sure don’t want to burn out early.
What we can do is make best use of the times when we are in good form, and also increase the probability of being in good form more often. We can schedule time to think, and give ourselves permission to rest and restore every evening so that tomorrow we will be in top form again, ready to give it our healthy best.
PS: You can have my copy of the 90-year life calendar like Tim Urban’s. Here it is, but it comes with a caveat: You are only allowed to play with it during the non-study hours allocated in your weekly schedule 😉
If you don’t yet have a schedule that works for you, you can get started with this printable Word template. Unless you are currently doing an all-nighter for an assignment due tomorrow, I recommend filling out the timetable right now. Use it in connection with an assessment planner so you can know your next all-nighter topic in advance (LOL):
And if you already have a great time management system, a priority system, or some other method of keeping on top of your studies, please let us know about it in the Comments. How did you figure it out? Does it work well for you?
How do you feel about procrastination?