Procrastinating on Studying? 5 Ready Tips To Overcome Procrastination [Student Edition!]

This is a guest post by Daniel Wong of Living Large.

Tapping a pencil

How would you answer this question:

“When are you going to do your Social Studies assignment that’s due next week?”

I’m pretty sure your answer isn’t “right now.” It’s more likely that your answer is “maybe tomorrow.”

Why complete the assignment today when it’s only due next week, right?

At some level, though, you know it’s a bad idea to procrastinate. When you wait until your assignments, papers and projects become urgent, that’s when life becomes stressful.

You sleep less.

You eat junk food.

Your friends think you’ve gone MIA.

You become anxious.

The list goes on.

A few years ago, I had this powerful realization: Stress is a fact of life, but it should never become a way of life.

Yes, it’s inevitable that—on occasion—you’ll have to work extra hard and sacrifice sleep. But if this happens frequently and becomes a way of life, it’s a sure sign that you need to change your habits.

Are you a Quadrant 2 person?

The principle that lies at the foundation of overcoming procrastination is something I learned from Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: As far as possible, keep everything important but not urgent.

Allow me to explain. There are four quadrants of tasks (as per the Time Management Matrix, which you can read more in Put First Things First):

  • Quadrant 1: Important and urgent (e.g. last-minute assignments and projects)
  • Quadrant 2: Important but not urgent (e.g. spending time with your family or exercising)
  • Quadrant 3: Not important but urgent (e.g. some phone calls and text messages)
  • Quadrant 4: Not important and not urgent (e.g. watching YouTube videos or going on Facebook)

If you want to be an effective student, your goal should be to spend at least 80% of your time on Quadrant 2 tasks; ideally 100%.

Why we struggle to complete important tasks

It takes willpower and discipline to focus primarily on Quadrant 2 tasks, because the consequences of not doing those tasks aren’t immediate.

For example, if you don’t exercise today, it’s not as if you’re going to die tomorrow. But if you don’t exercise for the next six months, your health will suffer.

Similarly, if you don’t spend time with your family this weekend, it’s not the end of the world. If you continually prioritize other things over family time, however, you’ll eventually realize that your family relationships aren’t as strong as you’d like.

Therein lies the struggle of focusing on important tasks instead of urgent ones: Nothing catastrophic will happen immediately if you don’t complete a Quadrant 2 task.

But if you keep putting off a Quadrant 2 task, such as working on a homework assignment or group project, you’ll regret it later when you get stressed and when you don’t get as good a grade as you’d hoped.

I’ve come up with five surefire ways for you to become a Quadrant 2 student who’s able to fight off procrastination. Here they are:

1. Set the timer for five minutes at the beginning of your study session.

If you’re like most people, the hardest thing about getting through a study session is simply getting started.

If you tell yourself that you’re going to study for the next 30 minutes or one hour, you might feel unmotivated. 30 minutes or one hour seems so long!

The solution is to set a countdown timer for five minutes—and get to work. You can tell yourself that you’re going to study for just five minutes, and that if you don’t feel like continuing beyond those five minutes, you can choose not to.

In all likelihood, when those five minutes are up, you’ll probably want to carry on, because you would have gotten into the flow of the study session.

2. Make an “event” out of an assignment.

Say that you need to write a six-page history paper. That sounds like a lot of work, right?

Instead of procrastinating and waiting for sudden inspiration (which almost never comes), I suggest that you make an “event” out of that history paper.

For example, you could make a special trip to a coffee joint with the sole purpose of writing the paper. Don’t leave the coffee joint until you’re done writing the draft.

Make sure that you celebrate the completion of the assignment. You could watch an episode of your favorite TV show, or chill out with your friends. Your “event” went well, so reward yourself.

3. Make an appointment with yourself.

When you need to attend an important family event or social gathering, do you make a note of it in your calendar? You probably do.

Are your study sessions important to you? I’m guessing they are. (Or, at least, it’s important to you that you do well in school, even if you don’t particularly enjoy studying.)

When an appointment is “officially” scheduled in your calendar, it’s more likely that you’ll respect the appointment and not let other events take its place.

For example, if you want to work on your math homework for an hour on Wednesday, don’t just tell yourself, “I’m going to finish my math homework on Wednesday.” Instead, make an appointment with yourself (it doesn’t matter whether you use Google calendar or any other kind of calendar system):

Wednesday, 3 to 4pm: Finish math homework

If, all of a sudden, your friends ask you to watch a movie with them at 3:30pm on Wednesday, you’ll be able to say, “I’m sorry, I have an appointment at that time.”

And it’s completely true: You do have an important appointment with yourself from 3 to 4pm.

(Of course, there’s always room to be flexible with your schedule if it’s possible to move your appointments around.)

When you get into the habit of making appointments with yourself, you’ll spend more time on Quadrant 2 tasks.

4. Turn every item on your to-do list into an appointment.

This is an extension of Tip #3. I recommend that you keep a to-do list that encompasses all areas of your life. This includes your group projects, homework assignments, errands you need to run, and other responsibilities.

Write down all of these tasks in a notebook (or in a note-taking app on your phone, if you prefer).

Your list might look something like this:

3rd May (Friday)

  • Write outline for English essay (by 17th May)
  • Buy birthday card for Jessie (by 19th May)
  • Write thank-you note to Mark (by 8th May)
  • Finish science homework (by 9th May)
  • Do research for history paper (by 8th May)

Once a day, turn each of those tasks into an appointment in your calendar. I recommend doing this right when you get home from school.

Schedule each appointment at least a few days before the task is due for completion. This way, you’ll ensure that it’s a Quadrant 2 task.

Based on the tasks listed above, here’s what they might look like in your calendar after you’ve converted them into appointments:

  • 8th May, 2 – 3pm: Write outline for English essay
  • 12th May, 1pm (right after lunch): Buy birthday card for Jessie
  • 3rd May, 4 – 4.15pm: Write thank-you note to Mark
  • 4th May, 4 – 5pm: Finish science homework
  • 3rd May, 4:30 – 5:30pm: Do research for history paper

Notice how the appointments are scheduled well in advance of their due dates.

Once the tasks have all been “transferred” to your calendar, you don’t need to refer to your to-do list any more until the next day, unless you suddenly think of more tasks to be added to the list.

In summary, you’ll write down every task you need to complete on your to-do list. Once a day, you’ll convert those tasks into appointments in your calendar. You’ll then periodically refer to your calendar to see exactly what you should be working on at each time during the day.

This system will only take you a few minutes a day to use, but it’s guaranteed to make your life much more organized and productive.

5. On a sheet of paper, write down what you’re supposed to be working on at the moment.

Ever had the experience of starting a study session, only to find yourself—just 10 minutes later—derailed by a funny video or a series of text messages? We all have.

One technique you can use is to write down, on a large sheet of paper, the task you’re currently working on. (An A4 or US letter size sheet of paper would work fine; use big, bold handwriting.)

For instance, if you’re about to start work on your physics assignment, write “PHYSICS ASSIGNMENT” on a sheet of paper and put it on your study table in a prominent location. This piece of paper will serve as a constant reminder to you to stay focused on the work at hand.

I’ve tried this out for myself, and it works!

If you’re concerned about being kind to the environment by not wasting paper, you could write in pencil so that you can reuse the same piece of paper multiple times.

This simple tip will help you to fight off distractions and procrastination by reminding you to stay on task.

What you want now vs. what you want most

To be an effective student (and an effective worker too), we need to be clear about what we want now, and what we want most.

What we want now is to go on Facebook and YouTube, to watch TV, or to play video games.

What we want most is to become disciplined and motivated, to learn and to grow, and to pursue excellence.

Let’s not allow what we want now to prevent us from getting what we want most.

In closing, procrastination is a lifelong battle for all of us. But by using these five techniques, I trust that we’ll be fighting a winning battle. :)

Be sure to read How To Overcome Procrastination (6-part series), where you learn how to tackle procrastination permanently by identifying and addressing its root cause(s).

Also, check out these related posts on time management on PE:

Image: Rennett Stowe

About the Author: Daniel Wong is the bestselling author of "The Happy Student: 5 Steps to Academic Fulfillment and Success". He blogs regularly on topics related to education and career at www.Daniel-Wong.com. Download his popular FREE ebook, "The Unhappiness Manifesto: Don’t Do These 150 Things If You Want To Be Happy".

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  • http://www.liveliberated.blogspot.com Aaron Corder

    Thank you for these tips. I, for one, will make great use of them. I have always been a horrible procrastinator and it really has negatively affected the outcome of many situations in my life. Thanks again.

    • http://www.daniel-wong.com Daniel

      You’re welcome, Aaron. Glad you found the article helpful!

  • http://hackmyheart.com Alexa

    I really like the tips of making your to-do list into appointments. While for me personally that’s not enough to get me to sit and actually do it (I just start thinking, “Well I don’t -have- to do that since I’ve still got time…”), I think it’s important to get an idea of when you should begin working on different assignments.

    One thing that has worked for me is breaking down big tasks (like a 12-15 page research paper) into baby-steps, such as “Determine topic,” “Decide which class texts are relevant,” “Brainstorm sections/what will be discussed,” “Find sources,” “Create citations,” etc. This way instead of looking at the task as a huge 12-15 page paper, you can easily see what needs to be done and say, “Hey, doing this one step isn’t so bad.” And slowly, the paper gets written, but since you’re taking time with each step, it’ll come out really well!

    I’m also a fan of the Pomodoro-style work session, where you work for a set length of time and take a break for a set length of time (I believe the default is 25 minutes of work, then 5 minutes of break, but honestly I’m not that strict with it and probably do something closer to 25/10). This way, you know a break from your work is always coming, but if you’re still in the flow obviously you can keep going if you want!

    Last, if I’m having a really hard time getting myself to actually get to work, I’ll start tracking what I’m doing. So say about every hour or so I’ll actually write out a list of what I did that past hour. If all I did was surf Reddit and Facebook, for example, that is sadly prominent on my list. But if I’ve begun doing work, I”ll have a great motivator seeing what I’ve done so far!

    Also, because I’m a bit of a gamer, I’ve used HabitRPG.com to help motivate me to get tasks done. I use it to keep track of the habits I’m trying to keep, and the baby-steps of all the tasks I want to do. This way I have a nice list of things I want to accomplish, and get that level-up feel that makes games so much fun! Except with this, I’m leveling up myself. =)

    Hope you don’t mind me sharing some things that have worked for me! Thanks again for writing the article. ^^

    • http://www.daniel-wong.com Daniel

      Thank you so much for all those valuable tips, Alexa. Readers will definitely benefit from those.

      This is the first time I’ve heard of HabitRPG and I think it’s a wonderful idea. I’m going to recommend this to other people!

    • JadePenguin

      A habit RPG! Nowayyyyyyy! I’ll have to try that; I love RPGs xD

      • http://www.daniel-wong.com Daniel Wong

        Yes, you really do need to try out that game!

    • vimal

      Just like Wong am also hearing about this Habitrpg for the first time . Its a really cool idea :) thank u so much for sharing it :) and of course special thanks to u Wong for this great post :) found it very useful :)

  • http://www.CoachingWithChristina.com Christina

    These are really great tips–thank you so much for sharing! :)

    ~Christina

    • http://www.daniel-wong.com Daniel

      You’re welcome, Christina :)

  • http://www.vindecator.com razvan

    a few weeks until exams… a needed that. Thank you

    • http://www.daniel-wong.com Daniel

      All the best for your exams, razvan!

  • subhiksha

    Hi celes,
    This is Subhiksha from India. Can you tell me more about concentrating in studies. I’m a weak student and i don’t no how to score high grades like others. I need your guidance regarding my issue.

    • http://www.daniel-wong.com Daniel

      Hi Subhiksha,

      I’m not sure if you meant to direct that comment to me (Daniel Wong, the author of the article)? If you did, feel free to contact me (my contact info is here: http://www.daniel-wong.com/contact/) and I’ll be happy to discuss more with you about how I might be able to help you.

      Daniel

    • http://personalexcellence.co Celes

      Hey subhiksha, you should check out the dean’s list series I wrote a while back if you haven’t. It has a complete list of my personal best tips and principles to be a top scorer in school.

      Feel free to contact Daniel as well to see if you guys can work out a possible solution for your problem, whether through direct coaching or otherwise.

  • http://www.selfstairway.com Vincent Nguyen

    Daniel, this is brilliant. A lot of times, I’m very good at getting started and following through with my deadlines. Of course, there are also times where I struggle to find the motivation. Your article couldn’t be more timely because it just so happens that I’m feeling unmotivated today and I have a large final paper due next week!

    I’ll be trying out your ideas, especially the appointment method. :)

    • http://www.daniel-wong.com Daniel

      I’m glad to hear that you’ll be trying out the tip on making an appointment with yourself. Good luck writing that paper, Vincent :)

  • Bryan

    Very nice stuff. I liked the five minute tip and the Big Letter tip. I think I can incorporate that into my habits. This also looks like something I can incorporate to other parts of my life, something I think makes your article very applicable. I already started thinking of how I can use some of the tips in my life and i’m getting a bit excited about it. Great stuff ;)

    • http://www.daniel-wong.com Daniel

      I appreciate your kind words, Bryan. I hope that you see great results from implementing the tips!

  • http://www.drjitesharora.com Dr Jitesh Arora

    Hi Daniel, the article was helpful. I agree with others readers on the fact that starting the task is the most important step we can take. One should ignore all the urges to procrastinate and start with the task at hand.

    • http://www.daniel-wong.com Daniel

      Hi Dr Jitesh, getting started is definitely the hardest part. Thanks for sharing your insights.

  • JadePenguin

    Haha, I love the 5 minute trick. I’ve hear something similar before: telling yourself that you’re only gonna do a little and not the whole task. The example given was going jogging in the morning: you tell yourself “I’m only going to sit up in bed but not go jogging”, then “I’m only going to get out of bed but not go jogging” and then you end up jogging anyway :P

    Work is actually not that bad once you get in the flow. It’s hard to get started because everyone hates being told what to do. Not all work benefits you much, so you may feel “why bother if it’s not directly related to my goals?”

    Writing this as I finished my last essay for this year and it’s 3AM, so don’t listen to me :P

    That said, I don’t procrastinate on things I’m passionate about and my grades are decent, so all’s good :)

    • http://www.daniel-wong.com Daniel Wong

      Those are definitely helpful things you’ve shared. I hope your final essay went well! :)

  • arshee krishnan

    hi Daniel
    lately my studies have been failing and I’m lagging behind. these are really good tips on how to organise your work schedule and still have fun. I will surely use your tips.
    arshee :)

    • http://www.daniel-wong.com Daniel Wong

      I’m happy that these tips are helpful to you, Arshee. All the best with your studies– I’m confident that you’ll continue to improve!

  • http://www.aboutsymptomsblog.com/ Elle

    Hi Daniel,

    There were some really great tips in this blog post! I wish I read some of these years ago!

    I used to be a big procrastinator myself, but I started to break down exactly what I needed to do day-by-day so the task wouldn’t seem so big (similar to #4).

    If I had 10 chapters to study for an exam, I’d write down a schedule like:
    - Study chapters 1-2 (April 26th)
    - Study chapters 3-4 (April 27th) and etc.

    I would set reminders on my phone, which was really helpful as well!

    • http://www.daniel-wong.com Daniel Wong

      Great tips– thanks for sharing, Elle!

  • Bonny Cheang

    I will be using these tips for a period of time:-) i hope time will finally be under my control because the time for me to sit for my o levels is arriving. Thank you so much for the tips! These articles should definitely be compiled into a student’s survival guide :-)