This is a guest post by Daniel Wong of Living Large.
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 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:
- Become the Master of Your Time
- Put First Things First
- The 8 Habits of Highly Productive People
- The Best Productivity System There Is
- Day 8: Evaluate Your To-Do List in Live a Better Life in 30 Days Program
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”.