I struggle to stop procrastinating and stay focused when writing a paper. And based on the amount of extensions my students ask for, it seems most people find it hard to stay on task!
I find Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and the outdoors constantly dragging me away from my studies.
During my PhD I had to come up with ways to force myself to stay focused.
I needed to learn how to read boring information from journal articles and textbooks on a daily basis without going mad.
While there are a lot of articles floating around on the internet about how to stop procrastinating, there aren’t many that use science to show you how to stop procrastinating.
The good news is that there are some scientifically supported strategies that you can employ right now to stop procrastinating and say focused on your school work.
These are all strategies that helped me to complete my PhD at age 24, and still now all these years later ensure that I get all the university work I need done each and every day.
So, in this post, I go through how to stop procrastinating with nine scientifically backed key tips that have helped me stay on track throughout the years I’ve spent as a university student and teacher.
1. Create a Check List
A 2010 academic study found that students’ self-monitoring decreased procrastination time. In other words, if you check on your own progress regularly, you’re more likely to stop procrastinating.
A great way to self-monitor yourself is to create a check list. With a checklist, you can set small goals and monitor your progress by checking-off each task once it’s done.
Checklists, or what I tend to call ‘To-Do lists’ help me to focus my mind. I write a To-Do list at the start of every day to set myself goals for the day.
I started creating To-Do lists because I found they helped remind me to stay on task.
I also set myself little strategic goals such as getting half of the To-Do list done by lunch time. I feel this gives me the incentive to bounce out of bed and get going on productive tasks immediately.
It’s also pretty clear to most people that they’re most productive at the start of the day. This is when you’re freshest, your mind is sharpest, and you’re ready to get going on your work.
I also keep two To-Do lists: a long-termer one and a daily one:
- Daily lists contain all the tasks you know are the most urgent on your calendar. These are the tasks that you believe you can get done in one day and need to be completed urgently. If you’ve got a seminar coming up and you need to have read an assigned journal article within the next 5 days, reading that journal article should probably make it to that daily list.
Some days your lists will be longer than others. If you’ve got work or lots of classes on that day, you’ll need to make accommodations for that.
If you’re feeling extra motivated, you can even assign timeframes during the day to each activity. For example, in one semester when I was an undergraduate, I would always do one reading between my classes that finished at 11am and my class that started at 1pm. This way, I rarely had to take readings home with me and I knew exactly when and where I’d be ticking that task of my daily to-do list.
- Longer-term lists are ones that are usually big picture tasks that are on the horizon but not as urgent. I keep this list saved on the desktop of my computer and refer to it regularly. I usually try to incorporate one long-term task into my daily to-do list. This makes sure that those big tasks like an enormous essay or dissertation, or studying for a test, don’t get left to the last minute.
Try to make it a habit of incorporating your long-term tasks into your daily to-do lists whenever possible in order to prevent stress and backlog. As I’ve argued elsewhere, starting papers early and finishing them early is key to becoming a top student.
2. Break down tasks into Bite-Size Chunks
A great type of checklist you can create is one that breaks tasks down into small chunks.
The smaller the task, the more likely you are to complete it. It’s really that simple. If I have a task that I know will take a lot of time and effort I put it off constantly.
I’m always pushing it further and further down my list while completing the tasks that are the low-hanging fruit. I fold up the laundry instead of changing the oil in my car. I wash the dishes instead of going to the gym.
I think most people would agree that the easier task is often the one we choose to complete first.
A great hack for solving this issue is breaking down your mammoth task into bite-size chunks. Try to get the big task broken down into a series of smaller tasks that take between five and fifteen minutes.
Here’s a few strategies I use for different university-related tasks:
- If you’re struggling to write an essay, list your key points in the order in which you want to write them. Then, all you need to do is complete one key point at a time. If one key point is only one paragraph long, it’ll take you less than five minutes to write that key point. Then, you can give yourself permission to take some time off and walk away before starting the next key point.
- If you’re struggling with a reading, split it up into the sub-headings. Sub-headings and journal articles are usually spaced about 1500 words apart. That’s about 3 pages of reading – or around 5 minutes. If there’s no sub-headings, you can take the reading 3 pages at a time. If the reading has 20 pages, that means you’ve broken the task down into seven small, 5-minute activities.
Make sure you take notes on the important parts of the small section you’re focussing on so that next time you return to it, you’re able to quickly look over your key points and remember what the paper was last talking about.
- Finding quality sources is a big part of essay writing. Assign finding sources as a quick 10-minute task. Use Google Scholar and your university’s online library catalogue to find academic articles relevant to your topic. Aim to find 5 sources in 10 minutes by browsing through the abstracts and saving the most relevant ones to your computer.
One great thing I’ve found from breaking tasks down into bite-size chunks is that I get to the end of my 5 to 10 minute task and feel like I want to keep going.
All it took was that psychological trick of telling myself “you only need to focus for 10 minutes” to get my head in the game.
I can find that I end up spending far longer on the task and getting closer and closer to the finishing line in no time.
My biggest temptation is social media. My solution?
If you’re like me, you’re addicted to social media. Site blockers were a life saver for me.
Fortunately there’s so many free ones out there that this trick won’t cost you a cent.
All you need to do is download a site blocker extension to your web browser and set the sites you want blocked.
I usually block:
- YouTube, and
- The news apps that I habitually visit.
You can usually set a timer to block you from the site for a certain amount of time.
However, I just manually block the sites and then can go back into the software to unblock it whenever I want.
The point of this is not to force myself from staying away from the sites I visit the most. The point is that I find myself accidentally going to those sites while absentmindedly procrastinating.
When the warning pops up saying “You’ve Blocked this Site, Remember?”, it’s a reminder to myself that I was supposed to be studying and my mind has wandered!
Here’s some top free website blockers that you might want to have a go at:
- FocalFilter – Free for Windows Users
- WasteNoTime – Free for Chrome and Safari (Mac) Users
- LeechBlock – Free for Firefox Users
The one I personally use is BlockSite for Chrome.
4. Go to the Library
For this point, I’m going to stick with the Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology’s recommendation that procrastinators should remove distractions.
Another great way to remove distractions and decrease procrastination time is to study in the library.
In fact, the study I cite above study suggested this exact strategy.
The library is the most under-utilized resource in a university.
You know all those climbing, ridiculously high fees you’re paying for your degree? A huge chunk of those fees are going into the maintenance of that library you’re statistically likely to have never stepped foot into in your life.
Go to the library. Please go to the library. It’s your best friend. Really.
It’s harder to procrastinate when you’re at the library. You don’t have your dog and your bed and your kids and your housework right there, ready to distract you.
In the library it’s just you and your task.
I recommend that you find that one spot in the library that you can call your own. Find somewhere cozy and comfortable.
Ensure the lighting won’t make your eyes strain, that the seats are comfortable and that it’s far enough away from the assigned group work areas that you won’t be distracted by other people’s chatter.
If you’ve got a spot that you can call your own in the library you’ll be more likely to return to it regularly.
To prevent procrastination, assign yourself a time to go to the library as well as a time to leave. If you’ve got a deadline in which you want to squeeze in all of your work, you’re less likely to twiddle your thumbs, check your phone for updates or get distracted by friends inviting you outside to play hacky sack.
5. Get a Decent Desk Space
Working at a clean, dedicated, ergonomically designed desk space can help you stay on task for longer.
An ergonomic desk space includes:
- A lot of natural outdoor lighting;
- A comfortable temperature;
- Lack of clutter;
- The computer screen at eye level; and
- A supportive, height-adjustable chair
If you work at a desk space that is uncluttered and good for your posture, you’re less likely to procrastinate and more likely to get things done!
In fact, a study of the use of ergonomic chairs in an office workspace found that the benefits in terms of increased productivity outweighed the costs by 25 times in just one year.
In other words, you earn back the cost of your new, comfy chair in productivity.
You’ll get your tasks done faster and be able to get on with the rest of your life!
6. Use a Timer to Take Strategic Breaks
Strategic breaks can keep you fresh – and scientific research proves this, too.
I mark a lot of papers. In order to stay fresh and give every paper my full attention I set a timer to give me 45 minutes of marking time then 15 minutes to refresh my mind. You can apply this strategy to any task that you find difficult to concentrate on.
I find that a 3:1 ratio of work to rest is best for me. You might be able to do better – or not so well. Find a happy ratio for you which both forces you to work for longer than you otherwise would, but doesn’t seem like it is an unreasonable amount of time to focus.
It’s important that you don’t think about work during your breaks. I recommend keeping busy during the down time and using it to complete other non-study tasks that you know you’ve got to do.
Here’s some of the most common tasks I do in my rest time between studying:
- Walk the dog;
- Shovel the snow off my steps;
- Run errands around town; and
- Pay attention to family members
Notice that none of these tasks involve the computer or my phone. If you are at your computer during your down time you’ll come back to the task feeling like you never really had a break at all. You’ll feel nowhere near as fresh as you did before.
Everyone who has a smart phone has a timer handy – make use of it for measuring and growing your productivity.
I try to put everything else aside during this time. If a text message has come through, I ignore it until my timer runs out. If you can’t control yourself you might want to leave your phone in another room.
Have you ever heard of the pomodoro technique? It’s a technique similar to the one I mentioned above – using a timer to separate study breaks from work time.
Towards the end of the day when my concentration and patience is running thin, I’ll often change my ratio of work to break time up. In my last hour of work, I might set the timer for 20 minutes of work, 20 minutes off, 20 minutes of work, and then I’m done for the day.
It’s important to know that when you start realizing that you can’t concentrate for as long as you did at the start of the day, call it quits. You’ve run out of puff for the day.
If you’re procrastinating instead of writing your paper, it might be because you don’t really know anything else to write about.
I’ve had so many students tell me they can’t put words on paper because they don’t know what to say. This is one of the biggest precursors to procrastination.
You’re so much more likely to procrastinate if you’re just completely unsure about how to go about a task.
If you’re sitting there procrastinating away because you don’t know how to start your next paragraph then you need to do some more reading.
I usually tell my students who have reached a point where they have run out of points to discuss to read one of the assigned readings using my strategic steps for strategically reading a journal article and find three new key points to include in their paper.
Once you’ve done some reading and found three new points to add to the paper, you can get yourself back on track.
Turn each of those new points you’ve found into a detailed, 4 – 6 sentence paragraph that includes a topic sentence, explanation and example.
If you’re a student who is procrastinating because you don’t know what to write, you have to do more reading.
If you’re really at your wit’s end and even reading hasn’t helped you to complete the task, maybe you don’t understand what you need to do. In that case, contact your teacher to ask for help.
8. Create Incentives
Another study in the Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology found that procrastinators tend to value short-term rewards over long-term goals.
To manage this, you should give yourself short-term rewards as stepping stones towards achieving your longer-term goals.
As the study states:
“Procrastinators tend to choose short-term benefits over long-term gains.” (Rabin et al., 2010, p. 52)
Think about what you really want. What would you prefer to be doing right now? Use that thing you want as your end-of-day goal.
For me, I love watching my current favorite show on Netflix at the end of the day. Because I work from home, I could probably get away with watching it whenever I want.
In fact, watching Netflix is probably a very common procrastination strategy that students use.
To make incentives work, you need to tell yourself: “I will do what I would rather do after my study time.”
In this way, you will still get to do the task you would probably have done while procrastinating but you’ll get to do it guilt-free!
Doing that task at the end of the day after you’ve checked-off everything on your to-do list is a really nice, guilt-free way to end the day.
You’ll go to bed feeling like you’ve accomplished something with your day. It’ll also make you want to leap out of bed tomorrow and keep up the good work.
Here’s a few study incentives I have used for myself before:
- Watch Netflix
- Go out for Dinner
- Have a beer
- Go for a run
- Eat chocolate (seriously!)
One of my favorite scholarly findings on how to stop procrastinating is that mindfulness decreases procrastination time. To achieve mindfulness, integrate meditation into your routine,
In my experience, meditation has seriously helped me to focus my mind when I’ve found nothing else that works.
If you’re like me, you find that there’s a lot of thoughts going through your mind throughout the day. My mind is never switched off.
Meditation forces you to clean out your mind and return it to a blank state. It’s really that simple.
All you need to do in order to meditate is:
- Find a quiet space free of distractions;
- Close your eyes and clear your mind;
- Focus on the blackness behind your eyelids and your steady, slow breathing;
- Every time a new though comes into your mind, wipe it away and start again with a clean slate.
It’s really that simple. Thoughts keep coming, and you keep swatting them away.
Before long, you find the thoughts stop trying to re-enter your mind quite as much.
Before meditating, I had no idea how much endless thoughts seemingly out of my control clutter my life and distract me from my tasks at hand.
After just 15 minutes of silent meditation I find I can concentrate so much harder on my work. There’s no distracting thoughts in my mind, less fiddling, and far less absentminded reading of what’s been going on in the land of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
Meditation is so easy and totally free.
There’s so many good phone apps and YouTube videos on meditation out there for you to get access to and get started with today.
You can choose the type of meditation that works for you – but above I’ve shared a simple and engaging meditation introduction by Sadia from Pick Up Limes.
10. Go for a Run
Of the academic studies I read for this post, nearly every article highlighted that stress is one of the strongest predictors of procrastination. If you’re stressed, you’ll procrastinate more.
Have you ever had so much to do that you didn’t do anything?
Yep, that’s the stress talking.
There’s nothing better than exercise to eliminate stress.
Furthermore, one study I read found that people who feel healthy procrastinate less.
So, I recommend exercising for 20 minutes to stop procrastinating and go back to studying.
Even if your 20 minutes of running around the block is 20 minutes spent not studying, it can save you time in the long run.
Is Exercising worth the Time?
I often find that I would have spent 15 of those 20 minutes on social media anyway. Exercise really does stop the procrastination cycle for me. I never feel like it’s a waste of my time.
You don’t need to buy an expensive gym membership or even be fit in the first place. You can run or walk around the block or just do a free exercise video from YouTube.
One of the really nice things about exercise is it clears the mind and lets you come back to your work fresh and reset.
11. Forgive Yourself
A finding I didn’t expect from the scientific literature was that self-forgiveness and self-care reduce future procrastination.
An article in the Journal of Personality and Individual Differences compared two groups of students:
- The first group were still kicking themselves for procrastinating on previous assessments.
- The second group forgave themselves and focused on the future.
The second group procrastinated far less in their follow-up studies.
In other words, self-forgiveness decreases procrastination time.
So don’t kick yourself too hard if you spend too much time procrastinating. Focus on the future, put the advice in this post into action, and get on the path to success!
Procrastination can be a real killer. It can cause you to fall behind and your marks to drop dramatically.
Hopefully these tips have helped you to think up ways to stop procrastinating and start studying!
Aim to use the above strategies to prevent procrastination and get ahead at university. To recap, the strategies are:
Eleven Strategies to Stop Procrastinating and Start Studying:
- Create a CheckList
- Break down tasks into Bite-Size Chunks
- Use a website Blocker to Block your Social Media Sites
- Go to the Library
- Get a decent Desk Space
- Use a Timer to Take Strategic Breaks
- Create Incentives
- Go for a Run
- Forgive Yourself