Bad Problem, Worse Metaphor
Are you a procrastinator? Not necessarily a psychologically-scarred, can’t start work if your life depended on it because you resent your major and are crushed by the weight of your parent’s expectations-style deep procratinator, but instead someone who tends to wait just a little bit too long to get started on big assignments? The type that ends up getting your ass kicked by built-up work at the end of every term?
Many students are in your same boat.
Today, I want to give you a simple rule that will turn your academic rudder and point this boat back towards shore. Where the shore, in this instance, represents the promised land of not procrastinating, and my introduction represents how to construct a terrible, strained metaphor.
A Common Scenario
Here’s the scenario. It’s October 5th, the semester is young, you’re in your art history class marveling at how much better dressed everyone in the room is than you (something about art history students always make me feel, by comparison, like I was dressed by a rabid pack of color-blind monkeys). The professor hands out a sheet describing your big scary original research paper due at the end of the semester.
Your instinct is to immediately lose the sheet and then forget about the big scary original research paper until a few weeks before it’s due. At this point you’ll start diligently adding it to the very top of your to-do list, perhaps accented by several stars for emphasis, and then promptly do nothing. Finally, with a week to go, panic kicks in and you’ll dash together the type of sloppy of paper that makes professors sigh loudly then reach for that bottle hidden in their bottom desk drawer.
I want you to resist this urge. I want you to instead do do something so stunning, so unexpected, that it may take a moment for you to regain your senses: I want you to get started on the assignment the same day it’s assigned.
Allow me to explain…
The Same Day Rule
This rule is one of the most effective procrastination defusers I’ve yet to encounter. It’s formalized as follows:
For every medium to large size assignment, do some work toward its completion the same day that it’s assigned.
It should be serious work; at least a half-hour. But it certainly doesn’t have to eat up your whole evening. The logic here is simple. Big assignments scare us so we resist starting. As we all know, once you get started, the scariness diminishes and it’s easier to make progress. The same day rule takes advantage of this reality and pushes it to its extreme.
A few implementation tips:
- You can adjust the rule to require that you get started within a week. For example, I used to leave my Saturdays free from regular work like reading assignments and problem sets. When given a major project, I would, at first, use some time on Saturday to start making progress. There was something nice about it being the only task for the day (other than killing a hangover.)
- The best first steps involve planning. You can’t, of course, start writing a research paper the day its assigned. You can, however, gather some books or sketch out the type of sources you need to make progress.
- The best first steps end with the identification of the second step. If you want to reap the full benefit of this rule, make sure you end your first small piece of work having clearly identified the next small piece of work. At this point, the big scary project has been reduced to a tiny little next action that you’re happy to act upon.
It’s a simple piece of advice. But one I still use. Not only does it take away the fear of large assignments, but there’s something about starting so early that gives you a little jolt of self-satisfaction. Like some sort of academic junkie, you’ll begin to crave this jolt, and might just find yourself cured of your procrastination habit altogether. At very least, your shiny ‘A’ might impress all those well-dressed bastards who think they’re so much cooler than you.
(Photo by xb3)