A Student’s Worst Enemy
Large, longterm assignments are the bane of undergraduate life. There is no more tempting invitation to procrastination than to see “start work on major, terrible, huge assignment” on your to-do list. So what happens? This particular task gets skipped. Again. And Again. Until, finally, you enter “oh shit!” mode right before the deadline and begin that terrible last minute scramble.
The ESS Method
In this post I describe a simple system that will help you avoid this fate. I call it the ESS method (short for: Early-Small-Soon). It’s a generalization of the strategies that many of the efficient students I’ve interviewed over the years use to defang large assignments.
It can be presented in three rules — one for each piece of the ESS acronym…
RULE #1: Early
Start work on large assignments as early as possible. For projects due at the end of the semester, this might mean right after midterms. Don’t balk. You don’t need to start burning the midnight oil months early. But you do need to start thinking about what lies ahead. It helps if at the beginning of each semester you put a “project start” reminder on your calendar at an appropriate date for each of the major assignments you face. Once you reach that date it’s time to apply the next rules…
RULE #2: Small
Forget the end result. Focus, instead, on the next manageable chunk of work. Try to identify a chunk of work that will require somewhere between 2-6 hours. That is, more than you can whip through in one sitting, but not so much that you can’t find the time over the span of a week or two. At this point, the large assignment means nothing to you. This small chunk is what your world is about. It is what has to be done next.
RULE #3: Soon
Here’s the anti-procrastinatory glue that holds the method together: once you’ve identified your small chunk, set an arbitrary deadline for its completion. Depending on how busy your schedule and how large the chunk, consider time frames that are somewhere between 1 – 3 weeks. Make the deadline non-negotiable. This is when this chunk has to be finished. If it requires a mini-scramble when the deadline looms, then so be it.
The Method in Action
What’s interesting about the ESS method, and why, I think, I see variations of it pop up again and again among high scoring students, is that the arbitrary deadline trick actually works. Even though you know you made it up, we’re wired to respond to the pressure of deadlines, and this spurs you to accomplish that next manageable chunk.
Once you’ve finished one chunk, you plan the next, and your progress continues in this manner. As the deadline gets closer, the arbitrary deadlines tend to become more ambitious, and more gets done, until, well, you’re done with the whole assignment.
Yes, at the end, you still might have some scrambling. But the overall experience is significantly less stressful. Instead of grappling with one monstrous beast of an assignment, you are lightly sparring, week by week, with mini-assignments. By the time the final deadline looms, you have a base of quality work and not that much left to complete.