How You Can Do What You Keep Putting Off

Ah, distractions!

Distractions are a lovely way to do anything other than what you should be doing.

Distractions are plentiful and a recipe for forgetting. You have an ever-expanding list of things that are hard to resist. Then you have Facebook and Twitter (and the rest!) all bringing a steady stream (or a heavy flow, perhaps even a tsunami) of tidbits that can take you to every destination imaginable, and from every direction you care to come from.

Why is it so difficult to get rid of distraction and stop procrastinating?

  • Fear of missing out;
  • Everyone else doing it;
  • No natural end;
  • It feeds your pleasure centres in the brain;
  • It can *feel* useful, even when that’s an excuse.

Sid Savara’s procrastination survey shows that, overwhelmingly, people just don’t feel like doing the things they’re meant to be doing. They put it off because they *want* to put it off.

What can you do to stop this spiral from going further and further out of control?

photo by Bernat Casero

Tick, tock, putting it off… (photo by Bernat Casero)

Set an incredibly short amount of time

Ten or fifteen minutes should do it. Push yourself for just that amount of time and see how you feel. You may be happy to continue after that set time.

Switch off notifications

A beep or a screen notification will stop you from what you’re doing, whether you like it or not. No matter how much you tell yourself to ignore it, you’ve already been alerted to it. The temptation is there, itching away at you at exactly the wrong time. Switch those messages off!


Starting is easier when you have a better overview of what you want to achieve. A mindmap will let you consider ideas and links with ease. It may be what you need to conquer your procrastination. I recently gave mindmapping software, Mindmaple Lite a whirl. It’s free and it’s easy to use, so you can concentrate more on the mindmap than the software.


If mindmapping isn’t your thing, how about a brief outline of what you want to achieve? Build up your sections and sub-sections to break down your research and writing into smaller tasks. I recently discovered Quicklyst as an online way to create outlines.

Act like it’s a blog post

The pressure of writing an academic essay can lead to procrastination. So treat the writing more casually. A recent post on Lifehack explained that 1,000 words doesn’t have to take a lot of time when you work in the right order.

Try writing a snappy title or headline if the essay question is getting in the way (making sure that you’re still trying to answer the same question!). Then, see if you can rattle off a quick introduction and conclusion to help your own mindset (you may wish to rewrite later, so this is just for you right now). Then make a quick outline of the major points you want to cover throughout the essay. After this, fill in the gaps. Do this with a timer if you prefer, so you challenge yourself to get the bulk written quickly, rather than worrying over every last word and detail. Edit and re-draft later.

Go somewhere different

Location makes a huge difference to your productivity, your attitude, and your outlook. Find places you’ve not been to before and explore where it takes your mind, not just your body.

Watch an inspiring talk or presentation

Find a TED talk and watch it. You’ll be procrastinating (win), and you’ll feed yourself some brain-food that’ll get you more psyched up for work (win).

Well, so long as you don’t just keep watching more TED talks…

Understand what’s stopping you

Okay, so you want to put this off. But why? What is the real reason for your procrastination? Be honest. Are you not interested in the topic itself? Do you have difficulty understanding the subject (time to fire up Wikipedia for the basics)? Have you got loads of friends tempting you away for fun?

If you don’t work out why you’re putting the work off, you’ll keep on putting it off!

Stop expecting perfect

Perfectionism is a recipe for procrastination. When you picture the most amazing coursework to have ever graced this earth, everything you do will be a disappointment. After a while, you’ll feel inadequate and start putting off the work instead of cracking on.

Nothing is perfect. And your first drafts are certainly not meant to be anything other than, well, first drafts. Successful writers almost never finish on their first attempt. They redraft, they edit, they get opinions from others. If established writers need to do this, you can stop beating yourself up over flaws. Even a First Class essay has flaws!

 Believe that you can keep learning

As a child, I was told that I was ‘good at maths’. Children tend to believe what they are told. So I went through school believing I had a good grasp of maths. That was fine for a while, but when new concepts arrived that I didn’t understand, I started to think I wasn’t good at maths any more. I guessed I wasn’t as smart as some people had made out.

The concept of ‘smart’ and ‘clever’ is flawed. Turn the perspective around. We all have to learn. Nobody is born with great wisdom and knowledge. What matters is a willingness to keep learning new things and stop worrying that you’re not ‘smart’ enough.

Don’t discount the future

According to one paper about procrastination:

“…the value of socializing in the present is weighed heavily while the value of getting good grades in the future is discounted. This quirk leads to delays in studying for tests, writing term papers and getting prepared for weekly assignments. As can be expected, students who procrastinate generally discounted future values greater than students who don’t procrastinate.”

The future seems a long way away. No wonder it feels easy to put tomorrow to one side. But the future soon becomes the present and it’ll bite you on the bum if you don’t deal with it in good time.

Forgive yourself

We all fall down from time to time. The occasional lapse is allowed. It’s not uncommon to put something off for ten minutes and then find you’ve put it off for ten days.

So long as this doesn’t happen all the time, you can let yourself off the hook. You’ll probably procrastinate less on the next task if you forgive yourself.

Procrastination can happen when you suffer a delay beyond your control, like when you’re waiting on a crucial library book to be available. Even then, you can find ways to move beyond the initial setback. Sometimes you do just have to wait. That gives you time to spend on other stuff anyway! 😉

How will you keep the procrastination beast at bay today?

How 750 Words Can Help Your Productivity

Sometimes, you just want to write. But it’s not always that easy.

You sit down with the best intentions, but it’s so intimidating when you start a potential masterpiece.

Your internal editor chips away at your confidence before you have even touched the keyboard.

You have no sense of the goal you’re aiming to achieve.

And that’s where 750words comes in.

For a while now, I’ve heard some academic peeps raving about as a fantastic way to write without distraction and other concerns. These are academic peeps I trust. So I’ve given the service a go.

And I give it a thumbs up.

When you want something a little more inviting than an empty document and a flashing cursor, 750words may be the trick. It doesn’t offer much more than a blank page and it still features a flashing cursor —Hey, stick with me!— However, there are other reasons why the service may help you write more than other methods:

  1. Free-writing: Instead of carefully thinking about what you have to say, you may prefer to riff and find your voice by bashing out a load of words. Even if you find 95% of the words come out as irrelevant rubbish, the remaining 35–40 words may be exactly what you wanted. That may not sound like much, but it could be enough to spark something amazing.
  2. Challenges: 750words gives you the option to sign up to a monthly writing challenge, where you promise to write 750 words every single day in the month. If you do, you make the Hall of Fame. If you don’t, you make the Hall of Shame. If you thrive on that type of thing, the monthly challenge is for you!
  3. A blank page: Distractions aren’t welcome. If you want a blank screen, free from other goodies, you’ve come to the right place. 750words is pretty limited in terms of features. All on offer is a place to type some plain text. No fancy fonts, no bold and italics, no special layout features. Just type away until you reach the magical number of words required.
  4. No need to check word counts: Just keep on writing until you get to 750 words. When you do, you’re congratulated. And if you’re on a roll, great! Just keep writing until you’re done. You can see how many words you’ve written by looking at the bottom of the screen. No procrastination or interruption necessary by checking the ‘Word Count’ option. It’s all there for you already.
  5. Statistics: Want to know how long it takes you to write those words? 750words will tell you. Concerned about how many times you’ve moved away from your writing with other distractions on the computer? 750words will tell you. Wondering what types of words you tend to use most? 750words will tell you.

I’ve tried the service for over a week now and I enjoy the simplicity of the service. I’m not bothered about writing a particular number of words every day and I doubt I’ll sign up for the monthly challenges any time soon. I’ve already missed a day on purpose.

Still, there is certainly something satisfying about writing until you reach the number of words allotted. You cannot change the number of words set in the challenge, but nobody is forcing you to stick to that specific number of words. You can write a single sentence and stop, or you can keep going until you’ve written a whole book in a day. It’s up to you.

The user average each day is just over 900 words. I think 750 is a pretty good number to work with for most situations, though. That works out as a pretty good length for a blog post, and it’s half a 1500-word essay. You’re being challenged, but not made to bust a gut.

Here’s one more thing for you to consider: This post was written using 750words on one of my days. It took about 12 minutes to write. And I spent about ten minutes editing after that; so the post wasn’t originally a complete mess, even though I blasted it out quickly.

Remember, even if you have no use for 95% of what you write, the 5% of awesome you can use is worthwhile. And, in the case of this blog post, I only took out a few words. More like 95% used, 5% chucked out. Win!

Next time you want to get your write on, give 750words a whirl. Take up the challenge. You may just surprise yourself!

Last-minute Essays: Should you REALLY be pulling an all-nighter?

In the early days of TheUniversityBlog, I wrote a popular piece about pulling all-nighters and writing essays at the last possible minute. And I wasn’t very complimentary about the process.

To see my friends in a fiddle and my peers in a panic was frustrating, because some of them clearly didn’t respond well to this regular ritual.

The one time I didn’t focus enough until it was too late…was my dissertation. Yes, I know, it annoyed me at the time too. Even worse, I’d been enjoying the research and writing at first and then simply stopped doing enough to make the project as scholarly (and awesome) as I could have done. Sucked to be me. 😉

So I knew that the last-minute wasn’t for me. By all means get close, but never get TOO close.

But can the all-nighter essay work for some students? Is it really the best way to get the right words flowing?

Rachel Toor, an assistant professor of creative writing, says this:

“What I’ve learned about writing and intellectual work is that there’s no right way to get things done, no ritual or routine that is effective unless it’s effective for you…If the products are coming out in ways that you’re not happy with, by all means, try to make a change in your work style. But…if you need the guillotine hanging over you to get that paper done, let it dangle. There’s no “right” way.”

My personal preference is to use the time given and aim to finish with time to spare if necessary. More often than not, it’s not necessary. I’ll set my own deadline in advance of the actual requirement, so I’m not tempted to run over for some reason.

I do it this way because I prefer to work when it suits me, often in small doses. It depends what I’m working on, but I generally feel comfortable, so see no reason to change.

And that’s the big deal. I see no reason to change.

Just as Rachel Toor explains, pulling an all-nighter is fine if that’s what makes you tick.

Unfortunately, I get the impression that it’s not what makes many last-minuters tick. It’s just what they’ve got used to.

I recommend you to do a little experiment to find out whether or not there’s another way for you. A better way. Take the time to work on a few assignments earlier than usual. Mix things up and see what happens when you spend more time on an essay.

If the slow approach doesn’t work for you, I have another thought. Pull an all-nighter and finish your assignment the way you normally would. But do it a week or two before the real deadline. Treat it seriously and do it as if there will be no more time left after this night. That may be hard to believe, but give it a go.

Because once you’ve got your last-minute attempt, you’ll still have time to revisit it in a couple of days and see if you truly think it’s the best darn paper you could possibly hand in.

Make an effort to explore new ways, rather than doing it once and not bothering again. Toor suggests three months of working differently, but you may be comfortable with something else. Just so long as you take it seriously, otherwise it’s not worth trying in the first place.

After that, if you’re still not convinced, maybe the all-nighter approach is the best way for you after all. The stress, the adrenalin, the pressure…I doubt it works for all the people that experience it, but a few will still find it’s the only way to greatness. In Toor’s words:

“See if it makes your life better. If it doesn’t, then I would say there isn’t a problem. Accept that you are a last-minute person and realize this: Writing is hard, no matter when you do it. Thinking that there’s a better, easier way is just silly.”

The difference will be that you tried and you understood. For others, the difference will be that they tried and they realised the wonders of a somewhat calmer approach. What works for you?

No matter which direction you take, at least you can now be certain!

10 Ways to Give Procrastination a Bypass

Forget fear. Toss out time constraints. When you put things off, it’s rarely about these things.

You’re much more likely to procrastinate when your assignment isn’t interesting, when it’s limited in scope, and when you don’t have clear instructions.

Even group work changes your attitude. You’re more likely to stall for time over collaborative tasks compared with working on your own.

photo by

photo by

Procrastination isn’t a simple beast. There are many reasons behind it. Even when you know you’re doing it, the way to recover from procrastination isn’t always obvious.

But don’t panic, there is hope! Check out these ten tips to turn procrastination into productivity. Don’t take any more risks, act now!

  1. Find an angle to suit you – There were times when I was trudging through the most boring texts, so I tried to find ways to make it more exciting. True, that can be difficult at times and I didn’t always manage it. But when I did, I was much happier putting the work in. If you can pull something out the bag, do it and watch everything fall into place more easily.
  2. Beat the bore – When you simply can’t find an interesting angle, move past the yawn by forcing yourself to work for a really short time.
    Promise yourself 10 – 15 minutes. Just get started and see where it takes you. When you begin, it’s easier to keep going. You never know, you may even find something that takes your interest by then!
  3. Don’t look at what is necessary. Look at what is possible! – Working out the bare minimum you can get away with is actually a recipe for procrastination. The moment you artificially restrict yourself, you’re telling yourself to work less. No wonder it feels easier to put things off.
    Instead of closing down your options, stretch yourself further. By framing the task this way, you’ll do yourself a massive favour.
  4. Keep trying to understand the task until you really do – We’ve all had that moment of doom when we don’t have a clue what’s expected of us. The temptation to put it off is strong, because it’s easier to bury your head in the sand than to attempt what you don’t understand.
    Better than either tactic, however, is to ask for clarification. If nobody on your course is sure (or you don’t understand/trust their explanations), explain to your tutor what you’re struggling with. Don’t leave it at “I don’t understand what you want”, but try to explain what you think is expected and ask them to clarify where you’re uncertain. The sooner you know where you’re headed, the sooner you’re likely to move in that direction.
  5. Clear your head – With too much going on around you, it’s not the best environment to work in. Even locked in your own room, a smart phone is a gateway to the world and untold treasures. An Internet connection takes you wherever you want. Music can consume you.
    Sometimes you just need to breathe.
    Short bursts of meditation can help you work on tasks with more focus and clarity of mind. If you set aside an hour to work and find the hour slips away with nothing done, schedule another hour and meditate for 20 minutes first. Work for the remaining 40 minutes. Do this meditation two or three times a week. A smart phone may be a gateway to the world, but meditation may be a gateway to your mind.
  6. Clear your social calendar – Some deadlines may feel reasonable, but they are very rarely unworkable. If time is strapped to the point that you even cannot schedule time to study, you’re doing too much. This isn’t procrastination (unless you deliberately over-scheduled!). This is trying to do too many things.
    You’re at uni for many reasons. One of those reasons is to complete your degree. If you’re not in the right position to do that, you may have to change your position and give up on some of your other commitments.
  7. Be wary of ‘unequal’ task setting in long-term assignmentsO’Donoghue and Rabin argue:
    “When the costs of completing different stages [of a project] are more unequal, procrastination is more likely, and it is when later stages are more costly that people start but don’t finish projects.”
    Dissertations have unequal elements, because some areas will require more time than others. However, by boxing those elements as if they are a ‘task’ to complete, you may dread the time when longer ‘tasks’ arrive. Instead, set time out differently.
    Break things down further. Find an equality to the tasks you are dishing out within the overall project. You may need to write Chapter 3, but it’s not helpful putting ‘Write Chapter 3’ on your to-do list. Keep breaking it down until you can visualise the tasks at hand and have a grasp on what you need to do to complete them.
  8. See the difference between team assignments and individual projects – Gafni and Geri studied 160 MBA students and found that individual deadlines were more likely to be less problematic than group deadlines. Even when an individual task was voluntary, students were punctual. With group deadlines, tasks were more likely to be left until much nearer the last minute. If the group task was voluntary, it was often not completed at all.
    Is collective procrastination easier to fall into? Next time you’re faced with a group assignment, take individual responsibility. Make it about you first and make it about the group once you get into gear.
  9. Set your own deadlines – Your assignment may not be due for a couple of months. The procrastinator in you may tell you, “Don’t worry, there’s plenty of time to do that. Forget about it. Even when there’s just a fortnight left, you’ll have enough time. Go on, you already have enough on your plate”.
    Simply leaving everything until later is not best practice for effective work. And you can manage your time far better than that.
    Keep a rough schedule diary for the semester/term at the very least. Then give yourself your own deadlines for work, much earlier than that official date.
  10. Ask “Why am I doing this?” – When the work becomes a blur of pointlessness, you’re likely to procrastinate just the same as when you’re bored. Find a reference point to help you hold on to why you’re working on this assignment. It may be a long-term reason, it may be a short-term reason, but whatever you make of it, your aim is to give clear reason behind your study.
    “If the process isn’t getting you the outcome you want, you need to change the process.” – Mike Reeves-McMillan

Want to look a bit further into combating procrastination? Here are a couple more related links: