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?

Will Science and Art Get Together (Again)?

Back in early 2008, I wrote a short piece about science and art. I said they should just get along.

photo by MuseumWales
photo by MuseumWales

The post still gets a lot of traffic from people searching ‘science vs art’ in search engines. The debate is clearly on a lot of people’s minds.

I was being light-hearted, but I still meant it. Science and art are not opposites or adversaries. Nevertheless, the two are separated as if there is a need to stay apart much of the time.

So it was interesting to see Björk’s take on the matter when answering questions on the Guardian website. When asked if science and art will ever be combined successfully, her response was:

“seems like science and art were pretty much the same thing for thousands of years until the industrial revolution and the enlightenment separated them . i feel the 21st century is going to be the one where not only they can unite again but they have to …”

What might the future hold? Have needs changed? Will science and art get along better in coming years due to necessity?

10 easy ways to use the summer break to prepare for next year

The summer months are a good time to rest, catch up with family and friends at home, get some work (i.e. money) in, and so on.

photo by j-ster
photo by j-ster

The summer months also represent the perfect time to prepare for the next academic year. And you don’t need to spend much time to reap the benefits when you return.

Below are ten things you should do to get socially and academically fit for when you next hit campus:

  1. Read up in advance – You know roughly what you’ll be studying, you have reading lists, and you have a year or more of degree study behind you now. This is the best time to casually research your new topics and scan through (or even read) a few books.
    Work out both what you’re already familiar with and what leaves you confused. The whole point is to be confused in places and to get stuck once in a while as you check through. That way, you won’t approach the work blind.
  2. Write opinions and thoughts – After the initial research, get some notes down. Again, just be casual. You’ve got nothing to worry about, so say what you like. Even if you later discover you’re barking up a completely different tree, your eureka moment will be stronger and the detail will more easily lodge in your head. Result!
    As a bonus, anything with no right or wrong answer gives you an opportunity to start finding your way through the subjective minefield long before others are even aware of what’s going down.
  3. Write initial questions and concerns – Like I say, it’s good to find confusion and uncertainty in your initial dealings with new topics. The only way you can get a serious grip on finding out more is to tackle it head on with questions. There are no stupid questions. And you won’t be asking them anyway. These notes are for you to be aware. You might get answers in the first few minutes of the first lecture back. Even better, you’ll notice straight away once you’ve prepared, which is a more natural approach.
  4. Get administrative affairs up to date – Now is a great time to get stuff filled in, filed, organised, and set up in advance for when they’re needed. Don’t leave the paperwork and boring stuff until the last minute as you’ll end up losing it, forgetting it, and having to do it at the same time as EVERYTHING ELSE!
  5. Financial check – Do you have a spending plan? Will you need more money? How much will you rely on credit cards? What bills will you have? What is your shopping budget? How much do you have for evening entertainment?
    Nip those money questions in the bud with a proper budget plan. For any definite shortfalls, work out if you can cover them another way. If you can’t, seek advice on your options as soon as possible through your university and students’ union. Don’t go straight to more credit cards and commercial loans, because there are other, far better, avenues to try first.
  6. Use the Internet to find websites, crib sheets and summaries in advance – A quick look online can provide you with a wealth of information on what you’re studying. Just a couple of rough Google searches and a quick check in Wikipedia is enough to uncover major sites and subject summaries. And if you delve further, the sky’s the limit. You’re not limited to websites either. Use Google Books and Amazon ‘Look Inside’ for previews of books while you’re not near the uni library.
  7. Read your past essays and assignments – Never discard your old work. You might look back at something from only a few months previous and cringe. “Did I *really* write that!?”
    Yes you did. So learn from it. Examine tutor feedback and consider what you’d do instead next time.
  8. Spend a couple of hours on your future plans – What goals do you have for the year? Do you want to better organise your social calendar? Is there anything you can do to start on career plans long before you graduate?
    All you need is an hour or two to ask yourself questions about the life ahead of you and give the answers careful consideration. You may get stuck for answers, but at least you know what you’re up against when you get back to uni. You will be in a much better position to confront the issues and go in, guns blazing.
  9. Confront issues from previous year(s) – Just like reading past essays, looking back on past difficulties can be helpful. It’s not always best to dig up the past, but neither is it healthy to bury your head in the sand. When you want to do things differently next year, get your mind on the same side. Face those fears and limitations. You are more amazing than you realise.
  10. Prepare for a year of surprise and new experiences, not same old, same old! – There is always something different to enjoy at university. Even a tiny institution in the middle of nowhere has a veritable banquet of delights awaiting you. But you have to grab what’s out there. If you don’t, the initial excitement of ‘uni life’ turns into an ‘everyday life’. Excite yourself; dare to do something different!

None of this takes too long to do, so you’re free to enjoy most of the summer as you normally would. Yet you’ll still save you loads of time when you do get back to uni.

All for a little bit of forward planning. Good times!

Looking Beyond Employability

I found this tucked away near the end of an article in the Independent on Sunday:

“Students should learn not how to win arguments but how to ask subversive questions of authority, assess evidence and find the truth. They should discover how to critique the paradigms within which others expect us to live.”

That may sound trouble-making. Revolutionary, even. But that would be missing the point.

The important thing to think of here is ‘critical thinking’. About having access to and understanding of the tools that will enable you to do things. What you subsequently decide to do is then up to you.

photo by Dr.Fitz

“I’ve been looking everywhere to find employability skills…” (photo by Dr.Fitz)

So how can you be expected to ‘find the truth’? What if it’s not that simple?

Good questions. Things are never that simple. But neither question should stop you seeking out truth and question what is in front of you.

Critical thinking and employability skills bear many similarities. Engineering consultancy, Atkins, has called for universities to help students develop their employability skills:

“When considering whether to go to university, students would be wise to research where skills shortages lie in the marketplace and do a degree which is more likely to lead to a job offer.”

This view may help students and employers service needs right now, but it doesn’t cover possible future needs. Many jobs will be available in a decade or two that aren’t currently in existence. The skills shortage in that respect is a complete unknown.

To really achieve at employability, you need to look past employability in isolation. So how can you move forward without feeling completely in the dark?

A joint NUS and CBI guide to employability skills has been released to help with that. “Working Towards Your Future” is a short guide for students to get an idea of the general qualities employers are looking for in a graduate.

Aaron Porter, NUS president, said:

“A greater understanding of employability will enable today’s students to develop themselves, make a contribution and fulfil their potential tomorrow.”

You aren’t treading along an educational production line. You are participating in higher education. While you should expect your university to have the right types of access and tools in place for you to succeed, you should also feel a personal responsibility by acting with your own future in mind.

That doesn’t mean you’re only at university to enhance your career. Perhaps, like myself, you went into higher education because you wanted to find out more about a subject. An inquisitive mind is all it takes and you can be hooked.

Higher education can lead to a successful future and it can open many doors, but the fact it can lead to those things does not make it the reason behind higher education. Think of your life as a journey of lifelong learning and your skillset can be used beyond the ’employability’ tag.

Nevertheless, it would be daft to ignore students who attend university in the hope of brighter career prospects. Employability skills shouldn’t be an afterthought, but an integral part of your overall learning. By truly furthering your thoughts, considering other views, researching complex situations, opening up your mind, and imagining possibilities while you study, your employability should improve hugely. No matter how you define ’employability’.

While none of this happens automatically, university is one place where a lot of this is at hand to reach out and grab. So when something isn’t working out satisfactorily, or even if it’s just slightly out of your reach, don’t just sit back and grumble. Ask questions, assess evidence, and find the truth!