Deadlines can be an incredibly stress-inducing thing. With each passing day, they grow ever closer, but your work output doesn’t seem to keep pace until finally, in a fit of frantic desperation, you complete the majority of the task in the last 3 hours prior to when it’s due.
You’re not alone.
We have no firm figures, but based upon our own rather hasty research directly prior to writing this piece, the percentage of people in the world who habitually procrastinate to some degree equals approximately 99.9999999%. We don’t know who that .0000001 is, but we’re reasonably sure we wouldn’t enjoy their company.
Some famous habitual procrastinators include the likes of French poet and novelist Victor Hugo, American author Herman Melville, and British author Douglas Adams. Of course, based on their creative output, one would assume that each of these people found ways of meeting their deadlines, and you’d be right.
Victor Hugo used the popular focussing technique of being stripped naked in his study by a servant, who was given strict orders not to return with the clothing until a pre-arranged hour.
Melville had his wife literally chain him to his desk in order to finish Moby Dick.
Douglas Adams regularly required publishers to lock him in rooms and stand guard, glowering menacingly until he produced a manuscript.
Let’s explore a few less extreme ways to cope with an impending deadline.
Anyone who’s ever attempted to shed a few unwanted pounds has probably heard or read the advice to take smaller bites, chew your food thoroughly, etc, etc… This is excellent advice in both weight loss and in the avoidance of procrastination (albeit for very different reasons).
One of the biggest triggers of procrastination is making the crippling mistake of thinking of whatever project you’re working on as one, gigantic, hulking menace glaring at you from a distance. He’s probably also holding a large club with spikes coming out of it (although that may just be us).
When looked at this way, is it any wonder that the result is procrastination and whimpering in a corner somewhere?
In reality, however, your project isn’t anything like that hulking monster. If you divide the overall workload into smaller, more manageable bites, that beast with the club becomes a series of friendly little Hobbits who only want to sing a few songs with you over second breakfast (again, this may just be us, but the principle still applies).
Say, for example, that you’re writing an article listing and detailing the top 20 universities in the UK. The assignment is to write a total of 10,000 words. Returning briefly to our diet analogy, that initially seems roughly equivalent to being asked to consume an entire roasted goose in one sitting (but without the tantalising allure of the roasted goose).
Following the principle of the smaller bite, however, you’re able to say to yourself, “I don’t have to spill out 10,000 brilliant words onto the page all at once. I’ve got 20 universities to write about, that’s 500 words apiece. Let’s tackle that first one and then worry about the next.”
Taken even further, you realise that each university will have sub-sections of approximately 100 words each. “100 words is nothing!” you exclaim.
And, so you’re able to jump into your project with much less trepidation and despair.
Of course, breaking the task into smaller pieces is fine for getting you past that stumbling block of the blank page, but you should be aware of one possible pitfall: If you break things down too far, you might decide the project is actually so easy that you can wait a week or two to get started.
This is bad.
A necessary addendum to the “Take Smaller Bites” technique is the “Make Smaller Deadlines” technique. With each sub-step you identify, you should also set a sub-deadline to keep you on track toward completing the entire project. This is especially important when the overall deadline is further off into the hazy future. The farther out the deadline is, the easier it is to convince yourself to wait another day. Or two. Or twelve.
Smaller bites work well, but if you don’t pair them with smaller deadlines, you’ll likely end up facing the entire project in one go just as you feared you would from the beginning.
One of the biggest reasons for procrastination is not laziness, but perfectionism. Thomas Edison, famous American inventor and originator of the electric light bulb and other modern conveniences famously refused to accept that he had failed 10,000 times, opting instead to assert that he’d simply found 10,000 ways that didn’t work.
It’s a valid point. From inventors to scientists to actors in rehearsals, brilliant discoveries and stunning performances can’t just spring fully-formed out of nothingness. They’re invariably the result of working through countless failures on the way toward eventual success.
If you’re putting off starting a project because it’s just not the perfect time or because it might not be good enough, well, you’re right. There is no perfect time, and your first (and second, and third…) try probably won’t be good enough, but you have to allow yourself the freedom to make those initial failures if you ever aspire to truly succeed.
If you’re writing an essay, or a poem, or a novel, just get something on the page. If you’re planning an event, sit down now and scribble down an initial list of required tasks. That first page may well end up in the trash, and that initial list will no doubt be incomplete, but that “failure” will lead you to the next try and to the next until, perched upon a tower of failures, you finally grasp the elusive fruit of success.
It’s in the doing that you’ll find success, not in waiting for the perfect time to begin.
Easier said than done these days is the task of eliminating distractions during the time you’ve committed to work. From phone calls to emails to texts to Facebook to Twitter to Snapchat and on and on and on, it seems the world today is nothing but distractions (or that work is just a distraction from the far more interesting buzzing phone in our pocket)
Much of the time, procrastination is simply the result of having something more interesting to look at. The trick is to find a way to remove yourself from those things.
The first step is to identify the worst offenders. Is it the Facebook notifications popping up simultaneously on your phone and computer screen? Is it email or texts making your phone chime every 30 seconds? Is it simply the outside world as viewed through the window in front of your desk? Most likely it’s a combination of some of these as well as a few other things we haven’t mentioned.
Once you’ve identified the problem, the actions you take are completely up to you. Is signing out of Facebook enough, or do you need the nuclear option of deactivating the account? Will turning off the phone suffice, or will you need to have a friend or family member keep it for you? Can you close the blind or move your desk? Or must you actually board up the window? Be honest with yourself. Only you know the extents to which you need to resort.
Hopefully, you won’t need to resort to chains or nudity.
To yourself. Only to yourself.
When dealing with a deadline of any sort, it’s usually an excellent idea to set a personal deadline in advance of the actual due date. In other words, lie to yourself about when it’s due.
The benefits of this approach are obvious. If your project is due in 3 weeks, and you give yourself 2 weeks, that gives you an entire week to address any unexpected issues that may arise, such as a part of the project being more complex than you initially anticipated.
Of course this only works if you’re particularly good at lying to yourself. For some it’s not really possible to ignore the actual due date, so they end up skipping a day of work here and there because they know they’ve really got an extra week. If you’re not gullible enough to believe your own lies, the only option is to add some urgency to your earlier deadline.
Have a friend change your social media passwords and only reveal them once you’ve met the deadline. Give your debit card to your mom and live off only a small daily allowance until the deadline is met. Be creative, but make it something that will actually motivate you. You’ll thank yourself when you’ve finished your project a week early, and you can relax while everyone else is still sweating it out.
Sometimes all that’s needed to jumpstart your initiative and get you headed in the right direction is a simple change of venue. There are many resources throughout the internet to help you choose or arrange your workspace so as to maximise productivity.
One thing to keep in mind is that many productivity experts frown on combining your workspace with your sleeping space. The theory is that combining the two has a negative effect on both your work and your sleep by confusing your brain as to exactly what the room is meant to be for.
Of course, as a student, your sleeping space may be the only workspace you’ve got. But if you do find your work or rest to be suffering it might be worth it to move your work sessions to a friend’s room, the library, or another suitable space, and save your room for relaxation.
It’s also good to remember that, just because your workspace of choice has been the most inspiring and focused place to get things done in the past, things can change. If your workspace no longer does the job, don’t waste too much time trying to figure out why. It may just be time for you to find someplace new.
Procrastination is a very common ailment, and one that has afflicted most of us at one time or another, but there are ways to keep yourself on track and meet those deadlines with quality work product.
These six tips are just a few things to consider if you find yourself consistently clamoring to finish your work at the last minute. There are many other resources on the web if you find that these don’t work out for you.
Now, get to work (and good luck).