It is natural to feel competitive at university. You sit an exam or submit a piece of coursework, and when the results are out, the comparisons with peers begin. You check to see if you outperformed your friends, or whether they did better than you. If it is the latter, and you worked really hard, you lose confidence in yourself and think that perhaps your friend who whipped up the essay in one night is simply smarter. Try your best to avoid these comparisons. When people keep comparing themselves to other people, even when they are better off than they were in the past, they are never satisfied. It is much better to put your head down and make sure that the only person you are competing with is yourself. I advise that you try as much as you can to compare your achievements to your past performance, not to those of your peers.
When I started to write my dissertation, I did not set out to beat everyone and have the ‘highest mark in the class’. That was not my goal. Instead, I decided that I was going to work my absolute best. I was going to push myself to produce the very best piece of work I could and no matter what result I got, I would not have the regret of not trying hard enough. To avoid such remorse, I put an enormous amount of effort into writing my dissertation and to my surprise I won the prize for the highest dissertation mark. You truly will be surprised at what you can achieve if you focus on your own growth.
Universities have timetables of lectures and classes that you are expected to stick to, but as a students you are also free to design your work around these times as you see fit. The essence of task management is that you can do your work whenever you want to, just as long as it gets done. Below are some key ideas on how to better manage the work you are assigned with.
It is always a good idea to have a sense of direction when you embark on a piece of work. Aside from planning the actual content, you should also plan how you will complete the work itself. Here is something you could try: plan to break-up your work into manageable discrete tasks and set a self-imposed deadline to complete each of them. (For peace of mind, you should also have an overall completion deadline that is earlier than the one the university may have set for you.) Be sure to finish the mini-tasks before the self-imposed deadlines and put in however many hours it takes to do so. For example, if I had to write a 2000 word essay that was due in eight weeks, I would plan an outline and give myself say, four weeks to finish it. Each week, I would allocate a day to spend on the coursework and aim to finish 500 words. After four weeks, I would have a completed essay with an extra four weeks left over to polish it, if need be.
With such a strategy, however, you have to allow for some flexibility - it is wise to allow yourself additional time. This is because if your tasks are too large and the deadline you set arrives too quickly, you risk burning out if you keep working beyond what your body can manage. Therefore, the best thing to do is to plan for a task and set a deadline that has room for you to go over. If you finish early, great! If you finish late, then at least you planned for a small buffer period.
Once you have a plan with your mini-tasks, their mini-deadlines, and an overall deadline that is earlier than the university-imposed deadline, you have to start doing the work. Be warned, though, procrastination will be waiting for you right after you make your plan. The only way to get past this evil is simply to start doing the work. If you planned to learn a certain topic in a day, jump right into it even if you do not feel like it. If you must type 500 words, get on your computer and start typing whatever ideas come to your head. To help avoid procrastination, engage your assignments in smaller chunks. Only then will it be easier to get started on the work than to procrastinate.
Doing your work depletes all manner of energy, so it is important to take breaks from it. While things like sleep matter more than you think, here I would like to point out something that is perhaps less obvious; resting by indulging in some good-old healthy fun. Yes, academic success involves a significant amount of self-discipline, self-control, and willpower – things which separate first-class degree graduates from the average university student population – but it is also important to let loose every once in a while. So take a break from your work and do something fun. You just might find that when you return to your assignments, you can exert more self-discipline than if you were to go at it all day, non-stop.
Breaks aside (and this will seem contradictory), you should also persist with your work and aim to have fewer frequent breaks and interruptions. Why is this? The answer can be found in psychology and behavioural economics. Dan Ariely, a professor in this domain, described a brilliant study in his book, The Upside of Irrationality, where results showed that people suffered less when they did not frequently disrupt annoying experiences (Ariely, 2011). This is because we have the ability to adapt to experiences such that the intensity with which we experience them decreases over time. In essence, interruptions and frequent breaks from work can keep you from adapting to its challenging nature. I always found it harder to return to revision if I broke it up with too many breaks and I’m sure you have also experienced a time where you left your work and found it harder to return to. So to ‘suffer’ less, attempt to tackle your work for extended periods of time before taking a break.
As with all things, moderation and flexibility will be beneficial when deciding when to stop working. In the final term of my final year, it was not unusual for me spend 12 hours in the library. I would not tire as quickly because our final exams were so close and the fear of failure and adrenaline kept me going. But when you do tire and reach a point where your study material hardly makes any sense, you must leave the task at hand and rest. Continuing with a tired body and mind is counterproductive. While the aim is to persist till a task is finished, if you underestimated how long it would take, you are better off readjusting your plan and finishing later.
How many times have you been assigned a piece of coursework only to end up procrastinating for days on end because the task seemed too large, or its due date seemed very distant? When nearing exams, how often are you daunted by the amount of revision that needs to be done, yet somehow you end up putting it off up until the very last minute? My guess, if you are anything like me, is that this happens to you more often than you would like. Everyone procrastinates. In fact, if there is anything out there that is as good at bringing students together as alcohol is, it’s procrastination. A lot of us feel helpless when it hits, and we never seem to really learn how to beat it. But there is hope.
A key driver of procrastination, mentioned above, is the work simply being unpleasant. As such, we put things off and somehow convince ourselves that come tomorrow, we will feel more like it. But you and I know from experience that tomorrow can very easily turn into an ever-moving goal post. We keep putting things off in the hope that there will be a perfect time when we are super motivated and ready to do the work. Unfortunately this ‘tomorrow’ never comes. The ‘tomorrow’ we end up getting is one not full of motivation but one full of panic when all of a sudden an exam or deadline is upon us. To avoid such a fate you just have to get on with your work as soon as you practically can. I know I am stating the obvious here; that when it comes to things you have to do, employing Nike’s emblem, ‘Just Do it!’ can save you a whole lot of heartache. But the obvious is not necessarily easily achieved and just doing it can be incredibly hard. However, if you keep in mind the expectation that you won’t feel more like it tomorrow you are likely to get on with your work right away. So don’t wait on motivation and don’t always expect it. Thankfully, it is entirely possible to become motivated after starting your work, especially as it starts to take shape and the pieces fall in place.
One of the major causes of procrastination is not knowing where to start. Whether that is revising for an end of year exam, writing your dissertation, or even preparing for an interview, if you have no idea how you will tackle your work, you are more likely to procrastinate. One of the ways you can beat procrastination is by breaking large and more abstract tasks into smaller manageable chunks. A personal example is how I managed to write my book. Initially, the notion of writing a book seemed vague to me. I spent many hours on Facebook instead of writing and for many days, I procrastinated because I could not figure out exactly how to start. But as soon as I had a plan and outline of all the different topics I wanted to write about, the challenge became less intimidating. Instead of sitting down and saying ‘I am going to work on a 28,000 word project,’ I sat down and said, ‘Today, I will aim to write 500 words.’ I then went on to make it even clearer. ‘Today, I will write 500 words on the topic of choosing a degree by comparing the hardest subjects with the easiest subjects.’ Breaking down your assignments in such a manner should give you a bit more direction and enable you to take action.
Studying and doing university work can at times be boring. So it feels good, at least in the short-term, when we put if off. Over time we may begin to associate procrastination with some kind of relief but this, of course, runs contrary to what is best for us. Why not, then, create some positive associations with the act of getting on with your work? One method I used extensively to work my way past procrastination was by promising to myself that if I could get through a certain section of work, I would reward myself by doing something fun. The most effective example of this, I found, was to ensure that during term time I would do as much of my work during the weekdays. This way, I could have all the fun I wanted to on the weekends. Of course, you don’t have take such a macro view. You could combine it with a micro perspective. That is, on a day-to-day basis, you could decide that after 90 minutes of hard work you allow yourself a 20-minute binge on Twitter, Facebook, or any other fun activity you can do in between work. By rewarding yourself every time you knock procrastination flat on its face, you will come to associate a ‘just do it!’ attitude with not only the good feelings that come from the mini rewards, but also from the positive academic results that will ensue.
This content has been written by Michael Tefula, author of Student Procrastination: Seize the Day and Get More Work Done and How to Get a First: Insights and Advice from a First-Class Graduate.
For more advice, see learning from lectures.
This content has been written by Lucinda Becker, author of Presentation Skills for Students.