Are you determined to quit procrastinating and be more productive this year? Even when you’re motivated, it can be tricky to stick with it—especially once your calendar fills up with deadlines.
“Procrastination is a very complicated psychological process, sometimes used as self-preservation because it can lead to a potential failure (i.e., a low grade). You can accept [the failure] because you finished it all in one night and didn’t give your 100 percent effort,” says Puneet S., a third-year undergraduate at the University of British Columbia. “However, this can be an exhausting cycle that’s best broken as soon as you recognize you’re doing it.”
Luckily, we’ve got three evidence-based productivity systems to help you out. These techniques will have you getting things done more efficiently with fewer anxiety-ridden, caffeine-induced late-night study sessions. Harness their power and set yourself up for a productive year from start to finish.
1 The Zeigarnik effect
In the 1920s, psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik found that it’s human nature to strive to complete a task we’ve already started (that’s why cliffhangers in TV shows work so well—we come back because we want to know the conclusion). Zeigarnik developed her theory based on her professor’s observation that servers at a busy restaurant were better at remembering a table’s order before their meal was complete, but that once the check had been paid, the server no longer remembered the details of the order.
Zeigarnik tested her theory in the lab and found that the same was true in other contexts. She assigned random tasks to study participants and learned that when a person was interrupted from their task, they actually became more eager and more likely to complete it. In other words, you might have an easier time getting that assignment done if you can convince yourself to just start it, even if you walk away before it’s finished. Students agree: In a Student Health 101 survey, more than 65 percent of respondents felt that just beginning a project made them more likely to come back and finish it.
Begin by setting aside just 45–60 minutes to get started on a project. Chances are you’ll feel better about jumping back in and finishing the job once you’ve made a dent in it.
“Often the project will seem smaller once you actually begin,” says Amandeep J., a second-year student at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. “For example, when I had to write a final term essay last semester, it was easier going back to it knowing I’d started it because I already had my initial thoughts written down—plus I was able to get help from my professor early on.”
Don’t push projects aside for too long, says productivity expert David Allen, author of the bestselling book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (Penguin Books, 2002). “Your brain hangs on to things that are incomplete, taking up valuable ‘mental real estate’ that could be used for other and better things. Keep track of those things that are incomplete and review them regularly.”
2 Deliberate practice
Psychologist K. Anders Ericsson found that musicians who implemented deliberate practice, or intentional practice that focuses on improving in a specific area or on a specific skill, became more successful than those who practised without a strategy, according to a 1993 pioneer study in Psychological Review. Ericsson and other researchers also found that the same was true for university students in a 2005 study in Contemporary Educational Psychology. And it can be true for you too.
So what does deliberate practice look like for you? Think of it as “goal-oriented” studying, where you’re trying to single out the specific elements you’re having trouble with for improvement (whether that’s periodic table interactions or Spanish verb conjugation). Basically, you come up with a plan to work on the things you’re not so good at until you become better, ideally with help from a professor, classmate, or tutor. And you keep track of how you’re doing.
How can you deliberately put deliberate practice into practice? (Whoa.) Try these key factors:
- Set intentions. Make an outline of what you’re going to get done. Focus on the hardest tasks first and schedule breaks every 45–50 minutes before moving on.
- Strive for improvement. And know how to measure it. Is your goal to get through a class presentation without reading your notes? Rehearse it at home until you can do it with one less flash card, then two. Keep going until you’re flash card free.
- Make it reasonable and consider your skill level. If you’re struggling with Calculus, don’t try to “catch up” all at once by joining a study group for advanced factoring. Seek out extra help or tutoring based on your individual baseline.
- Get feedback. Feedback can be intimidating; we get it. But if you want that presentation to be golden, you should practise in front of someone you trust. Did your person notice that you weren’t making eye contact or were saying “um” too much? Keep practising. If you’re OK with brutal honesty, try videoing the presentation and sending it out for critiques. Go on with your brave self.
- Repeat, repeat, repeat. Got it right once? Do it again a few more times so that it becomes second nature—whether it’s solving for X or speaking like a pro.
Focus is a key component of deliberate practice (you know, that whole deliberate part). Once you start losing it, it’s time for a break. Free yourself from the books every now and then to let your brain breathe.
“The most difficult time to invest in your productivity is when you’re immersed in your work—when you take that step back, you can realign what you’re spending your time, attention, and energy on to what you’re working on and what you should be working on,” Ottawa-based productivity coach Chris Bailey and author of The Productivity Project: Accomplishing More by Managing Your Time, Attention, and Energy (Crown Business, 2016) told The Bregman Leadership Podcast in 2016.
Still not convinced? Consider this—the makers of productivity app DeskTime analyzed their real-life data to find two “magic numbers”: The highest-performing employees were those who worked for intervals of 52 minutes straight, with 17-minute breaks in between. Previous studies have shown that human ultradian rhythms (your body’s natural intervals in a period of 24 hours) take 20-minute alertness dips, so the research matches up. You might not be able to control your class schedule, but back at home base, set your alarm to notify you when it’s time to bust out the worm, finish a paint-by-numbers, or do whatever lets your brain have some wiggle room.
Do you ever find yourself sitting down with your materials, ready to amaze yourself with your focus, only to spend the next hour discovering the capacities of your phone: texts you haven’t responded to, Instagram pics you missed, emails that absolutely must be read right this second? You’re not alone.
“When we do work in front of a computer that’s connected to the internet, especially with our phone by our side, we interrupt ourselves on average every 40 seconds,” says Bailey. “This means we don’t even get a minute’s worth of work done before we become distracted. Try downloading a distractions-blocker app—such as Cold Turkey—and leave your phone in the other room to do your most important work.”
Research shows that when we hold ourselves accountable to something, we’re better at sticking to it. Putting together an accountability chart takes only a few minutes and can help you spot time-management problems like a pro. With each work session, take note of the time frame and what you’ve accomplished. Be gentle on yourself, even if that means realizing you’ve wasted 45 minutes taking BuzzFeed quizzes. (And be gentle to yourself—we like to know what kind of summer vegetable we are too. Just maybe not while finishing a project…or this article.)
“Things take us twice as long when we’re connected to the internet, especially when basically everything [online] is more attractive than doing actual work,” Bailey told The Bregman Leadership Podcast in 2016. “It’s a candy store for our brain. We bounce around between so many different engaging things when we’re connected, but it invariably makes us less productive.”
If you’re not satisfied with your productivity, plan the next chunk of time (say, two hours after class tomorrow) and write down exactly what you need to get done during that session.
“I have a desktop calendar where I colour code major assignments, project meeting dates, exams, etc. That helps me stay on top of things.”
—Jessica T., fourth-year graduate student, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, British Columbia
Here’s what an accountability chart might look like for writing an essay over the course of a day. (You can also split it up over several days, weeks, months, or years—and it’s always best to review an assignment with fresh eyes at least 24 hours after you finish writing it.)
There’s certainly value in disconnecting from technology, but that doesn’t mean you need to give it up forever.
“I don’t think there’s a problem with technology when we use it with intention—[but] it’s so difficult to use technology with intention,” Bailey says.
One way to fight the urge? Make it harder to get distracted by devices:
- Delete apps from your phone, iPad, and computer. Not amused with us right now? That’s OK. Try deleting just one.
- Make awkwardly long passwords that you won’t remember without looking them up.
- Use browser plug-ins or extensions to set time limitations on sites that suck you in.
- Hide passwords for social media sites in a hard-to-reach spot.
“My [Twitter] password is 20 or 30 characters long, and I have it written down,” Bailey says. “When I want to connect for whatever reason, I pull that piece of paper out from underneath the couch. Because there’s enough temporal distance between wanting to check Twitter, having the urge to check Twitter, and pulling that password out and typing it in, I end up not doing it.”
Second-year graduate student, Lakehead University, Ontario
“Ever have one of those days where you really can’t forget something? So you write it on a sticky-note…and then that sticky-note gets mixed up with all the others on your desk. (Or it just goes completely missing—I mean I put it right there!) The Wunderlist app can eliminate ‘list-stress’ from your life. Not only does it have ‘smart list’ templates for you to choose from, you can add your own titled lists too. You can even add other people and chat with them about that list, which is great for group projects. Another great feature: Wunderlist will remind you of what you need to remember! Syncing alarms and adding contacts to tasks ensures that the app will have your back, especially if it’s a ‘can’t forget’ kind of day.”
Having one long list on paper can seem overwhelming; by breaking it down and organizing it into multiple lists, I’ve gotten more accomplished with less stress. I can’t say I‘ll never forget things again, but this app will make it a pretty interesting bet.
I found myself making lists just for fun—movies I want to see, songs I want to download, and places I want to visit. Who knew I had so many lists to make? While the act of creating to-do lists isn’t really “fun,” it organized and de-stressed my life—which leads to more party time (and that’s fun).
Not only did I feel less stressed to remember tasks, I found the things on the lists seemed easier to accomplish. Since my one long list was now spread out and organized, I could tackle tasks in one area (say, school and work) without stressing about the tasks that needed to be done in another (res and home life).
David Allen, Productivity Expert and Author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (Penguin Books, 2002).
Chris Bailey, Productivity Coach and Author of The Productivity Project: Accomplishing More by Managing Your Time, Attention, and Energy (Crown Business, 2016).
Bregman, P. (2016, August 22). The Bregman Leadership Podcast. Episode 36: Chris Bailey–The Productivity Project. Retrieved from https://peterbregman.com/podcast/chris-bailey-the-productivity-project/#.WVKD1_ryvBJ
Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), 363–406. Retrieved from https://projects.ict.usc.edu/itw/gel/EricssonDeliberatePracticePR93.PDF
DeskTime. (2014). The secret of the 10 percent most productive people? Breaking! Retrieved from https://blog.desktime.com/2014/08/20/the-secret-of-the-10-most-productive-people-breaking/
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Pachman, M., Sweller, J., & Kalyuga, S. (2014). Effectiveness of combining worked examples and deliberate practice for high school geometry. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 28(5), 685–692. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/acp.3054/full
Plant, E. A., Ericsson, K. A., Hill, L., & Asberg, K. (2005). Why study time does not predict grade point average across college students: Implications of deliberate practice for academic performance. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 30(1), 96–116. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0361476X04000384
Seifert, C. M., & Patalano, A. L. (1991). Memory for incomplete tasks: A re-examination of the Zeigarnik effect. In Proceedings of the 13th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society (pp. 114–119), Chicago, Illinois. Retrieved from https://wesscholar.wesleyan.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1286&context=div3facpubs
Student Health 101 survey, September 2017.