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 very tough to overcome sometimes,” says Torrin B., a fourth-year graduate student at the University of Wisconsin—Madison. “It’s easy to dwell on how long or difficult something may be and lose motivation.”
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 70 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.
“Just getting started is the hardest part for me,” says Shawna S., a second-year graduate student at Portland State University in Oregon. “If I don’t start, I wander around thinking about starting. Once I actually get myself started, the anxiety of the project starts to go away.”
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 practiced 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 understanding complex research or improving your work presentations). 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, supervisor, colleague, 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 work 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 practice in front of someone you trust. Did your person notice that you weren’t making eye contact or were saying “um” too much? Keep practicing. 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.
“You absolutely need regular breaks from intense thinking to allow your brain to regroup and refresh itself,” says Allen. “Thinking engages a ‘cognitive muscle’ that can burn out if not given adequate rest. That means enough sleep and frequent breaks during the day to daydream, play, and think about nothing in particular.”
Work full time and worry about how those frequent breaks affect your productivity levels on the job? 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 or work hours, but back at home base, set your alarm to notify you when it’s time to bust out the worm, color with your nephew, or do whatever lets your brain have some wiggle room.
Do you ever find yourself sitting down with your work, 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 productivity coach Chris Bailey, author of The Productivity Project: Accomplishing More by Managing Your Time, Attention, and Energy (Crown Business, 2016). “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 Freedom or 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 honest with 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.)
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 use a planner to keep track of important dates and deadlines. Writing these down makes it easier for me to remember them, and it holds me accountable by seeing them every time I open my planner.”
—Dalleny R., third-year student, Elgin Community College, Illinois
Here’s what an accountability chart might look like for writing a short essay over the course of a day. (If your days include school + work, commuting, or caregiving, you’ll probably need to break this out over the course of a few days. And of course, it’s always best to review an assignment with fresh eyes at least 24 hours after you finish writing it.)
“Productivity is about time management, and time management is all about self-management. To manage yourself, it’s also important to cut back on stress,” says Yvonne Surrey, a continuing education instructor at Hostos Community College/Division of Continuing Education and Workforce Development and productivity coach in New York. Here are her tricks for taking care of yourself:
- Go to bed on time and get enough sleep.
- Eat healthfully and regularly (don’t skip meals).
- Exercise regularly.
And while you’re mastering your productivity and treating yourself like the royalty you are, do us all a favor and cut down on the caffeine, suggests Bailey. Swap it for plain water. Not glamorous, but effective if you find yourself with heart palpitations from 10 too many cups of coffee. Now select a productivity system and get on with making it your best year ever. We’ll do the same.
Third-year graduate student, Creighton University School of Pharmacy, Nebraska
“I don’t know about you, but deadlines are the bane of my existence. Nothing makes me jump out of bed or break into a cold sweat more quickly than the thought of missing a due date. Trying to keep track of school, work, family, and my social life is stressful! If any of this sounds at all familiar, then you need to check out Wunderlist. This app will keep track of your to-do list, syncing it seamlessly between all your devices, giving you total peace of mind. Need Wunderlist to alert you about deadlines so you can look like a champ? Done. Want to be able to share your list and collaborate with anyone? It does that too. Best of all, Wunderlist will help you sleep sans deadline anxiety.”
Like my humor, this app isn’t for everyone. If you have an incredible memory and hate making lists, you can probably skip this app. But everyone else will find it very useful. Being able to do things like integrate Outlook and my messenger with Wunderlist pretty much changed my life.
Let me tell you what’s not fun. It’s not fun to have to make another list because you can’t find the piece of paper you wrote your initial list on. What’s worse is freaking out because you’re “pretty sure” you’ve left something off the new list that was on your first list. Is this app fun like playing with a fidget spinner? No, but it is fun to not lose your list anymore. Make sense?
When I was in the car today, I thought of a few things that I needed on my to-do list. Instead of reaching for paper and a pen like I normally do, I just grabbed my phone and used the app. It was very effective.
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).
Yvonne Surrey, continuing education teacher, Hostos Community College/Division of Continuing Education & Workforce Development; productivity coach and speaker, Brooklyn, New York.
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
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Student Health 101 survey, September 2017.