Lately I’ve been having a difficult time getting my work done. I have several important due dates coming up, yet I keep finding new ways to procrastinate. If you can relate, I’d like to share some of my strategies for sharpening my focus and beating lethargy.
- Know yourself
At this point in my academic career, I know that I need to take a break at least every hour. For instance, the other night I went to the library to do a Spanish assignment. I read and took notes on one chapter before losing focus and when I checked the time, it was exactly an hour later. I put the book away; I don’t force myself to work past my natural limits of concentration because I know that if I do, I’ll just keep getting distracted, and will actually be less productive.
Self-knowledge is also the key to choosing study techniques, a productive work environment, or accessories and materials that help you learn—there seems to be an ideal “study aesthetic” that people try to emulate, but you need to study in the way that is best for you.
- Distinguish between “To do” and “Must do”
My planner is always meticulously filled with all my homework, projects, classes, meetings, and other appointments. This semester I added a step to my organization routine. I still write down everything, but I also make a more curated “Must do” list every day. These are the tasks that absolutely must be done, even if I do nothing else that day. I’m a big believer in creating small, manageable goals, so I keep the Must Do list to four items or fewer. This stops me from wasting time on things that are less urgent, and reminds me to feel proud even of small accomplishments.
- Have a routine
Establishing a daily schedule is crucial, but it’s very difficult for me to maintain. I tend to decide on a day-to-day basis how to spend my time, and about halfway through this semester I switched up my entire routine. This is a problem, because if I don’t have a set time to complete tasks, I might not do them at all! Although I’ve been somewhat wishy-washy, I do have a general idea of how to divide my time. For example, I usually do school work in the mornings, because I have the most energy and concentration then. Just a few years ago, I never would have called myself a morning person, but through trial and error, I figured out what works best for me.
- Remember your “Why”
Here’s a video that inspired me last semester to start waking up early. It’s made by a creator named Rowena Tsai—I would recommend all her videos on productivity and mindfulness—who talks about how she started waking up at 4 a.m. every single day. Of course most of us don’t want to wake up at 4 a.m., but her approach is applicable to many different projects. Rowena points out that it’s no use trying to attain a goal if you don’t have a good reason for it (skip to 8:25 to hear her explanation).
All through elementary school, middle school, and high school, I was a high-achieving student, but I wasn’t doing it for myself. My personality was naturally rule-abiding, so I did the work I was assigned and went to the classes on my schedule. If I were to skip classes in high school, I knew I would get in trouble, but in college I could skip days of classes before anyone even realized. What I’m trying to say is that when I came to Bryn Mawr, I couldn’t rely on external pressure to do well, so I had to find an internal motivation.
I don’t want to write too much about the mental and emotional challenges of college—my fellow students already know how precarious it can seem, like one wrong move will lead to abject disaster. Or conversely, how onerous life can become, turning into a stream of meaningless assignments, that make you feel like your only purpose is to employ the rhetorical techniques and jargon that will produce a good grade. The question is, how to make meaning. How to make each day a little memorable. How to push yourself to think more deeply, to question more intensely, to feel your brain moving.
Maybe that’s my real motivation. When I procrastinate, my brain feels slow, and I feel like there’s a piece of gauze between my senses and the world. I’m not saying that doing homework gives my life purpose—far from it!—but rather, that avoidant behaviors like procrastination make me feel disconnected and disinterested. Being productive can mean doing homework, but it can also mean exercising my creative energies in any way that brings something of value into my life and into the world.