Beating back procrastination part 1: start now and finish later

time_watch_msclipartFight the need to finish now!

Getting started on studying, homework and large assignments means just that: start a little now — and don’t worry about finishing until later.

Cramming is a difficult habit to break. The best technique for breaking the cramming cycle is to “smooth out your workflow” by just “getting started,” whether or not you’ll finish it now.

Yet getting started on homework, studying and tests can be so hard, especially when we pressure ourselves to get it done all at once.

Students who have trouble starting an assignment or project often put it aside for later because they feel they need to finish it once they start. Knowing they can’t possibly finish, they don’t bother to start. Here’s the logic:

  1. I know I need to do this.
  2. There’s no way I can finish it now.
  3. So I’d better do it tomorrow.

And tomorrow turns into another tomorrow until the night before the deadline… and then it’s another all-nighter.

The problem is that we are more likely to procrastinate if we feel anxious about our task, especially if it’s large or difficult and not due for a few days or more.  It just seems like too much and we tell ourselves we can’t possibly get it done today.

The Blind Men & the Elephant in Reverse

IBlind Men & the Elephantn the old parable about the blind men and the elephant, the blind men only perceive that small part of an elephant they are touching. Not seeing its entirely they cannot understand what it is. To one, the leg feels like a tree. To others, the tail feels like a little brush, or the belly a wall.

For the procrastinator, it’s the opposite, we see the project as all too big, making it into a monster we want to escape and avoid. When we look at a large assignment, we tend to want to do it all at once, which becomes an impossible expectation.

But there’s a better way. Rather than building up pressure on ourselves, just get going — only for a little bit or just to look it over and think about it — without the pressure of having to finish it right away. Maybe seeing just a part of it can help make it all less scary and easier to manage.

Just Getting Started means just that: start only

Finishing will come later — and that’s okay. Once you start, you will have broken down the biggest procrastination barrier of them all.

We know from students in our A+ Club academic support program who have engaged “getting started” only that releasing themselves of the burden of having to finish is liberating. Without the pressure of finishing, they can start.

And the benefits of “starting” are enormous:

  1. Breaking down / overcoming barriers to work
  2. Identifying needs & concerns
  3. Identifying time required for task completion
  4. Makes getting started next time easier

Let’s take them one at a time:

Breaking down / overcoming barriers to work

Not knowing how to do something is an easy excuse not to start. However, if we can at least look it over, see some of the different parts, maybe it’s not so bad. In the least, we can now know what we need to know to get it going — and that’s a great start!

Identifying needs & concerns

By starting, we can now look at our work in little chunks and separate the easy from the hard. By formulating questions about our work, we are engaging it. Simply clarifying goals or reviewing the teacher rubric is a wonderful start, and by looking them over we have already begun.

Identifying time required for task completion

The worst danger of procrastination is that by putting something off until later we are also putting off knowing how long it will actually take to get done. Perhaps it’s easier than we thought — but if it’s more involved than anticipated, by starting we know it well in advance of the deadline, not the night before!

Makes getting started next time easier

Taking up something that has already been started is far easier than starting it for the first time.  By starting, we are not just breaking down the barriers of starting, we are empowering the next step.

To summarize:

Start Now, Finish Later

Don’t let finishing get in the way of starting! Get it started, and finishing will take care of itself!

Next up in “Beating Back Procrastination Pt 2: smoothing out the workflow” will be a study of a 5-day workflow, comparing “getting started” with “cramming” and an “all-nighter.”

I was surprised to learn from this study that “getting started” actually reduces the amount of time we need to spend on completing an assignment or project. Very cool!

– Michael