It was dark in my room. Quiet too. I could feel the warmth coming from the 3rd story window in our apartment building, but I had the shades down because I needed to focus.
It had been 2 weeks since the semester had ended, and I was still working.
What in god’s name was I doing there… weeks after everyone else had headed home to their families, summer jobs, and relaxing vacations?
I asked myself that a lot during those few weeks after the end of my Junior year.
I was finishing a project.
Our junior product design project, required by the engineering curriculum at my school. A project we had long-since actually completed and presented on. But this was the worst part of all: the massive, ungodly long, painfully tedious PROJECT REPORT.
Our team’s final grades were being held until we finished, along with most other students in the class. The sheer amount of work required to get those 100+ pages of technical reporting done was impossible to squeeze into a semester already bulging at the seams with classes, work, and exhaustion. And I, nobly, had volunteered to pull together everyone’s work and finish off the report (P.S. – worst group project decision ever…).
The problem was I was losing steam.
Every second I just barely inched along – struggling to make yet another table, chart, caption…
“This is stupid.”
“What’s the point?”
I could get myself to do just about anything at that point… anything except make progress on the one thing I actually needed to be doing.
Why studying is so friggin’ hard to get yourself to do?
“…the brain is not designed for thinking. It’s designed to save you from having to think, because the brain is actually not very good at thinking. Thinking is slow and unreliable.”
~ Daniel Willingham, cognitive scientist and author of Why Don’t Students Like School?
As students, both in school and in life, we constantly put pressure on ourselves to learn.
Learn more. Learn faster. Fit it all in.
But most of the time, it backfires.
“I know I should be studying, but I can’t stop watching re-runs of Seinfeld… Why am I so lazy?”
Like UVA cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham helpfully reminds us, the brain is designed primarily to support the survival functions (seeing, hearing, moving, etc.) that keep us going.
Thinking (the thing everyone seems to care about these days) is actually an evolutionary “nice-to-have” – a high-energy-cost activity that takes focus away from survival to build new thought patterns that might be helpful later on.
We are, as they say, cognitive misers.
We put ourselves on a “brain energy budget,” refusing to expend effort unless we can see a good reason why…
And not the logical, rational, “I should do this” type of reason. A more primal reason.
Motivation is not enough to stop procrastinating
A lot of this we chock up to motivation.
“Ugh, I just can’t get motivated to do math.”
But motivation is much more complex, fluid, and fleeting than we think.
It comes and goes like a wave… and is directly tied, not only to the “voice in our heads,” but also to our biology.
When we’re motivated, everything is good. Everything is easy. It’s like we’re on happy pills, and the work flows effortlessly.
And we don’t even need a plan!
When I’m motivated I’ll gleefully walk up to my shelf, pick up some random book (usually the most colorful) and start learning – just because it seems interesting! I’ll do the dishes, walk the dog, fold the clothes, go work out… The difficulties in life seem to melt away.
But then it starts to fade, and we fall back to baseline.
The true problem arises when we’re not motivated: it’s like a long slog through hot cement – an eternal struggle just to make it to the desk to even think about opening your notebook.
When that happens, and you try to “just study,” it’s more hopeless than Ron Burgandy without a teleprompter.
Unfortunately, we do it to ourselves.
First, we put a HUGE amount of pressure on ourselves to succeed. Our identity becomes tied to being a “smart person,” and any evidence to the contrary (points off on homework, a bad exam grade, a mistake in a meeting at work) becomes a catalyst for a downward de-motivational spiral. We subscribe to a fixed-mindset, and we do it without even knowing it.
We’re all really really afraid of looking stupid.
And that makes it just that much more likely that the motivation won’t come when we want it to.
Second, we plan as if we’ll always be motivated.
“Oh yea, I’ll just figure it all out once I get to the library. Just gotta read the textbook and go through the lecture notes and stuff.”
But that’s only like 5% of our daily experience!
95% of the time, I’m completely overwhelmed by any task more complex than “go to the bathroom,” “lie down,” or “chew.”
So here I was, sitting by myself, wishing every second I was anywhere else besides in front of the computer.
I made food.
I watched Youtube videos.
I checked Facebook and email and text messages and ANYTHING PLEASE FINISH THIS FOR ME!!
I even remember trying to slog through by typing super slowly… O n e l e t t e r at a time.
And then I would catch a short burst of “OK LET’S DO THIS!” and write about 3 pages, and then get exhausted again.
I was doing it all wrong – trying to force my brain to get focused and motivated on this monumental task of “WRITE PROJECT REPORT.”
The procrastination trump card: How to get yourself to work, even when motivation is low
Okay, time to switch gears. Back to Mr. Willingham…
“Nevertheless, people enjoy mental work if it is successful. People like to solve problems, but not to work on unsolvable problems.”
Turns out, solving problems actually brings pleasure!
And our brains are more than happy to expend energy on solvable problems, releasing dopamine every time we make some visible progress.
The only trouble lies in figuring out how to break down your work so that you perceive it as “solvable.”
So, instead of waiting for motivation to strike, and then working like a madman… do this:
1. Whenever a wave of motivation strikes, use it for planning, not working.
These short bursts of energy throughout the day will get you over the mental hurdle of having to think about big complex tasks.
So take advantage intelligently, and break down your big monstrous task into smaller, manageable chunks that can be reasonably tackled during the “down periods” that will inevitably plague you later.
For me that would have been mapping out the report outline, breaking it into chunks: Intro, Background Research, Design, Manufacturing, Testing and Data Collection, etc.
Then taking each of those chunks, and breaking them into smaller pieces. For example, the Results section would have 4 tables and 12 graphs on X, Y, and Z followed by captions and a short description for each.
For a set of math problems, this might be breaking them down by concept (e.g. the product rule, the quotient rule, the chain rule, etc.), and then managing each problem by breaking it down into parts (e.g. differentiate first, then algebra, then plug in).
2. Don’t only focus on your goal, create a system for getting there.
Humans are goal oriented. Goals are good. Me likey goals.
But setting the goal only frames the activity that you’ll then need to do. Staring at that shiny trophy isn’t going to get you any closer to actually getting it.
So instead, set up a system that will inevitably lead you to the finish line.
In my case, this would have been a daily schedule, along with my chunked down task list above. Plus some sort of reward/punishment setup.
Monday is for the Intro and Background Research sections. For each 25-minute period of work I’ll aim to get either one sub-section of writing done, or annotate those sections with footnotes from references. Each time I get through a work period, I’ll reward myself with a 5-minute break. Then, if I get everything done for the day, I get to relax and watch a goofy documentary and order food.
Sleep consolidates learning.
Sleep releases growth hormone and repairs your body.
Sleep builds up your mental capacity.
But our culture FRIGGIN HATES SLEEP. Sleep is for the weak! I’ll sleep when I die!! What a waste of time!
Well, unfortunately sometimes our culture is also pretty stupid.
Sleep is the necessary counterpart to high achievement, ESPECIALLY in learning.
The deeper you go into the energy reserves of your mind and body, the more rest you need to recuperate and consolidate your gains.
Spoiler alert: IT’S 7-10 HOURS OF SLEEP!!
Sleep is directly correlated with both motivation and clear thinking: a student’s dream (no pun intended).
Oh, so what happened with my project?
Got it finished (after three grueling weeks), got a 94%, got an A in the class.
But damn it didn’t have to be that hard…
Feature image credit: SuperFantastic
If you liked this post (and are tired of banging your head against the wall) check out my Free 5-Day No-BS Study Tactics Course where I’ll help you beat procrastination, reduce study time, and achieve deep focused learning in your math, science, or engineering courses.
Tom is an engineer and physics tutor obsessed with independent learning. He writes about unconventional study methods at WTF Professor, aimed at simplifying the learning process for engineers and technical students.