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Three Tips for Overcoming The Procrastination Doom Loop

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p-arrowsTell us if this sounds like a familiar story. At the beginning of the summer you told yourself you were going to sit down and write your college admissions essay. “I’m going to get a jump start,” you said to yourself, “how hard could it be?” Instead you took a few trips to the beach, ate a lot of ice cream and even cleaned your room (three times) instead of sitting down at the computer. Now it is September and the school year has arrived. Why (whyyyyy?!) is this happening?

Whoever says they don’t occasionally struggle with procrastination is fooling themselves. Or maybe they’re putting off owning up to their own procrastinatory tendencies? We all need help overcoming that little voice that says “if you take a nap now, you’ll work harder later” or “my internet connection is a little wonky – I’m going to close my computer and type out that first sentence later.” Luckily for us, science is here to help us overcome these unproductive thoughts.

A recent article in The Atlantic explores scientists’ most recent theories about procrastination and how to break the cycle. Apparently it’s not a matter of getting better at time management. (Go tell mom you were right!) When deciding to put something off for the moment, most of us delay action because we feel like we’re in the wrong mood to do it (sound familiar?). We also think our mood will change in the near future, and that at some point we will actually feel like attacking the tasks set before us. Unfortunately, you likely won’t pop out of your bed one morning with an overwhelming urge to start penning your personal statement. When you don’t accomplish the task you have already delayed, you feel bad and push it off even further. This creates what scientists call a “Procrastination Doom Loop.”

It looks like this:

Delay → Guilt → Can’t write if I feel bad! → Delay

But it’s not all bad news. Science has also provided some tips for overcoming this vicious cycle, all of which can be applied to the essay writing process:

  1. Set a one-shot reminder as late as possible. Giving yourself a one-time-only alarm will break the doom loop, shock you into action, and won’t give you time to put off (or forget) to sit down and write.
  2. Stop thinking of your essay as work. Find something you like about this essay-writing process; make it a game, build in rewards – anything to convince yourself it’s not something you have to do.
  3. External deadlines are more effective than our own. The false deadlines we give to ourselves, though well-intentioned, rarely work. Outsource your deadlines instead; to your parents, to a friend, to us!
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