“You cannot hoot with the owls and then soar with the eagles.”
– Hubert Humphrey
There is a difference between a goal and a wish. A goal is something that requires action to complete. A wish is something we simply hope will happen without doing anything to achieve it. Students often confuse goals with wishes due to the expected probability of the outcome. For example, a student might say that owning a Ferrari or becoming a movie star were wishes, not goals, because the chance of them happening is slim. We could debate about realistic goals for a long time, but for the purpose of this lesson, the probability of a goal is irrelevant. Think of it like this: the chances of winning the lottery may in fact be slim, but we have no chance to win the lottery if we do not purchase a ticket. Purchasing a ticket requires action, and that distinguishes a difference between a goal and a wish.
When we apply this to education, there are many areas that require action in order to be successful. If I wish for good grades, but spend my time at parties instead of studying, I may not get my wish. But if my goal is to attain good grades, and I take action to achieve them by studying, reviewing, being prepared, etc., then I am much more likely to accomplish my goal.
“Some people want it to happen, some wish it would happen, others make it happen.”
– Michael Jordan
I had a friend in college who wanted to be a professional athlete. He would talk about it all the time and say that it was his goal. He was a student-athlete but he loved Carl’s Jr. and ate there frequently. He rarely worked out. Over time, I started to think—if he really wanted to be a professional athlete, in order to give himself the best opportunity to make it, he should exercise more and eat a more nutritional diet. It occurred to me years later that he said it was his goal but in reality, it was a wish. He hoped that he would just magically become a professional athlete one day but was unwilling to take the action necessary to help him achieve his goal.
One of the challenges many students face is being over committed. Some are working full-time, going to school full-time, and have other responsibilities as well. Students may additionally be taking care of children, siblings, parents or have other commitments. It can be difficult to take action to complete goals when there are so many areas competing for our time. And sometimes we cannot “do it all.” Sometimes we need to prioritize, let something go, adjust and reevaluate what the most important things are to us.
Other students may struggle because college does not have as much structure as what they may have been used to in high school. Why should I start a homework assignment now when I don’t have anything I have to do for the next three days? This mindset usually leads to the student waiting until the last minute to start the assignment and as a result, the quality of work is not high.
“Do or do not – there is no try.”
Either a homework assignment gets done on time or it doesn’t. Over the years I have seen a lot of excuses from students who didn’t complete their assignment on time. Think about this: If someone were to give you $500 to complete the assignment on time, would you complete it sooner than you ordinarily would have? What level is your internal motivation? How important is the assignment to you? How important is your grade? How important is your class?
Procrastination is the act of putting something off. It’s doing something that’s a low priority instead of doing something that is a high priority. We all procrastinate sometimes. But when we procrastinate on an assignment or studying for an exam until there is little or no time left, our grades suffer and it can be stressful. Learning about why we procrastinate can help us overcome.
Reasons We Procrastinate
I don’t feel like it. I would rather play a video game, watch TV, hang out with friends, sleep, etc. than start my assignment. (The problem is – you might never feel like starting it.)
Perfectionism. I want to do it perfectly and there is not enough time to do it perfectly so I am not going to do it at all.
Fear of success. If I study my tail off and I earn an A on an exam, people will start to expect that I will get A’s all of the time.
Fear of failure. Without confidence, I can’t do the assignment well, no matter how much time or effort I put into it.
“If we are not prepared to fail, we will never create anything original.”
– Sir Ken Robinson
These reasons have been keeping some students from completing assignments and studying for exams. Do you procrastinate? Why?
Whatever the reason may be, procrastination is not a good idea. It often leads to stress. It can be stressful in trying to complete something if we have left it to the last minute. It can be stressful to know that we didn’t submit work that was our best. And stress can take a toll on the health of our bodies.
There are many examples of how American society realizes that people procrastinate. FedEx is built on the fact that people need something immediately and in many cases, they have procrastinated past when regular mail would have gotten it there on time. Post offices stay open later on Tax Day because they know people procrastinated getting their taxes done. Stores offer sales days before Christmas because they know people have procrastinated their Christmas shopping.
So how do we avoid procrastination?
Tell yourself to do your best all of the time. Ask yourself what is important NOW. Other peoples’ expectations of you shouldn’t matter. Be confident in yourself and in your abilities. Do the best you can and be satisfied with your effort. Realize that we’re not perfect. Make your goal to do your best and understand you don’t need to be perfect. Also, realize that you may never “feel like” doing an assignment or studying for an exam.
Get Started. It is the hardest part to do and will have the biggest effect on defeating procrastination. It can be simple: skim the chapter you have to read, think of a title for your paper or schedule an hour for when you will study. The rest of it will be easier once you get started.
Establish and rely on a process. Figure out what works best for you. Take some time to make a plan, list, or outline that allows you to see what you will do and when to complete your assignment or goal. It might be setting aside time early in the morning or waiting to watch a movie until after you’ve finished an assignment. Set your priorities and stick to them.
Set Imaginary Deadlines. If the paper is due in six days, tell yourself it is due in two days. Knock it out early and then enjoy not having it over your head. Fake deadlines are less stressful. And if you do end up needing more time, you have a cushion.
Don’t Break the Chain. Jerry Seinfeld developed a system to help prevent procrastination. He wanted to be a better comedian and believed that writing better jokes would help. To write better jokes, he thought he should write every day. His system, called Don’t Break the Chain was used to motivate himself to write every day. He started with a big wall calendar with a whole year on a page and a red marker. For each day he wrote, he would place a big red X on that day of the calendar. After a few consecutive days, he had a chain. And then the task became not breaking the chain.
Although originally skeptical, I tried it (with exercise), and found it to work. I liked marking the big red X and I liked seeing a long string of big red X’s after a few weeks. I still use this strategy and find myself much more motivated to not break the chain than to go for a run, swim, or to the gym. If there is something you want to practice every day, try it.
“If you eat a frog first thing in the morning, the rest of your day will be wonderful.”
– Mark Twain
I don’t suggest that you go out and eat a frog, but the point Twain makes is paramount to overcoming procrastination. He meant if you have to do something you don’t want to, the best thing to do is do it right away: get it over with as soon as possible then move on to enjoy the things you want to do.
This might be true of going to the dentist, making a phone call you don’t want to make, or doing your homework.
Tim Urban’s Ted Talk shines a light on procrastination.
Video: Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator, Tim Urban TED Talk
Estimating Task Time
One of the biggest challenges I see college students have is accurately estimating how much time it will take to complete a task. We might think we’re going to be able to read an assigned chapter in an hour. But what if it takes three hours to read and understand the chapter? Having the skill to know how long a homework assignment will take is something that can be developed. But until we can anticipate it accurately, it is best to leave some time in our schedule in case it takes longer than we had anticipated.
We have a limited amount of time. Most of us cannot complete everything we wish to complete—either in a day or in a lifetime. We hear people say, “I wish there was more time” or “If there was more time, I would have done this.” We have enough time to do many of the things we wish to do. People run into difficulty when they spend time on things that are not the most important things for them.
“There’s never enough time to do all the nothing you want.”
– Bill Watterson
I used to say to myself that I would do this or finish that as soon as I got caught up. “Caught up” might apply to my e-mail inbox, keeping current with my twitter timeline, or watching the latest episode of The Walking Dead. But I found that sometimes I was never going to be caught up. So, it was important for me to realize that I was inadvertently placing quadrant III and IV activities ahead of quadrant I and II activities. Worse, I was justifying them by telling myself I would do the I and II activities once the III and IV activities were finished. I corrected this by refocusing on quadrant I and II and constantly reminding myself not to concentrate too much time on the things that are neither urgent nor important.
Time Management Strategies
Laura Vanderkam’s TED Talk helps with perspective on free time.
Video: How to Gain Control of Your Free Time, Laura Vanderkam TED Talk
You must make time for the things that are most important to you. In order to make time, you may need to decide you will not do something else.
The ability to say “no” cannot be underestimated. It isn’t easy to say “no,” especially to family, friends and people that like you and whom you like. Most of us don’t want to say “no,” especially when we want to help. But if we always do what others want, we won’t accomplish the things that we want—the things that are most important to us.
What am I doing that doesn’t need to be done?
What can I do more efficiently?
Have you ever ordered an appetizer, salad, beverage or bread, then felt full halfway through your entree? In situations like this many people claim, “my eyes were bigger than my stomach.” This is also true with planning and goal setting. It may be that your plan is bigger than the day. Experiment with what you want to accomplish and what is realistic. The better you can accurately predict what you can and will accomplish and how long it will take, the better you can plan, and the more successful you will be.
Licenses and Attributions:
Content previously copyrighted, published in Blueprint for Success in College: Indispensable Study Skills and Time Management Strategies (by Dave Dillon), now licensed as CC BY Attribution.
Urban, Tim. “Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator.” TEDTalks, February 2016. Located at: https://www.ted.com/talks/tim_urban_inside_the_mind_of_a_master_procrastinator
License: CC-BY–NC–ND 4.0 International.
Vanderkam, Laura. “How to Gain Control of Your Free Time.” TEDTalks, uploaded by TEDWomen, October 2016. Located at: https://www.ted.com/talks/laura_vanderkam_how_to_gain_control_of_your_free_time
License: CC-BY–NC–ND 4.0 International.