Every student has been there: garrisoned in the library with a pile of books, the dregs of four or five Americanos, a vending machine dinner, an empty Word document, and 3000 words to write before dawn. University doesn’t have to be an endless cycle of essay crises and crashes and you’re certainly not producing your best work with three hours on the clock and a Red Bull buzz, but we do it to ourselves again and again. But you can learn how to manage deadline stress, curb procrastination, and even have enough time to check that essay for spellings mistakes *and* get some shut eye.
1. Start early Easier said than done, the procrastinators protest. On Monday that Friday deadline seems eons away and you have plenty of time to fritter away on social media and at the pub. And anyway, you’re just not in the right mood to start now. Starting early will allow you to product the best work you possibly can, under the least amount of brain-addling time pressure. But if d you just can’t persuade yourself to start working when Buzzfeed quizzes are beckoning, your friends are planning a Tuesday night pub crawl, and the due date is so deceptively distant, read on:
2. Identify your worst procrastination quicksand Here’s a test: look at your browser history. How many times have you loaded Facebook just today? A better test: set out to complete a task and count how many times your fingers itch toward time-wasting websites or your phone. TimeTracker, a Mac app, can even tell you how much time your spending on which applications and which sites and how frequently you’re flicking between your half-written essay and time-sucking sites. Maybe you compulsively refresh the news (you have to stay informed, don’t you?) or maybe you’re sending off a flurry of tweets and snapchats about your awful terrible impossible essay rather than actually doing it. Once you’ve identified your worst habits you can start to break them.
3. Cut the distractions, with technological help We’ve all seen people make dramatic farewells to social media during exam season, often having trusted friends change their passwords or using strict browser extensions to block their favorite procrastination pitstops. It seems daft but cutting off, or even just limiting, your access to social media can be liberating. If you can manage to tune out the constant internet chatter, either with old fashioned willpower, or apps like Self-Control, you’ll not only save time, you’ll clear your mind for the task at hand.
4. Change your environment Your room or flat might be the most comfortable place to work but it’s packed with distractions, some of which are disguising themselves as chores. You’re never as as eager to do the washing up or clean the shower as you are when you’re avoiding an essay, right? And then there’s your bed and it’s siren call. And before you know if you’ve wasted the entire day scrubbing the oven and napping. Get out of a rut by shaking things up, putting yourself in a different situation. Head to the library, where the silence and the company of others working may prod you into productivity. Just the act of leaving your home and heading somewhere to work will give you a sense of purpose.
5. Hang out with productive people You know your one friend who always finishes the essay a full day early and breezes into lectures on the due date with washed hair and unrumpled clothes? How does she do it? You can ask her or even better, you can shadow her. If she’s in the library working with all the other teacher’s pets, you’re in the library working. Productivity can definitely be contagious, especially with the encouragement of others. At the very least you might feel shamed into cracking open a book if you hang out with her.
6. Setter smaller, more manageable goals When you’re staring at the assignment the information to process, and the word count, may seem daunting. So daunting it often seems easier just to shelf it for a few days. But every article is read sentence by sentence, and every essay composed word by word. There are a number of clear-cut steps in finishing an assignment: doing the preliminary reading, planning your argument, finishing the research, doing the writing. Divide the workload into smaller goals and it will seem more manageable and you don’t be as hesitant jump in.
7. Use the “2-Minute Rule” A whole host of self-help gurus and productivity books recommend this trick. It’s stupefyingly simple: it takes less than two minutes, then do it now. No ifs, ands, and buts. It’s only two minutes. Obviously you can’t write an essay in two minutes, or even accomplish any of your mini goals in that period of time. But you can make a fantastic start, or knock out some smaller tasks. You can write a citation in 2 minutes. You can probably finish reading a page in two minutes. It’s all about starting and not giving in to your instinct to delay.
8. Make a schedule Make those goals concrete by setting earlier deadlines for them. If your essay is due on Friday maybe you should aim to have the preliminary reading completed by Tuesday morning? And the outline by the evening? Do whatever feel comfortable for you. If you thrive on regimentation you might want to budget your time more aggressively, blocking out entire days. But make sure to leave time for breaks and to be flexible: if the words are flowing, keep going, even if you’ve pencilled reading in for the next hour. Alternatively, don’t beat yourself up for failing to finish a paragraph in the time you allotted for it. Be strict but not totalitarian about your time.
10. Reward yourself for meeting your goals Studies have shown that students who plants sweets as rewards at the end of each paragraph of reading focus more on the upcoming treat and don’t retain the information. If you dangle the carrot too low you won’t be able to concentrate on anything else. But you should certainly reward yourself for your hard work and for meeting mini-deadlines, maybe with a half hour of time-wasting internet, an episode of your favourite television programme, and a jaunt down to the cafe for a fresh cup of coffee with a friend.
11. Make your goals, and successes, public No one wants to read your live-tweet of an essay or your Facebook humble-brag about submitting a project after *so much* graft so this tactic may not be viable for your run-of-the-pill essays. But for big projects, like dissertations, sharing details about it and your progress, with friends and family, can help hold your accountable. They’ll want to know how it’s going and you certainly don’t want to tell them you haven’t actually started, do you?
11. Stay positive Don’t let self-doubt feed into the cycle of procrastination. Maintain positive about your ability to complete the project–well, on time, and with minimal stress. And if it’s the night before the deadline and you’re still thousands of words behind, don’t waste time beating yourself up for failing to budget your time better. Just put your head down and work.
12. Just do it After a certain point, schedules, browser extensions, and timers can just be another form of procrastination or distraction. Sometimes you just have to forget all the strategies and just launch into the work. You’ve got this.
Nora Watson is an old pro at essays; she even writes them at essaypro.com. When not writing she enjoys rock-climbing, a good cup of coffee, and spending time with her nieces.