It might have been a particularly devious form of procrastination, or an excellent life hack, but I found myself answering a plaintive Quora post, from a medical student begging the world to help him overcome procrastination.

Here’s the opening paragraph:

I’m a very lazy student and have procrastinated SO much in my life, and I want to stop doing it. I’m currently entering 4th year of medicine, my grades are above average, but I could be much, much better. Tomorrow I have one of my exams, which I will fail because I’ve been avoiding any contact with the book – but I know that as soon as the situation becomes inevitable, I’ll study it. But I don’t want to do that anymore!! I want to be better than anyone else. I don’t want to be mediocre anymore.

It’s Dear Miss Lonelyhearts stuff. You can read the full post, and the 40-something responses, here.

My personal hack comes into the equation because I’ve been trying to get back to my blog for a month or more…partly because I called it out on my bio posting at Education Partners (new gig), and partly because it’s important to me as a creative and thinking outlet.

Procrastination is one of the great unseen forces of destruction in education. Very little is done to help students overcome their fears and sub-optimizing habits. Professors assign term papers week two of a term, then expect final versions six weeks later. Maybe a draft or a bibliography in between. Probably not.

Of course good teachers go much further. But no software company leader would assign a project due in six weeks and then ignore the doer of the work until the delivery date. We do incessant one-on-ones to review projects, discuss blockers, and to coach.

In fact, I’d argue that agile software development is just a peer pressure-driven life hack to help teams avoid procrastination. The opposite of agile is waterfall development, where detailed requirements are written and then engineers go off for six months and build…without any input (warning: this is a dramatic oversimplification). Sounds like school.

Here’s my response to the Quora post…and a triumphant hack to my goal of getting back to Da Blog.

Lots of long answers here…I’d like to read some of them, but maybe after I re-watch Season 4 of the Sopranos…

I taught average and above-average first-year engineering students for 11 years. I was a classic under-achiever myself, and really didn’t kick it into gear until my 2nd year of own engineering school career.

I’m still a procrastinator, to some degree (writing this response…!). Here is what matters, from my reading and thinking:

  • The ‘why’:
    • Putting off studying is probably a safety mechanism. If you bomb the exam, you failed not because you weren’t capable but because you didn’t try as hard as you might have. So we procrastinate so we don’t have to take 100% responsibility for ‘failure.’
    • I believe in the trigger/habit/reward cycle that Duhigg and others have written about [1]. You have an ingrained reward, now, for your habit of watching anime etc. What is it? Is it the thrill of NOT studying? The escape and immersion of an enjoyable drama? This sounds kind of simple, but it actually requires a considerable amount of self-knowledge and introspection – that perhaps only comes with maturity and age.

  • Action! From hard to easy
    • Celebrate your success. You are a medical student! You’re in a university! Realize that wanting to change (posting to Quora) is an indication of your resolve. Go easy on yourself – you are not alone in your self-destructive behavior. Be kind to yourself.
    • Set yourself up for success when your self-control is strongest. This is not the night before an exam – that’s when your deeply ingrained trigger/habit/reward procrastination hardwiring is going to kick in. A small example: the person who wants to go running in the morning puts her running shoes in the doorway of her bedroom, forcing her to think about what her real goals. Step over the shoes for a visceral reminder of loser-dom? Or put ’em on and go for the run?
    • You can’t escape the trigger/habit/reward cycle. In your case, the trigger is an exam or academic pressure, the habit is putting off studying, and the reward is zoning out in front of videos. You can’t get rid of the academic pressure, unless you drop out and work at Starbucks for the rest of your life. The reward is important to you – but you need to understand exactly what about watching anime is rewarding. Then you can wire in different habits in order to achieve the spirit of the reward. This is hard, and takes time and effort.
    • More immediately, you need to hack the shit out of your life in order to defeat your procrastination.
      • The day before an exam get yourself somewhere with crap Internet – go to the 12th floor of a city library, or to the country. Preferably have the journey take effort, so the place you go to is hard to unwind. You’ll leave yourself no choice; it will be  just you and your books. Create boredom, where the only possible action is to study. Leave your phone at home. If you take steps like this at 8am, when you’re fresh and optimistic, you’ll defeat your base impulses.
      • Hang around the students who have their act together. Be nice to them, do things for them. Try not to be that lame kid who is just looking for help…you will get better through osmosis.
    • Write your mantra every morning. This sounds stupid, but it is the surest-fire winner out of everything I’ve written. Write, “I will become an ‘A’ student and get my work done in advance” ten times. Like Bart Simpson at the board, writing lines. This isn’t some new age mumbo jumbo. Scott Adams, of Dilbert fame, writes compellingly about this in his book How to Fail at Everything [2]. If you take 60 seconds to write out your goal, every morning (when you have self-control) you will:
      • Align your subconscious with your goals – so all day long you’ll be noticing small things and taking small actions (like sitting with the smart, hardworking students at lunch) that advance your goal.
      • You’ll start to chip away at the reward – because you’ll know watching 3 hours of anime doesn’t align with what you just wrote 12 hours earlier.

This last item is the easiest of the bunch, but you have to do it 10 days in a row.

Good luck!


[1] Hacking Habits: How To Make New Behaviors Last For Good

[2] How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life: Scott Adams: 9781591847748: Books