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You’re on YouTube right now, but you should probably be studying or writing that research paper. But as long as you’re here, we’re going to help you figure out how to get the better of your desire to procrastinate in the future. Just don’t forget about us when you fully master your procrastination, OK?

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An in-depth discussion on the Procrastination Equation:
The Pomodoro Technique:
High-density vs. low-density fun:
Cold Turkey app:


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  Intro (0:00)

Down to brass tacks, friend! Last week we covered several techniques for improving your ability to focus on your work, and resist distractions. This week we're taking you through a related issue, which is, in fact, the most pernicious problem that perpetually plagues pupils: Procrastination.

Nick, I still think that intro needs more alliteration. And cowbell.

[Theme Music]

  Why We Procrastinate (0:23)

Before we dive into specific solutions it's useful to know why we procrastinate. Now, we could go deep on the biological battle between your prefrontal cortex and your limbic system, or in a million other directions, but since our focus is on solving the procrastination problem, one recent explanation that I find to be particularly useful is temporal motivation theory, which is laid out by Dr. Piers Steele in his book, The Procrastination Equation.
This theory suggests that a person's motivation to complete a task or assignment can be represented by - you guessed it - an equation and that equation is:

Motivation = (Expectancy x Value) / (Impulsiveness x Delay)

Now, while I don't really think all the complexities of human behavior can be broken down into a neat little equation, I do think that this Procrastination Equation is a useful mental model for pinpointing the specific causes of our procrastination. So let's go ahead and break it down.

Expectancy is a term that represents how strongly you believe that you're able to complete a task, and it has an inverse correlation with your procrastination. 

If you feel competent at what you are doing, your expectancy will be high and that will increase your motivation to get to work. If the task looks really difficult, though, expectancy will be low and you'll be more likely to procrastinate. 

The other place where you'll find that inverse correlation is between procrastination and value, which include the rewards you get for completing the task, as well as how pleasant - or unpleasant - the experience of actually doing it is. 

Impulsiveness is how susceptible you are to distractions and, well, impulses to do other things, and it's directly correlated with procrastination. The less able you are to resist that sudden desire to go check Twitter, the more you're going to put off working on that English paper. And if you're thinking about going to check Twitter right now, remember: if you can resist that impulse, you'll actually be strengthening your brain's ability to focus.

So fight it, friend.

Finally, there’s delay, which is the amount of time between now and when you’ll get the reward for completing the task.

Let’s go to the Thought Bubble.

The longer the delay is, the more you’ll tend to procrastinate. This happens because human beings naturally place far more value on the short-term rather than long-term rewards, even if those long-term rewards are objectively greater.

For most of human history, this was a helpful bit of brain programming: if you were a hunter-gatherer living in 10,000 BCE, you had no reason to care about the antelopes you were gonna hunt in 3 years, all that mattered was the one in front of you right now.

But today, when your success in life depends more on studying for tests and remembering to put money in an IRA than on your antelope-hunting skills, your brain’s hard-wired preference for short-term rewards becomes a hindrance.

It’s the main reason why you consistently find yourself cramming for tests the night before; rationally, you know you should start studying a few weeks in advance, but most of your brain is like, “Eh, is that really necessary?”

And to make matters worse, delay is the hardest factor in the equation to control, since the time at which we’ll get a task’s reward is often set in stone. This is especially true when you’re in school since almost everything has a due date.

Thanks, Thought Bubble.

It’s useful to simply be able to recognize that the delay between now and when you’ll reap a task’s reward matters a lot when it comes to your procrastination. And, really, that’s the value of the equation as a whole; it’s a mental model that makes it easy to pinpoint why you’re procrastinating.

If it’s because you feel like you’re not skilled enough to actually complete the task, then you need to find a way to increase expectancy. Or, if you notice that your attention is constantly being pulled in other directions, then it’s time to figure out how to decrease your impulsiveness.

  How Not to Procrasinate (3:26)

So now let’s go over some specific ideas for manipulating those three most malleable factors.

To raise expectancy, you can do several things. One of the most helpful is to break the task down into smaller sub-tasks. Doing this allows you to narrow your focus to something that’s not nearly as daunting, and it also lets you more clearly define the specific actions you have to take.

So if you’re writing a paper, realize that “write a paper” is a project that can – and should – be broken down. You’ve got the research phase, the rough draft phase, which you can break further down into sections, like the intro, arguments, and conclusion, and then you’ve got the editing phase.

Once you’ve defined these actions and know what order to tackle them in, you’ll have a much clearer vision of what should be done right now. Plus, writing the rough draft of an intro paragraph is much easier than trying to write the entire paper all at once.

Another great way to raise expectancy is to simply ask for help. While being able to figure things out on your own is definitely a useful skill, there comes a point when refusing to reach out to someone else only slows you down. So go to your teacher’s office hours, or find a friend to form a study group with.

Now when it comes to improving a task’s value, there are a few things you can do:

  1. Improve the actual reward for completing the task

  2. Improve the experience of doing the work itself

  3. Add additional rewards, or mini-rewards for completing sub-tasks

The best way to improve the first item on the list is to choose work that’s more fulfilling to you. Now, you have some amount of control over this when you’re selecting your classes, and as you move into your career and build up more experience, that amount of control will definitely increase.

However, when you’re a student, there are still a ton of required classes and things that you just have to do, and once you’ve started, it’s pretty difficult to improve the actual reward – it’s usually set in stone. If you finish a math assignment, you’ll get the credit for it and you’ll improve your math skills. Pretty simple.

But you do have a lot of control over the other two items. To make the experience of doing the work itself more pleasant, you could choose a study location that you enjoy being in – like a coffee shop or your favorite spot in the library. You can also find a good study music playlist, work with a friend, or go for a quick walk beforehand to raise your energy levels before you start, and additional rewards can further boost your motivation.

There are several ways to create these, including gamification, which is the idea of taking elements from games and applying them to your work. One of my favorite ways to do this is with Habitica, an app that essentially turns productivity into a role-playing game. Habitica takes all the elements that make RPGs like Pokemon and Final Fantasy so addicting: leveling up, experience points, gear, and it applies them to real life. I use Habitica as a tool for sticking to my morning routine and making sure I work out enough, but there’s also a to-do list function, which you can use for individual assignments and tasks.

Now, if you don’t want to do that, you can keep things simpler by just setting up small rewards for finishing sub-tasks, like letting yourself watch a movie or go out with friends after you finish taking notes on a couple of sources for that research paper you’re working on, and it’s here that I want to talk about the concept of low-density fun vs. high-density fun.

See, a lot of students feel like they have too much work to ever let themselves do anything fun that takes a significant amount of time. Maybe you’ve had these kinds of thoughts yourself, as well. You think, “Man, I’d really love to play Horizon Zero Dawn right now, but I should really use that time to study.” The irony is that these same students who are constantly denying themselves that high-density fun are also spending a lot of time checking Facebook, or picking new outfits for their Bitmoji avatars, or browsing dank memes.

These things represent low-density fun; they’re more attractive than doing work, and it’s easy to convince yourself that you’re only gonna do them for 5 minutes, but inevitably you do end up spending a ton of time on them. After all, these websites and apps are literally designed from the ground up to be as addictive as possible – and what’s worse, they’re not actually fun. They’re just distractions, and if you waste all your time on them, you leave no time for actual, high-density fun that can act as a true motivator for finishing your work.

So the counterintuitive tip here is that you NEED to let yourself have this high-density fun. Give yourself two hours tonight to play that new video game, or join that off-road dirt-boarding club you’ve had your eye on. When you allow yourself to do these things, you create anticipation that can be used as focusing energy for your work.

And that brings us to impulsiveness.

Now, to be honest, last week’s video on focus and concentration provided most of the in-depth tips you’re gonna need to reduce your tendency to give in to distractions, so today I’m just gonna reiterate that your environment really matters.

If you’re studying in a place where you have access to distractions, your attention is more likely to be pulled away by them. So find a dedicated study spot away from friends and away from video games. Sometimes, you might even need to lock that environment down a bit. In fact, when I was writing the script for this very video, I used a program called Cold Turkey to literally block most of the websites I usually visit.

One thing that the Procrastination Equation doesn’t cover is the role that willpower plays in procrastination. Now, for a long time, it was believed that willpower was a limited resource and that it drained throughout the day as you made decisions that deviated from the path of least resistance. This phenomenon was called ego depletion.

During the past couple of years, though, the ego depletion theory has been challenged by some conflicting research, so it’s tough to say whether or not willpower itself really is this limited pool that you draw from throughout the day.

Ego depletion controversy aside, though, your body, and by extension, your brain, runs on a cycle of work and rest. There’s only so much you can do in a day before you exhaust your mental resources. Plus, when you put off a challenging assignment in favor of doing a bunch of easy work first, it becomes really easy to convince yourself that you’ve “done enough” for the day once that easy work is done.

That’s why one of the best ways to beat procrastination is to just knuckle down and do the most difficult, unpleasant thing on your to-do list first. This is often called “eating the frog”, and as Mark Twain once said:
"If it's your job to eat a frog, it's best to do it first thing in the morning. And If it's your job to eat two frogs, it's best to eat the biggest one first."

Now, I’d prefer not to eat any frogs whatsoever. I’d much rather eat a tomato, which in Italian would be called a “Pomodoro” and that happens to be the name of the final technique we’re going to discuss today.

The Pomodoro Technique is a simple little hack you can use to stop procrastinating, and all it requires is a timer and a little piece of paper. To use it, first decide on one singular task you’re going to work on. Then, set your timer for 25 minutes, and work as hard as you can on that task during that time.

If a distraction comes up, or if you get the impulse to do something else, write it down on the piece of paper and then get back to work. Finally, once the timer goes off, take a 5-minute break and then repeat the process until you’re ready for a longer break. This method works so well because the timer helps you to re-frame your task as input-based rather than output-based.

Instead of feeling like you need to finish an entire math assignment or that rough draft of your paper, you know you just need to work for 25 minutes. This act of re-framing cuts down on the initial resistance you feel towards the task since 25 minutes of work doesn't feel like a huge investment of effort.

Additionally, the timer creates an external motivator: instead of relying on your brain to keep track of how long you should work, you let the timer do it for you. It’s the next best thing to having a coach or drill instructor there to keep you on task, and for that reason, you need to make sure you actually use a timer, or at least a timer app, like tomato, or Tide on iOS and Android.

Now there are definitely more techniques for beating procrastination that we could talk about, but there comes a point where talking about productivity becomes a form of procrastination itself.

  Credits (9:51)

So now it’s time to take what you’ve learned from this video, apply it, and get to work. Good luck.

Crash Course Study Skills is filmed in the Dr. Cheryl C. Kinney Crash Course Studio in Missoula, MT, and it's made with the help of all of these nice people. If you'd like to keep Crash Course free for everyone, forever, you can support the series at Patreon, a crowdfunding platform that allows you to support the content that you love.

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