4 Simple Steps to Stop Procrastinating

This post will teach you why you procrastinate and how to stop procrastinating. It is part of my series of posts detailing what I learned on the Learning How To Learn course on Coursera.

Why We Form Habits

Habits save you energy. Your brain is only a tiny part of your total weight, yet it manages to use 20% of your energy. Sadly, this doesn’t mean that thinking really hard will help you lose weight. However, it does mean that your brain does whatever it can to save energy, like automating tasks it knows how to do. A habit is this automation.

The 4 Stages of a Habit

Habits have 4 stages, if you can understand them, you can learn to use them to your advantage, rather than letting them use you. Want to start a habit of exercising? Learn the 4 stages. Want to stop your habit of eating twenty chocolates a day? Learn the 4 stages. You have been kept in suspense long enough, these are the 4 stages:

  1. The Cue
  2. The Routine
  3. The Reward
  4. The Belief

The Cue

The cue is the thing you see, hear, smell or whatever that sends you into the automatic trance known as a habit. The Cue is the only stage where you need to exercise willpower. That’s great news, my whole life I thought people who conquered bad habits just had an iron will. Instead, they had better systems than me.

Common Cues include:

Your phone vibrating – makes you check for notifications

Seeing your to-do list – makes you watch TV instead of doing work

The smell of your favourite bakery – makes you go in and buy those pastries you love, but know you definitely can’t have

Resisting a Cue causes an actual pain response in your brain, but if you can overcome it, the pain fades very quickly. This is the time to start a better Routine.

The Routine

The Routine is very powerful. The Routine is you actually acting out a habit, it’s browsing YouTube for ten seconds, only to find out that mermaids do exist!! And that 4 hours have passed and you still haven’t done your assignment!!

Next time you see an unpleasant thing you need to do, but really don’t want to. Just work on it for the smallest amount of time you can handle. Since the pain fades so fast, you may find you actually end up doing more work than you thought you would.

The Reward

Now celebrate.

Celebrating helps you convince your brain that you did a good thing, but don’t be too hard on yourself if you fail. Habit changing can take time, it gets easier with each victory though.

The Reward is the immediate feeling of pleasure you get when you start your habit. It’s the warm gooey centre of your favourite chocolate cake, or that endorphin rush after a workout. Creating a good reward is key to avoiding procrastination.

Good Rewards can be a tasty treaty, some tantalising TV or telling yourself “well done, pal”.

The fun thing you do when you procrastinate is it’s own Reward, so you’re fighting a master of it’s craft. Your own brain!

If you’re struggling with rewarding yourself, try having the reward at the same time or same point in progress. This creates an expectation in your mind of reward, like you are training your brain to expect it.

The Belief

This is how you feel about a habit, if you don’t believe you can change a habit, then you can’t. If you do believe you can change a habit, then you can.

If you’re struggling with this part, then don’t worry. Beliefs can be changed. The first 3 steps will help you.

Once you have been trying to build a new habit for a while but it hasn’t become automatic yet, it can start to feel difficult and the allure of giving up becomes stronger. This is when you need to remind yourself that your system works and you are doing better with this new habit.

Process Beats Product

The Product is the thing you hope to achieve by starting a session of work, such as an item on your to-do list, a piece of homework, an assignment at work, the list goes on.

The Process is you actually doing the thing, it’s you lifting some weights, writing some words or cleaning some plates.

If you focus on the Process like “I will write for the next 20 minutes”, you never mentioned the finished Product you want to get out of it and you are less likely to produce the pain response in your brain so you have less of a Cue to procrastinate.

Let me know in the comments below if any of these ideas worked for you, or if they were total crap.

Overlearning, Deliberate Practice, The Einstellung Effect and Interleaving

This is the third post on the Learning How To Learn course available free on Coursera. In this post I will describe the 4 things I learnt in the second part of week 2.

Overlearning

Have you ever been driving down a familiar route, only to realise you weren’t concentrating, but still drove safely? It was almost like you were on autopilot? This is possible because you have overlearned how to drive.

Overlearning is the process of continuing to learn a concept or skill you have already grasped. It takes you from competence to mastery.

The best times to overlearn are when you want to be able to do something without thinking. Overlearning is also useful for a skill you want to perform in a stressful environment, for example playing music in front of people. If you have overlearnt the song, you will make fewer mistakes and feel more confident.

You should avoid overlearning one skill when you are studying for an exam with multiple topics. In a maths exam if you can find the longest side of a triangle perfectly every time, but can’t multiply two numbers together, solve quadratics, find the area of circle… you get it. If you can do only the one thing well, you will fail the exam.

Deliberate Practice

You know when you’re studying for an exam and you see those horrible questions you know you can’t answer? Do you tend to avoid them and focus on something easier to get a little motivation boost, or do you target those big hairy questions? If you choose to attack the big hairy ones, you’re doing the right thing.

Deliberate Practice is where you purposely practice the hardest parts of what you want to learn. We have all heard the 10,000 hours rule (it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert in anything), but just practising isn’t enough. You need to practice the right way.

If your practice is uncomfortably difficult you are doing it right. You want to be just past the level you can comfortably do. I won’t lie to you, it doesn’t feel nice at the time, but it’s the ONLY way to improve.

The Einstellung Effect

Sometimes when I am trying to debug some code, there are times where it feels like I am just slamming my head against the problem. My whole body goes tense and I KNOW if just think harder, I can figure this out. Turns out, I’m wrong.

This is the Einstellung effect, you keep trying to solve a problem the same way, despite it not working. You feel like if you just stick with the problem long enough, the solution will come to you, but it never does. You are blocked.

When you are stuck by the Einstellung effect, it’s time to walk away. Talk to a colleague about something completely unrelated, take a walk. Basically, take your mind off the problem for a bit. Let the diffuse mode takeover and make connections you can’t make when you’re too focused.

Interleaving

The logical way to study, is to do each topic, one after the other. As humans, we like order, so this makes sense to us.

Interleaving is the practice of mixing up the order of what you learn, in one session. Remember earlier I talked about how context is as important as the chunks themselves. Interleaving teaches you context.

If you want to know when to apply each skill, interleaving is the best way to do it. This could mean, instead of studying triangles for an hour, then taking a break, then doing an hour on circles, taking a break and so on. You would do 10 or 20 minutes of each topic for each hour. Jumping from topic to topic forces you to change the way you are thinking, each time you switch topic, preventing you from getting stuck in the Einstellung effect. Your exams are most likely to have the topics in a scattered order too, so it’s good practice for the real thing.

Please let me know what you think in the comments below

A Simple Trick To Learn Anything Faster

Week 2 of Learning How To Learn is all about Chunking. This is a method of learning, where you break down the huge amounts of information you want to learn, into smaller more manageable pieces, called Chunks. Breaking down your learning into chunks makes learning on the larger scale, much easier. It’s like eating a meal, you don’t swallow the whole thing in one, you take many small bites.

What Is a Chunk?

A single piece of a concept or skill formed from many scattered pieces of information that share a similar use or meaning. If you can perform a skill automatically or you just “get” a concept, it has been chunked.

Chunks are like puzzle pieces. They can be joined together to create a bigger picture. For example when playing a song on the guitar, one Chunk will be strumming the strings in a certain pattern, another Chunk is forming the hand shapes to play the chords, another Chunk is the rhythm and together you can use these Chunks to play a complete song.

Once you know how to play the whole song, that song becomes a Chunk, rather than the individual parts of playing the song. In other words, Chunks can become more complex and larger. This allows you to perform more complicated tasks, solve more complex problems or come up with deeper ideas.

When you are stressed or scared, it can become harder for your brain to access Chunks, this is why some people perform much worse under stress, such as a public performance or an exam. They know the material when they are relaxed, but once their brain starts producing adrenaline, they can no longer retrieve the knowledge they need.

How to Form a Chunk

All disciplines are different, but Chunks are universal in learning. There are 4 steps to forming any Chunk:

Focus on the thing you want to Chunk ONLY

No multitasking allowed. If you want to learn how a new mathematical trick, you focus on just that one trick.

Aim to understand

It becomes much easier to remember something you understand, than something you have just memorised. Make sure you figure it out for yourself to really understand.

Review the Chunk soon

You need to refresh your memory to strengthen the connections in your brain. Remember spaced repetition.

Gain Context

Knowing how to do a skill or understanding a concept is only half of the battle. Knowing when to use a skill is equally important. There is no point in having a particular skill if you never know when to use it and there’s no point knowing when to use a skill you don’t have.

The Value of a Library of Chunks

The more chunks you collect, the more skills and ideas you can use as you learn to piece together different Chunks in different combinations.

There are two types of thinking when it comes to problem-solving: Sequential thinking and Holistic thinking. Neither is better than the other, they just each have separate uses.

Sequential Thinking

This way of thinking, allows you follow a train of thoughts one after the other, like a sequence. Sequential thinking uses the focused mode and is good for following a logical process to it’s conclusion, such as in a maths problem, understanding a series of events or cause and effect.

Holistic Thinking

Holistic Thinking allows you to make intuitive links between multiple disciplines, ideas and concepts. In the diffuse mode, you can join up seemingly unrelated Chunks to come up with more creative solutions to problems. This is great for brainstorming, solving complex problems, where logic isn’t enough and creating something new.

Illusions of Competence

An illusion of competence is when you feel like you understand something, but you actually don’t. You may go to a class and think “that really made sense” then you go to explain it to someone else and you can’t quite explain it right, the words just don’t fit together as well as they did when the teacher said it. Sound familiar?

How Illusions of Competence Form

Illusions of competence form when you don’t use the best methods to learn. Re-reading feels good, because you feel like you are putting in the effort and you are understanding it better, but this is actually an Illusion of Competence. You aren’t trying strengthening the neural pathways in your brain, you are tricking yourself into thinking you are learning better.

Highlighting is even worse. Just don’t do it.

Re-reading can be good, if a significant amount of time has passed since your first reading, so your memories of the material have faded.

What are the Best Ways to Avoid Illusions of Competence?

Trying to recall the material is best.

Try quizzing yourself or having someone else quiz you. This causes your brain to actively retrace the neural pathways of that Chunk and therefore strengthens your abilities to remember and understand said Chunk.

Test yourself.

You need to answer practice questions, solve problems or teach the Chunk to another person, to see if you really understand what you’re trying to learn. If you can’t solve the problem, or explain the concept easily, you don’t understand the material well enough. Simple.