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

Learning How To Learn: Week 1

I took the course Learning How To Learn on Coursera and would like to share with you what I learn from it, in the next series of posts.

Learning How To Learn is a FREE course, offered by Dr. Barbara Oakley and Dr. Terence Sejnowski. The former, a professor of engineering, whose research is on neuroscience and social behaviour, the latter researches neural networks and computational neuroscience. They’re combined expertise allows them to have some of the best insights on learning effectively and they offer the course free of charge. The course has had over 2 million students and has a user rating of 4.8/5. I fully recommend everyone does this course, as learning better will make every aspect of your life more successful. You can find the course here: https://www.coursera.org/learn/learning-how-to-learn/home/welcome

The course is broken down into 4 weeks, where each week is like a chapter of what will be learnt that week. There is nothing stopping you going faster than one chapter a week though, they don’t lock the chapters. If you want to take the course slower than one a week that is an option too, but there are optional assignments you can complete and these have a deadline if you would like them marked.

Week 1 is an introduction to learning and what this course is going to teach in more detail in the weeks to come.

Focused Mode Vs Diffuse Mode

There are two distinct modes of thinking we use when learning. Focused mode and Diffuse mode.

Focused Mode is when we are concentrating hard on what we are doing, in this mode we can only think about 4 things at once, as we are using our “short-term memory” or “working memory”. It is commonly believed we can hold 6 or 7 things in our mind, but studies has been found that 4 is more accurate. Focused mode is best for when you need to learn or think about something difficult.

Diffuse Mode is how our brains act when we let our minds wander. In Diffuse Mode we concentrate less, so our brain can move between different thoughts more easily. This is best for making creative connections allowing us to form ideas we wouldn’t normally come up with.

For example I would use diffuse mode and focused mode to write this blog post. The diffuse mode is best for the first draft, I’m not second guessing what I write, the ideas just flow in a stream-of-consciousness style. Then once I have all the rough ideas down, I will switch to focused mode to edit the post. I am looking for mistakes, checking the grammar, making sure I used the best word for a situation and removing unnecessary sentences.

Procrastination

Procrastination is the act of avoiding doing something important, for a more pleasurable, less difficult activity. It turns out that this is not just a problem for lazy people, but many successful people actually suffer from it all the time. The good news is, it can be managed.

Why We Procrastinate

Seeing a task you don’t want to do actually activates a small pain response in your brain, even when you know that completing that task will ultimately be good for you. Your brain then wants to switch to doing something less painful, such as watching TV, chatting to friends or mindlessly browsing the web.

When To Use Willpower Is Crucial

Master procrastinators such as myself tend to believe that people who get stuff done are just more motivated, they have some innate willpower we mere mortals could never achieve. As a student, even when I was at my most motivated to do some work, I would look at my work and quickly see my motivation fade, as I felt the allure of watching some top quality Parks and Recreation ( a fantastic show, I highly recommend watching).

Research has found that people who get stuff done, don’t just have a vast resource of willpower that has been unfairly distributed to them. They have just figured out when to use their willpower. Everyone has a finite amount of willpower, so using it at the right times, allows you to get work done.

The initial painful feeling you get when looking at an unpleasant task I mentioned earlier, actually passes very quickly if you manage to start the task. So the very beginning of any task, called the “cue”, is the time you need to exercise willpower. Once you start a task, you forget how much you did’t want to do it, surprisingly quickly.

Practice

Learning any new skill takes practice, we have all heard the saying “practice makes perfect”, but is there any truth to this? The brain is made up of many pathways, each time you perform a certain activity, the same pathway is activated and activating the same pathways over and over again is practice. Think of it like a path through a field, you know the ones that weren’t put there, but people kept walking on the same route over and over, so the path becomes more visible. Eventually there is an actual bit of flattened grass or mud that you can follow easily. This is how practice works. The first time, the path is barely there and will fade if no one else uses it again, but enough repetitive use and the path becomes strongly defined. So rather than practice making perfect, practice makes permanent.

Why Maths Is So Hard

Many people consider maths their worst subject at school or the one they found hardest. Is this because they are stupid? No. Maths is often difficult because we learn best by comparing new knowledge to old knowledge. Maths, is full of abstract concepts, meaning we have nothing to compare it to. The more abstract something is, the harder it is to compare to something else or provide an analogy to explain it. It’s perfectly easy to explain 2 sheep to someone, you just show them two sheep. How do you explain just the number 2? This seems obvious now, as you learnt it so young, but there was a time when people had no concept of numbers just being numbers, it was too abstract.

People do eventually learn maths though, it’s not some big hoax intended to make the uninitiated feel stupid. The best way to learn something new, is to focus on the subject for a set period of time, then take a break and let yourself slip into the diffuse mode, so your brain can create connections between the new ideas you just learnt and your existing knowledge.

Memory

We have 2 types of memory. Short-term (or working) memory and long-term memory. Understanding the difference between the two is crucial in knowing how best to learn.

Short-Term Memory

Short-term memory can hold 3-4 chunks of information at any one time. Meaning we can think about 3-4 different ideas and use them to solve problems or create new ideas. Short-term memory is like a fuzzy blackboard, where the ideas you have can easily get smudged or rubbed away entirely, so you forget them or get them muddled up.

Long-Term Memory

Long-term memory is where information can be stored for life. Once you have committed a memory to you long-term memory you can likely remember it forever. It’s like a warehouse filled with information, it’s much clearer than short-term memory, but all long-term memories, started out as short-term memories.

Moving Short-Term Memories to Long-Term

There are two factors affecting how memories move from short-term to long-term:

  • The strength of the emotion felt learning the memory
  • Repetition

The first point is why certain things that terrified you once, seem to stay with you forever or why people always say the knew exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard about 9/11. The emotions were so strong, that the memory was burnt into their memories forever.

The second point is how we can learn things that we don’t feel strong emotions for. By practising multiple times, we can create pathways in our brain strong enough to become permanent long-term memories.

Spaced-Repetition

Repeating the same thing over and over isn’t enough to learn it. The best way to commit something to memory is to use “spaced-repetition”. This is where you increase the amount of time between each practice session. The effort you go to, to remember a skill and do it again is called recall and this is what makes the pathway get strengthened. So re-reading or highlighting texts in a passage tends to do very little for helping you remember or learn as you aren’t reactivating the pathways in your brain, quizzing yourself is much more effective.

To make the quizzing even more effective, it is best to use spaced-repetition. To do this, you might practice a skill on Monday, then one day later on Tuesday, then 2 days later on Thursday and so on, until you no longer struggle to remember how to do it, even weeks later.

Sleep

I personally never feel like I have had enough sleep. I would sleep 10-12 hours a day if that were a realistic option, but sadly my employer want to accommodate this habit. Sleep is actually very good for your brain. During the day, you need to relieve yourself as nature calls, you get rid of waste you produced from your food and drink. Your brain can only relieve itself when you are asleep, so if you don’t sleep your brain becomes clogged up with toxins that make you less able to think and learn more slowly.

During sleep your brain sorts out what it feels are the important memories and removes the less important ones. This is why it can be hard to remember what you had for dinner yesterday, your brain didn’t need the memory and got rid of it. Sadly, you can’t tell your brain to keep the things you studied that day and forget how you embarrassed yourself at the pub the other day. But, you if you focus on what you are learning and tell yourself you want to dream about it before bed, you are more likely to dream about what you learnt and therefore retain more of what you learnt.