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zombies everywhere:

Digging Deeper to Understand the Habit of Procrastination

In the insightful book The Power of Habit, author Charles Duhigg describes a lost soul—Lisa Allen, a middle-aged woman who had always struggled with her weight, who had begun drinking and smoking when she was sixteen, and whose husband had left her for another woman. Lisa had never held a job for more than a year and had fallen deeply into debt.

But in a four-year span, Lisa turned her life around completely. She lost sixty pounds, was working toward a master’s degree, stopped drinking and smoking, and was so fit that she ran a marathon.

To understand how Lisa made these changes, we need to understand habit.

Habits can be good and bad. Habit, after all, is simply when our brain launches into a preprogrammed “zombie” mode. You will probably not be surprised to learn that chunking, that automatically connected neural pattern that arises from frequent practice, is intimately related to habit.1 Habit is an energy saver for us. It allows us to free our mind for other types of activities. An example of this is backing your car out of the driveway. The first time you do this, you are on hyper-alert. The deluge of information coming at you made the task seem almost impossibly difficult. But you quickly learned how to chunk this information so that before you knew it, all you have to do was think Let’s go, and you were backing out of the driveway. Your brain goes into a sort of zombie mode, where it isn’t consciously aware of everything it is doing.

You go into this habitual zombie mode far more often than you might think. That’s the point of the habit—you don’t think in a focused manner about what you are doing while you are performing the habit. It saves energy.

Habitual actions can vary in length. They can be brief: seconds-long intervals where you smile absently at a passerby or glance at your fingernails to see whether they are clean. Habits can also take some time—for example, when you go for a run or watch television for a few hours after you get home from work.

Habits have four parts:

  1. The Cue: This is the trigger that launches you into “zombie mode.” The cue may be something as simple as seeing the first item on your to-do list (time to start next week’s homework!) or seeing a text message from a friend (time to dawdle!). A cue by itself is neither helpful nor harmful. It’s the routine—what we do in reaction to that cue—that matters.

  2. The Routine: This is your zombie mode—the routine, habitual response your brain is used to falling into when it receives the cue. Zombie responses can be harmless, useful, or, in the worst case, so destructive that they defy common sense.

  3. The Reward: Habits develop and continue because they reward us—give us a dollop of pleasure. Procrastination is an easy habit to develop because the reward—moving your mind’s focus to something more pleasant—happens so quickly. But good habits can also be rewarded. Finding ways to reward good study habits in math and science is vital to escaping procrastination.

  4. The Belief: Habits have power because of your belief in them. For example, you might feel that you’ll never be able to change your habit of putting off your studies until late in the day. To change a habit, you’ll need to change your underlying belief.

“I often find that when I cannot bring myself to start something, if I go for a quick run or do something active first, when I come back to it, it is much easier to start.” —Katherine Folk, freshman, industrial and systems engineering

Harnessing Your Habits (Your “Zombies”) to Help You

In this section, we’re going to get into the specifics of harnessing your zombie powers of habit to help you avoid procrastination while minimizing your use of willpower. You don’t want to do a full-scale change of old habits. You just want to overwrite parts of them and develop a few new ones. The trick to overwriting a habit is to look for the pressure point—your reaction to a cue. The only place you need to apply willpower is to change your reaction to the cue.

To understand that, it helps to go back through the four components of habit and reanalyze them from the perspective of procrastination.

  1. The Cue: Recognize what launches you into your zombie, procrastination mode. Cues usually fall into one of the following categories: location, time, how you feel, reactions to other people, or something that just happened.2 Do you look something up on the web and then find yourself web surfing? Does a text message disturb your reverie, taking you ten minutes to get back into the flow of things even when you try to keep yourself on task? The issue with procrastination is that because it’s an automatic habit, you are often unaware that you have begun to procrastinate.

Students often find that developing new cues, such as starting homework as soon as they get home from school or right after their first break from class, are helpful. As procrastination expert Piers Steel, author of The Procrastination Equation, points out, “If you protect your routine, eventually it will protect you.”3 You can prevent the most damaging cues by shutting off your cell phone or keeping yourself away from the Internet for brief periods of time, as when you are working on homework during a twenty-five-minute study session. Freshman actuarial student Yusra Hasan likes to give her phone and laptop to her sister to “watch over,” which is doubly clever because a public commitment to study is made in the very act of removing temptation. Friends and family can be helpful if you enlist them.

  1. The Routine: Let’s say that instead of doing your studies, you often divert your attention to something less painful. Your brain wants to automatically go into this routine when you’ve gotten your cue, so this is the pressure point where you must actively focus on rewiring your old habit. The key to rewiring is to have a plan. Developing a new ritual can be helpful. Some students make it a habit to leave their smartphone in their car when they head in for class, which removes a potent distraction. Many students discover the value of settling into a quiet spot in the library or, closer to home, the productive effects of simply sitting in a favorite chair at the proper time with all Internet access disconnected. Your plan may not work perfectly at first, but keep at it. Adjust the plan if necessary and savor the victories when your plan works. Don’t try to change everything at once. The Pomodoro technique—the twenty-five-minute timer—can be especially helpful in shifting your reaction to cues.

Also, it helps to have something in your stomach when starting particularly difficult tasks. This ensures that you have mental energy for that momentary dollop of willpower as you are getting started.4 It also avoids the potential distraction of I’ll just go grab something to eat. . . .

  1. The Reward: This can sometimes require investigation. Why are you procrastinating? Can you substitute in an emotional payoff? A feeling of pride for accomplishing something, even if it is small? A sense of satisfaction? Can you win a small internal bet or contest in something you’ve turned into a personal game? Allow yourself to indulge in a latte or read a favorite website? Provide yourself with an evening of mindless television or web surfing without guilt? And will you give yourself a bigger reward for a bigger achievement—movie tickets, a sweater, or an utterly frivolous purchase?

“My boyfriend and I love movies, so as a reward for completing specific tasks on certain days, he takes me to the movies. This not only is motivation to study or get homework done, but also has led me to develop new habits of studying by reinforcing the cue/routine/reward system.” —Charlene Brisson, psychology major, accelerated second-degree nursing program

Remember, habits are powerful because they create neurological cravings. It helps to add a new reward if you want to overcome your previous cravings. Only once your brain starts expecting the reward will the important rewiring take place that will allow you to create new habits.

It’s particularly important to realize that giving yourself even a small “attaboy” or “attagirl” jump-starts the process of rewiring your brain. This rewiring, sometimes called learned industriousness, helps brighten tasks you once thought were boring and uninteresting.5 As you will find, simply getting into the flow of your work can become its own reward, giving you a sense of productiveness you might not have imagined was possible when you first sat down to begin working. Many people find that setting a reward at a specific time—for example, breaking for lunch with a friend at the deli at noon, or stopping the main tasks at five P.M., gives a solid mini-deadline that can help spur work.

Don’t feel bad if you find that you have trouble getting into a “flow” state at first. I sometimes find it takes a few days of drudgery through a few cycles of the Pomodoro technique before flow begins to unfold and I find myself starting to enjoy work in a very new area. Also remember that the better you get at something, the more enjoyable it can become.

  1. The Belief: The most important part of changing your procrastination habit is the belief that you can do it. You may find that when the going gets stressful, you long to fall back into old, more comfortable habits. Belief that your new system works is what can get you through. Part of what can underpin your belief is to develop a new community. Hang out with classmates who have the “can do” philosophy that you want to develop. Developing an encouraging culture with like-minded friends can help us remember the values that, in moments of weakness, we tend to forget.

A powerful approach is mental contrasting.6 In this technique, you think about where you are now and contrast it with what you want to achieve. If you’re trying to get into medical school, for example, imagine yourself as a doctor, helping others even as you’re preparing for a great vacation that you can actually afford. Once you’ve got that upbeat image in mind, contrast it with images of your current life. Imagine your clunker of a car, your macaroni and cheese dinners, and your mountain of student debts. Yet there’s hope!

In mental contrasting, it’s the contrast of where you want to be with where you are now, or where you have been, that makes the difference. Placing pictures around your work and living spaces that remind you of where you want to be can help prime your diffuse-mode pump. Just remember to contrast those great images with the real, more mundane life that currently surrounds you, or that you are emerging from. You can change your reality.

ONE BAD DAY CAN SPUR MANY BETTER ONES

“Mental contrasting is great! I’ve been using this since I was a kid—it’s something that people could learn to apply to many different situations.

“I once was stuck for months in Maryland working in a chicken supplier factory in the middle of a hot summer. I made up my mind right there that I was going to school to get my degree. This experience is what I use as my mental contrast. I believe that sometimes all it takes is one bad day to spark an important realization. After that, keeping your focus to find the way out of your current situation is much easier.” —Mike Orrell, junior, electrical engineering

NOW YOU TRY!

Practicing Your Zombie Wrangling

Do you like to check your e-mail or Facebook right when you wake up in the morning? Set a timer for ten minutes of work first thing instead—then reward yourself with online time. You will be surprised to see that this tiny exercise in self-control will help empower you over your zombies through the day.

Warning: When you first sit down to try this, some of your zombies will scream as if they want to eat your brain. Tune them out! Part of the point of this exercise is learning to laugh at your zombies’ antics as they predictably tell you, “Just this once it’s okay to check Facebook right now.” Get into the Flow by Focusing on Process, Not Product

If you find yourself avoiding certain tasks because they make you uncomfortable, there is a great way to reframe things: Learn to focus on process, not product.

Process means the flow of time and the habits and actions associated with that flow of time—as in, “I’m going to spend twenty minutes working.” Product is an outcome—for example, a homework assignment that you need to finish.

To prevent procrastination, you want to avoid concentrating on product. Instead, your attention should be on building processes—habits—that coincidentally allow you to do the unpleasant tasks that need to be done.

For example, let’s say you don’t like doing your math homework. So you put off working on the homework. It’s only five problems, you think. How hard could that be?

Deep down, you realize that solving five problems could be a daunting task. It’s easier to live in a fantasy world where the five homework problems (or the twenty-page report, or whatever) can be done at the last minute.

Your challenge here is to avoid focusing on the product—the solved homework problems. The product is what triggers the pain that causes you to procrastinate. Instead, you need to focus on the process, the small chunks of time you need over days or weeks, to solve the homework problems or prepare for tests. Who cares whether you finished the homework or grasped key concepts in any one session? The whole point instead is that you calmly put forth your best effort for a short period—the process.

The essential idea here is that the zombie, habitual part of your brain likes processes, because it can march mindlessly along. It’s far easier to enlist a friendly zombie habit to help with a process than to help with a product.

X MARKS THE SPOT!

“It’s a good idea to mark the objective of your daily reading assignment with a bookmark (or Post-it note). This gives immediate feedback on progress—you are more motivated when you can see the finish line!” —Forrest Newman, Professor of Astronomy and Physics, Sacramento City College

Break Your Work into Bite-Sized Pieces—Then Work Intently, but Briefly

The “Pomodoro” is a technique that’s been developed to help you focus your attention over a short period of time. Pomodoro is Italian for “tomato”—Francesco Cirillo, who originally developed this time-management system in the 1980s, used a tomato-shaped timer. In the Pomodoro technique, you set a timer for twenty-five minutes. (You were introduced earlier to this idea in one of the “Now You Try!” challenges in chapter 2.) Once the timer starts ticking, you’re on the clock. No sneaking off to web surf, chat on the phone, or instant-message your buddies. What’s nice about doing a Pomodoro is that if you’re working around friends or family, you can tell them about the technique. Then, if they happen to interrupt you, all you need to do is mention that you’re “doing a Pomodoro” or “on the clock,” and it gives a friendly reason for them to leave you alone.

You may object that it is stressful being under the timer. But researchers have found something fascinating and counterintuitive. If you learn under mild stress, you can handle greater stress much more easily. For example, as researcher Sian Beilock describes in her book Choke, golfers who practice putting in front of others aren’t fazed later on when they have to perform before an audience in competitions. In the same way, if you get used to figuring things out under a mild time crunch, you are much less likely to choke later, when you are in a high-pressure test-taking situation.7 Time after time, top performers in fields as different as surgery and computer programming deliberately seek coaches who place them under stress by challenging them and driving them to perform better.8 Focusing on process, not product, is important in avoiding procrastination. It is the consistent, daily time you spend getting into the flow of your studies that matters most. Focus on doing a Pomodoro—a twenty-five-minute timed work session—not on completing a task. In a similar way, notice how, in this picture, physicist and surfer dude Garret Lisi is focused on the moment—not on the accomplishment of having surfed a wave.

When you first try using the Pomodoro, you will probably be amazed at how often the urge arises to take a quick peek at something non-work-related. But at the same time, you will also be pleased at how easy it is to catch yourself and turn your attention back to your work. Twenty-five minutes is such a brief period that almost any adult or near-adult can focus his attention for that long. And when you are done, you can lean back and savor the feeling of accomplishment.

START!

“One helpful tip is to just get started. This advice sounds relatively simple, but once you get off to a good start it is much easier to accomplish something. I like to go to the quiet floor in the library because you can often see other people in the same situation. I learn best by visualizing. If I can see other people working on homework, then I am more inclined to do that myself.” —Joseph Coyne, junior, history

The key is, when the distraction arises, which it inevitably will, you want to train yourself to ignore it. One of the single most important pieces of advice I can give you on dealing with procrastination is to ignore distractions! Of course, setting yourself up so that distractions are minimal is also a good idea. Many students find that either a quiet space or noise-canceling headphones—or both—are invaluable when they are really trying to concentrate.

OFF WITH DISTRACTIONS!

“I was born without auditory canals and thus am deaf (I’m a Treacher-Collins mutant). So, when I study, off goes the hearing aid, and I can REALLY focus! I love my handicap! I took an IQ test at the end of first grade. My IQ was 90—well below average. My mom was dismayed. I was elated since I thought I made an A grade. I have no idea what my current IQ is. Now that I can hear, it’s probably dropped a few notches. Thank God for on/off switches.” —Bill Zettler, Professor of Biology, codiscoverer of several viruses, and winner of the Teacher of the Year Award, University of Florida How soon should you start again once you’ve done a Pomodoro? It depends what you’re doing. If you’re trying to get yourself started on something that’s due in many weeks, you may reward yourself with a half hour of guilt-free web surfing. If you’re under stress and have a lot due, a two- to five-minute breather may have to do. You may want to alternate your Pomodoro sessions with working sessions that don’t make use of a timer. If you find yourself lagging and not working with focus, you can put yourself back on the timer.

In Pomodoro-type timer systems, the process, which involves simple focused effort, moves to the forefront. You disconnect from being stuck on any one item and can get into a state of automaticity without concerns about having to finish anything.9 This automaticity appears to allow you to more easily access diffuse-mode capabilities. By focusing on process rather than product, you allow yourself to back away from judging yourself (Am I getting closer to finishing?) and allow yourself to relax into the flow of the work. This helps prevent the procrastination that can occur not only when you are studying math and science, but when you are doing the writing that is so important for many different college classes.

Multitasking is like constantly pulling up a plant. This kind of constant shifting of your attention means that new ideas and concepts have no chance to take root and flourish. When you multitask while doing schoolwork, you get tired more quickly. Each tiny shift back and forth of attention siphons off energy. Although each attention switch itself seems tiny, the cumulative result is that you accomplish far less for your effort. You also don’t remember as well, you make more mistakes, and you are less able to transfer what little you do learn into other contexts. A typical negative example of multitasking is that on average, students who allow themselves to multitask while studying or sitting in class have been found to receive consistently lower grades.10 Procrastination often involves becoming sidetracked on less essential little tasks, such as pencil sharpening, in part because you can still feel the thrill of accomplishment. Your mind is tricking you. That is why keeping an experimental notebook is so important; we’ll talk about that soon.

NOW YOU TRY!

Ignorance Is Bliss

Next time you feel the urge to check your messages, pause and examine the feeling. Acknowledge it. Then ignore it.

Practice ignoring distractions. It is a far more powerful technique than trying to will yourself to not feel those distractions in the first place.

SUMMING IT UP

A little bit of work on something that feels painful can ultimately be very beneficial.

Habits such as procrastination have four parts:

The cue

The routine

The reward

The belief

Change a habit by responding differently to a cue, or even avoiding that cue altogether. Reward and belief make the change long-lasting.

Focus on the process (the way you spend your time) instead of the product (what you want to accomplish).

Use the twenty-five-minute Pomodoro to stay productive for brief periods. Then reward yourself after each successful period of focused attention.

Be sure to schedule free time to nurture your diffuse mode.

Mental contrasting is a powerful motivating technique—think about the worst aspects of your present or past experiences and contrast these with the upbeat vision of your future.

Multitasking means that you are not able to make full, rich connections in your thinking, because the part of your brain that helps make connections is constantly being pulled away before neural connections can be firmed up.

PAUSE AND RECALL

If you feel muzzy or featherbrained as you’re trying to look away and recall a key idea, or you find yourself rereading the same paragraphs over and over again, try doing a few situps, pushups, or jumping jacks. A little physical exertion can have a surprisingly positive effect on your ability to understand and recall. Try doing something active now, before recalling the ideas of this chapter.

ENHANCE YOUR LEARNING

  1. Why do you think the zombie-like, habitual part of your brain might prefer process to product? What can you do to encourage a process orientation even two years from now, long after you’ve finished this book?

  2. What kind of subtle change could you make in one of your current habits that could help you avoid procrastination?

  3. What kind of simple and easy new habit could you form that would help you avoid procrastination?

  4. What is one of your most troublesome cues that spins you off into a procrastination response? What could you do to react differently to that cue, or to avoid receiving the cue?

MATH PROFESSOR ORALDO “BUDDY” SAUCEDO ON HOW FAILURE CAN FUEL SUCCESS

Oraldo “Buddy” Saucedo is a highly recommended math professor on RateMyProfessors.com; he is a full-time math instructor for the Dallas County Community College District in Texas. One of his teaching mottos is “I offer opportunities for success.” Here, Buddy provides insight into a failure that fueled his success.

“Every once in a while, a student asks me if I have always been smart—this makes me laugh. I then proceed to tell them about my initial GPA at Texas A&M University.

“While writing ‘4.0’ on the whiteboard, I say that I was close to having a 4.0 my first semester. ‘Sounds great, right?’ I ask, pausing for their reaction. Then I take my eraser and move the decimal point over to the left. It ends up looking like this: ‘0.4.’ “Yes. It’s true. I failed miserably and was kicked out of the university. Shocking, right? But I did return and eventually received both my bachelor’s and master’s.

“There are a lot of failure-to-success types out there with similar stories. If you’ve failed in the past, you may not realize how important that it can be in fueling your success.

“Here are some of the important lessons I’ve learned in my climb to success:

You are not your grade; you are better than that. Grades are indicators of time management and a rate of success.

Bad grades do not mean you are a bad person.

Procrastination is the death of success.

Focusing on taking small, manageable steps forward and time management are key.

Preparation is key to success.

We all have a failure rate. You will fail. So control your failures. That is why we do homework—to exhaust our failure rate.

The biggest lie ever is that practice makes perfect. Not true—practice makes you better.

Practice is where you are supposed to fail.

Practice at home, in class, anytime and anywhere—except on the TEST!

Cramming and passing are not success.

Cramming for tests is the short game with less satisfaction and only temporary results.

Learning is the long game with life’s biggest rewards.

We should ALWAYS be perpetual learners. Always in ALL WAYS.

Embrace failure. Celebrate each failure.

Thomas Edison renamed his failures: “1,000 ways to NOT create a lightbulb.” Rename your own failures.

Even zombies get up and try again!

“They say experience is the best teacher. Instead, it should be that failure is the best teacher. I’ve found that the best learners are the ones who cope best with failure and use it as a learning tool.”

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