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Eating the Frog: How to Avoid Procrastination

‘Why does this school have so many stairs?’ I thought as I dragged my tired body up the marble steps to Bapst. It was a Sunday at noon and I had already gone through my normal routine: hit snooze on the alarm a couple times, had a bite to eat at Lower, and then, feeling panicked about my workload, rushed to the library. After walking up and down the center aisle of Bapst, I finally found a spot, albeit undesirable, between a girl clicking her pen and a guy tapping furiously on his keyboard. I plopped down into the chair, only to be temporarily blinded by the afternoon sun streaming in through the stained-glass windows. Resting my backpack on the ground, I pulled out my English, statistics, and political science notebooks and laid them on the table in front of me. Looking at each with disdain, I couldn’t decide what I wanted to do first. The red cover of my political science notebook, usually cheery, only heightened my nerves as I remembered the five-page paper due at the end of the week. Pushing that aside, I reached for the relaxing green of my stats notebook, and immersed myself in math problems as those were fairly easy for me.

Five hours later, I was staring at a blinking cursor on a blank page. I had completed my statistics problem set, read some of Plato’s Republic, and answered all my emails, but I still had made no progress on the beast—my political science paper. I glanced at the essay prompt for what seemed like the millionth time, but my brain was a barren wasteland. I had no idea where to begin. The setting sun, combined with the ticking of the clock, only added to my frustration as I realized that the day was almost over and I had made no progress on the one thing that worried me the most.

When I was a little girl, my grandfather shared the following Mark Twain quote with me, “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of day.” I would giggle, finding the image of eating a frog amusing, but I never understood what he meant until now. Twain was suggesting that we complete our most difficult task at the start of the day. That way, with it behind us, we can relax and perform our less arduous tasks with ease. College students take the opposite approach. We start with the easy things. We enjoy the satisfaction that comes with checking these items off our list. I have a special colored pen just for this activity. But we would benefit greatly from reversing this approach and tackling the difficult tasks that keep us awake at night. Most students don’t think about the consequences of procrastinating because they are living in the moment. They cannot see that procrastination affects the quality of their work, and more importantly, their overall well-being.

According to the American Psychological Association, about 80 to 95 percent of college students procrastinate when it comes to their school work. Timothy Pychyl, a professor at Carleton University, describes procrastination as an “avoidance behavior.” When students have a large task ahead of them, like writing a paper for an English class or studying for an economics midterm, they often feel a tremendous amount of anxiety. The procrastinator decides to do an easier, more gratifying task, in order to rid themselves of this discomfort. In addition, a study conducted by Florida State University psychologists found that the stress levels and reported illnesses of procrastinators increased over the course of the semester. While procrastinators were more relaxed than non-procrastinators at the start of the term, the two groups swapped when it came time for finals. The procrastinators were more anxious because they had been avoiding studying the material and tackling important school projects.

Next thing you know, you’re pulling an all-nighter, typing away on your laptop or flipping through the pages of your textbook, wishing you could be fast asleep like your roommate. The following day you navigate campus like a zombie, unable to be present in classes and in conversations with friends, vowing to never again watch the sunrise without getting some sleep.

So how do we conquer the task of devouring the frog? I have a few suggestions. First, try breaking the complex task into manageable chunks. Each time you complete a chunk you will feel more relaxed, knowing that you are making progress toward your goal. Next, if your task is impossible to complete in one sitting, set aside a time each day that you will work on it. A schedule eases our tension over whether we will meet the deadline for this important deliverable. Having something to look forward to when you complete the difficult assignment—maybe watching an episode of your favorite TV show or going with friends to that new restaurant you’ve been wanting to try—provides an added incentive to reach for the intimidating notebook.

As we approach the end of the semester, I encourage you to eat your frog first thing in the morning. When you begin your most challenging task, think of a funnel. The wide top represents  that overwhelming feeling you get when you realize that there are myriad approaches you can take. Let’s assume your challenge is a 10-page paper. Possible theses and perspectives swarm at the funnel top. How do you know which one to choose? Like Nike says, “just do it,” and jump into your essay like you’re jumping into a pool on a hot summer’s day. Even though the cold water is painful when it first engulfs you, the longer you swim, you get used to the temperature. Once you create an outline for the paper, you begin to progress down the funnel, and as you do so you become more relaxed as you watch your paper begin to take shape. The next time you’re in Bapst, reach for that red notebook. You’ll be glad you did.

Featured Image by Kelsey McGee / Heights Editor

November 2, 2016

ONE COMMENT ON THIS POST To “Eating the Frog: How to Avoid Procrastination”

  1. Hey! Talking about procrastination, I’ve been struggling with mine for the last 10 years and read countless books and self help methods. Here is what I’m having best results with. First of all, procrastination bulldozer method has worked wonders for me. I highly recommend you apply it. Secondly, whenever you have a task that takes less than 5 minutes to do, do it right away. No delays. I’m really starting to take control of my life now.