How to Be Productive in College

In a track meet, you can usually spot the amateur distance runners as the ones who go from zero to a hundred percent at the sound of the gun. This says little about their top speed; form; and even to an extent, their stamina – it’s about planning the race beforehand. While the experienced runners certainly aren’t starting slowly, they’ve been around the block, and they know that simply accelerating too hard, too soon, will burn a runner out and make it next to impossible to have a strong finish.

This situation would be almost intuitively analogous towards college studying, if it weren’t so easy to get caught up in the moment, or to postpone tasks. While many students (in fact, most individuals in general) procrastinate to a degree, chronic procrastination could be an indication of an underlying psychological disorder. However, be wary of self-diagnosis, or excessive analysis of the nature of procrastination – while understanding your obstacles is important, philosophizing about them won’t get your work done. It’s important to note that procrastination is a behavioral disorder – not psychological – and behavior can be regulated. It’s your behavior, and you can act how you want. You don’t need drugs for it, and you probably don’t need therapy. Believe it or not, most forms of procrastination can be remedied with organization and removing yourself from distractions. In some cases, procrastination does point to an underlying psychological issue (which will be addressed at the end of the article), but rationality and statistics will tell us that this is not the case for the majority of college students. To bring it back to the distance running analogy; it’s not the race that gets us, it’s pacing ourselves for the distance, and disciplining ourselves not to burn out.

productive student

Keep your goals in check

It may mean posting prints of Einstein all over your room. You may hang your running shoes next to your desk. Heck, you could be engineering a tower out of shot glasses. Regardless, to address the problems posed by procrastination, it’s a good idea to know your goals and be able to judge how far you’ve gone towards their completion. For semester-long goals, keep tabs on your weekly progress by using a calender or planner, and set goals for yourself accordingly. It’s a good idea to consistently schedule time to put in work towards that goal – by getting yourself into a routine, you’ll find yourself more motivated than otherwise to ‘make up for lost time’ if you’re unable to meet your requirements for the week.

It helps not to view your goals as one entity. One reason people procrastinate is because they postpone larger tasks for smaller ones that can get done in less time – but if you view your tasks in components (for instance, if you were writing a paper, you would view it in pages) then you’re essentially breaking down your larger tasks into several smaller checkpoints.

You might not have a long-term ambition, in which case, you might want to get one. Invent one if you have to. By orienting towards the long term, you’ll soon find yourself surprisingly capable of working in the short term. It’ll train you to budget your time, keep on schedule, and perhaps most importantly make the most of your time as well. For most people, procrastination is partly habit – and by training yourself to work in smaller, manageable increments, you’re much closer to breaking that habit. If you schedule your work hours, and force yourself to work in a quiet place away from distractions, you’ll improve your focus and produce higher quality work than if you tried to do it in bulk.

If you’re having difficulty thinking long term, then you might be getting ahead of yourself. You don’t have to be planning for retirement. Set a goal that can be completed in few sittings as possible, and give yourself ample time to do it: if it’s for classes, write one page of that semester-long paper a week – set aside two hours for it on an open day. If it’s in the gym, plan on increasing the maximum number of reps by two, and within two weeks. If it’s for partying, work on your tolerance by taking three shots a day – just kidding!

But you get the idea – even if you start simple, you want to become accustomed to scheduling your responsibilities. Having it written down will keep you constantly reminded of them, and the more they’re in your head, the tougher it’ll be to postpone them – making you more productive in the process.

Keep yourself organized

You saw this one coming a mile away. Productivity, by definition, is simply being able to produce something. But productivity in the sense that we know it demands efficiency, and efficiency means making the most out of what you can afford. For college students, let’s face it, all we can really afford is time.

It goes beyond simply focusing real hard on the task at hand – while it’s certainly a good thing to avoid distractions, you’ll also want to be able to use materials you need without having to search, or wait for them. Organize the files on your computer in accurately-labeled folders. Keep your desk clear so that you can spread the necessary books across them without having to keep reaching down for a new one. If you need your classmate’s notes, borrow them at their earliest convenience as possible, and rewrite them as soon as you get the chance. It’s the small things like these that will save you time and frustration, and allow you to get the best of your effort, rather than the other way around.

You may be noticing similarities between task efficiency and long-term planning. Well, you’re right! Long term planning is essentially the same thing as task efficiency, except spread out over more time. Organizing your resources also serves as an effective prelude to beginning work on an assignment – you’ve already organized your thoughts, and given yourself a sense of purpose. The best part of being efficient with your time is that it’ll free up the rest of it. Fill your extra hours at your discretion!

Stay disciplined

Discipline is one of those traits that are built around putting your goals before your desires, or rather, aiming for long-term satisfaction rather than immediate gratification. It can be tougher than it sounds, especially for many college students who need to enforce it on themselves, but few things can be achieved without it. The same philosophy applies here as it does theorizing about procrastination – just as contemplating procrastination won’t resolve it, thinking about your tasks won’t get them done.

It essentially boils down to two competing philosophies: The “Give me a reason why I shouldn’t have this as much as that other guy,” versus the “I don’t need that right now; save it for later or give it to him.” Speaking abstractly – on the one hand, you’re talking about a sense of entitlement. It’s derived from of a conceived sense of diminishing stock that instructs you to enjoy now so that you can enjoy more later, or before it runs out. Meanwhile, in the second philosophy, you’re willing to presently ‘deprive’ yourself for a number of expectations; that whatever immediate enjoyment won’t be less enjoyable later than it is now; and that your present task will indeed turn out the way you want it to.

When applied to college assignments, it becomes a matter of knowing when you need to remove yourself from potential distractions. If you know that you’re easily distracted by your computer, then go to the library, or disconnect yourself from the internet. The important thing is to isolate yourself with your work for the duration of the time you scheduled for it, and soon enough, you’ll find yourself making the most of it.

While the example philosophies quite polarized stances, and there are middle grounds, it’s a good idea to stay conscious of which extreme you’re leaning towards most. You probably don’t want to be a Spartan, but it’s a good idea to stick towards the second – it’s good training for post-graduation, where discipline and the ability to stay on track for a long time will count for much more.

-Possible psychological causes for chronic procrastination

It’s important to note that most procrastination is the result of being unmotivated. However, chronic procrastination can be an indication of depression; ADHD; a perfectionist personality; or it can simply be ingrained into one’s behavior. Clinical depression is a serious psychological disorder that affects many college students, and should be addressed with the aid of a psychologist – if you feel that somebody you know is clinically depressed, you should check for warning signs and get them the appropriate help [1]. ADHD is a disorder that’s largely neurological, and students who are concerned about it should have themselves diagnosed by a neurologist before considering using prescription drugs.

As for the perfectionist personality, or the ingrained behavior – habits are difficult to break. Nothing gets done by itself. It’s difficult to train yourself to change behavior patterns but with patience, dedication, and careful planning, it’s more than achievable. Good luck!