Tag Archives: procrastination

A Theory of Procrastination

Two months ago, I was looking for participants for my psychology research. It took me six weeks to convince 50 people (students) to fill out my questionnaire. Not a great success, if you ask me.

A new semester started. I sent out new invitations. BOOM. Five new participants in two hours. Three more  in another hour. And again. Wow. What was going on?

Believe it or not, I think that the most important part of data collection is timing. I think that since students like to procre– procrastinate during the semester (especially if they have some homework due!), they are many times more likely to participate in studies (and fill out questionnaires).

So what?

Quite honestly, I am not sure. On one hand, it might be interesting to look at volunteering and participation at studies during the holidays vs. during the semester (I would LOVE to write a paper about that), on the other hand… yeah, you guessed it. Homework. Essays. Compulsory readings. Sometimes I wish *I* didn´t procrastinate…

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Posted by on 30 September, 2012 in Education


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Motivation: I Miss You

Do you also sometimes get the feeling that you have lost your motivation to study/work/…even move? Does your bed (floor?) feel so comfy that you never want to get up again? Have you ever felt so absorbed by some procrastinating activity that time literally flied?

Next question: Why does this happen during the most important exam period? …

Quite honestly, this would make for an interesting research question. Why do even hard-working people just lose the mana to work at the moment they need it the most? Logically, I would expect some kind of natural selection here: If you are weak, you don´t graduate. And yet, this rule doesn´t seem to apply (show me a single person who has never felt weak or lazy – and I will give you my piano, one of my legs…)

I don´t think it´s “just the summer”. Sure, it is more difficult to concentrate when you have 30°C in your room and nature suddenly feels so inviting, but this cannot be the only reason. Is it because we think that we have almost reached the end of the semester and hence just want to “sleep it through”? Or perhaps because the semester is too long and we need a rest already? …

To all fellow sufferers: Kopf hoch, tanzen! No, actually, heads up (so far, so good) – study!

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Posted by on 27 May, 2012 in Education


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Ask Not For Whom The Bell Tolls…

… It tolls for thee.

Midterms are over, grades are published. The binding study advice hangs like a sword of Damocles over a number of frustrated freshmen for whom resit exams seem like the only chance of “survival”. Panic spreads to the library (and to infinity and beyond). Suddenly it seems that all those parties, clubbing and procrastination were not such a terrific idea

Time and again, human irrationality and a general inability of people to plan amaze me. (Actually, “flabbergast” would be a better word.) How can humans possibly such grossly underestimate the ramifications of their actions? Why do young, smart and talented university students fall prey to temptations that represent a road to perdition?

It seems to me that this is just a manifestation of a larger, underlying problem: The inability of high schools to teach young people truly useful skills. Sure, high school students may know the exact dates of all wars in the past few centuries, but they have no clue how to deal with real-life situations.

They are unable to accept responsibility for a joint project, cannot defend their opinions, cannot give a presentation on more complex topics, cannot look up information (from a reliable source; and no, Wiki does not count)… and then come to the university unprepared. It is your bet what the result may be.

Thus, I am posing a question: What actually are the skills high school students should master? Is it really the chemical process of photosynthesis, or logical thinking and planning? I would go for the latter.

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Posted by on 7 April, 2012 in Education


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The Moral Hazard of Cleverness

A pile of notes, three textbooks (500 pages each), infinity minus one Power Point presentations and Facebook discussions of exercises. In other words, four exams to go. And two students: dancing in a club, drinking beers and chewing. (No, not chewing. Popping!) What´s going on?

Unlike their 20-or-so classmates who have already given up studying and opted for coffeeshops instead, they are still planning on getting straight A´s (and not going mad in process). Interestingly, they are victims of a very specific type of moral hazard: Their own brightness. Somewhere deep inside they know that they do not have to study three weeks straight in advance for an exam; they know that 2 days somehow will be enough (empirically tested: yes, they are right). They postpone the unpleasant moment when they have to bury themselves in the books – and procrastinate in the meantime.

Sure. They could have gotten 100% on the exam. But why bother? If they do not study, they will pass anyway. If they study a little bit, it will suffice for an A. (Who cares about bonus points?)

I wonder. a) Is everyone (in theory) capable of learning that fast? If so, why do so many people fail their courses? b) Can this unique learning speed be taught? Trained? How? c) Does working hard during the semester play a role? How big? d) Does this moral hazard impede learning in the long term?

What an irony it is not these “straight-A´s-guys” who go down in history: The stupid ones do.

Any thoughts, dear readers? Any answers to my musings? Any strong feelings to vent? Tear my notes to pieces in disagreement or slap my back nodding, I shall be equally grateful for both.

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Posted by on 3 January, 2012 in Education


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The Power (Read: Beauty) of Deadlines

“I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” Douglas Adams.

“Deadlines. What a nasty word!” You say and shiver with disgust. You think of the most recent deadline you missed because of your not-anymore-secret procrastination or extremely heavy workload that would kill a horse. You think of your furious boss/teacher and your ashamed look of which you only caught a glimpse in a shop window on your way back home. Finally, you visualize the relief you felt the moment you sank into bed knowing that there won´t be any deadlines for the following two weeks.

Yet, no matter how evil deadlines may seem, they are actually the best thing since sliced bread. They are the ultimate whip who enforces discipline: They make you stay up late and/or get up early, they approve your increased coffee consumption and make you realize both the stick (punishment for being late) and the carrot (reward for not missing the d- thing).

If you think that deadlines are unnecessary and (especially if imposed “from above”) ineffective because you yourself know best what and by when you are capable of finishing – you are wrong. Let me illustrate it first and subsequently back it up with evidence.

Imagine your boss asks you to submit a paper on the efficiency of the latest advertising campaign you launched but does not give you a specific deadline; (s)he merely hints that “it would be nice to have it by the end of the month”. What will you do? Chances are, you really care about making a good impression. Hence, you take your time to gather data and check every single thing that could possibly go wrong. You process the data and spend many days creating fancy graphs, charts, tables and who knows what else.

However, the evening before the day you want to submit the paper you realize that in Section 3.3.1.a there is a sentence that slightly changes the meaning of the whole paragraph. You change it in the morning, but then you start wondering – was it just this one mistake, or are there more? You postpone the meeting with your boss and go over every detail again. And then you come up with an idea for a new graph that could make the report much better. But you do not have the right data. So, here we go again, two more weeks… And in the end your desire to hand in a “perfect” piece of work (to impress) makes you waste your time and your “normal” work suffers.

Sounds familiar? Now let´s look at what data say:

According to Dr. Ariely and his “Predictably Irrational”, students who got strict deadlines “from above” when their papers (during a semester) were due scored on average much higher than those who just came up with personal deadlines. But guess who scored the worst: It was those, who were not subject to any deadlines at all (apart from the end of the grading period).

The explanation is simple: Deadlines make us realize the value of time. If you are pressed for time, you a) focus more – because you have no alternative, b) prioritize – otherwise you fail, c) plan your work and stick to the plan – the only smart thing to do and d) beat your procrastination syndrome easier – as there is no time left in your plan for “procrastination”.

Of course, this works <=> (non-mathematicians read: “if and only if”) you do not collapse from stress because you are unable to manage your time (tips here).

The bottom line is – do not loathe your boss for giving you deadlines (you can do that for a million other things). (S)He is just trying to make you more productive and better organized. Remember that having freedom to do whatever you want to do is great only as long as you know where you are headed. Always think of the whip and the cake (promotion?) and do “what you gotta do“. It pays off.

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Posted by on 12 December, 2011 in Rationality


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Time is money. Manage it effectively.

Living in the 21st century opens up (almost) endless possibilities. To work, study, travel, socialize… and procrastinate in the meantime. Our generation can enjoy a huge amount of leisure time thanks to labour-saving devices like dishwashers. (True story!) And yet, not everybody is able to manage this ‘free’ time, not everybody can live his/her life to the full and stay productive. What has happened to us?

Television happened. Addictive on-line gaming happened. Clubs and leisure parks happened. Advertising and colourful distractions happened. As a consequence, we find ourselves clueless as to how to fit work, studying (optional), social life and sleep into the 24 hour-day. We end up stressed, complaining about how much snowed under we are, frustrated and unhappy – although having all that fancy stuff we see on TV which “guarantees” being “cool and happy”.

The thing we need to learn is effective time management. Checking Facebook cannot take more than ten minutes (the “fun” is actually to be found here), complaining about a boss should be kept to minimum anyway (to be quite honest, nobody cares that your boss thinks you shirk your work – (s)he might actually be right), and not sleeping is not an option (yes, not even for IB students).

Fortunately, there is an easy way out of this modern hysteria. Being organized is not a matter of talent, but rather a matter of determination and self-discipline. Let’s have a look at 10 “golden” rules for managing your time effectively.

1. Keep a diary/an organizer. It can be a Google calendar, an easy organizer on your mobile phone or even the old-fashioned (?) paper diary. Keep track of things you need to do (and when is the deadline). You are never going to forget an important meeting again!

2. Plan. The usual deadlines do not work – make your own deadlines (and make sure that they fly by before the actual deadlines). This will urge you to do work sooner than the evening before THE deadline which means that a) you will have some time to check your work and b) if something unexpected goes wrong, you do not have to come up with an excuse because there will be some extra time to do the given assignment.

3. Prioritize. You cannot reasonably do EVERYTHING and do it NOW. If one project is due later than another, it is not a priority at the moment. Especially when a nervous boss/teacher expected you to hand something else in more a week ago.

4. Focus. E.g. – one thing at a time. Do not expect that you will be able to multitask all day long. Do not reply to e-mails while calling a customer while signing a form while planning your dinner. Not only that you will probably forget a vital part of the recipe and your evening with your significant other will be a culinary disaster, but your work productivity suffers as well.

5. Take regular breaks. If you work for 12 hours straight, that’s workaholism. (Get help.)

6. Delegate responsibilities. You are not a super(wo)man, deal with it. You cannot answer 100 e-mails, write a 30-page report on a new product and attend an international conference in one day (and remain sane). And an insane worker is not particularly productive.

7. Ask for help early enough. If you are failing behind, do not pretend the problem does not exist. There is probably someone who can offer a helping hand.

8. Tick “done”. Not only that it makes you feel good when you see your everyday progress, but it also makes it easier to follow what remains to be done.

9. All work and no play make you a dull… Which is not to say you should get wasted the night before an important meeting or exam (only college freshers do that, right?).

10. “Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy wealthy and wise.” (Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard´s Almanack) Seriously, get up 30 minutes earlier. You would be surprised how much extra work you will do each week.

…That wasn´t difficult, was it? Has it helped? Please comment and share your thoughts on this.


Posted by on 23 September, 2011 in Random


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Myth uncovered: The ultimate college conundrum

“Welcome to college. Good grades, social life, enough sleep. Pick two.“ An urban legend that is spreading like wildfire among college freshmen and haunting them at night. If only they noticed the sophomores´ chuckles as they plan the next party, if only they knew that all the three pieces of a college puzzle can go together.

At first college may seem rather like Mission: Impossible due to many factors such as new responsibilities, a huge amount of workload, a (seemingly) illogical schedule or a statistics professor who apparently does not speak any human language. Being stressed and insomniac becomes acceptable,sleeping less and having all exercises done becomes even a matter of personal prestige and social status. “You can sleep when you are dead” is always a handy condescending response.

Fortunately, just as Mr. Stein might put it: “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.“ This might sound trivial, yet it usually takes many weeks until the freshmen realize the underlying wisdom that they can sometimes have their cake and eat it too. Before they do, their (cirrhotic) livers stand a chance of regeneration.

Since time just flies (especially before the first mid-term exams), basic human needs slowly induce the students to learn to plan their studies as well as fit a late-night party and afternoon sleep between two lectures and one tutorial. What as first looked like defying laws of physics (provided that you did not have Hermione´s time-turner) became sweet college reality.

As a matter of fact, successful students who do “have a life” need to stick to only three simple rules:

1. No Facebook*. At least not before exams or homework deadlines. Right?

2.  Sadly, lectures are not a good substitute for a good night´s sleep. Correct, not even History of philosophy, no matter how boring it may be. Having good notes saves valuable time when cramming (let´s face it, nobody studies much in advance) for an exam.

3. If housework takes up a large percentage of your free time, you are probably doing something wrong. Quick tips:

  • Do not iron everything. Your mother won´t check.
  • Delegate work. (Which might be problematic if you live on your own.)
  • Multitask (even if you are male). Sweep the floor while cooking – or simply do not sit in front of a washing machine… (video – 6:30)
  • Don´t be a perfectionist. It eats up time and the (visible) benefit is close to zero.

Your professor who – for the millionth time – moans “It´s the graphs, stupid!“ actually has a point: It´s the planning, procrastinator!

*Applies to Twitter, gaming sites or anything else which is irrelevant for the studies. Which means that this rule does not apply – for example – for this video (if you study economics):

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Posted by on 2 September, 2011 in Random


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