Tricking yourself into being productive.

I’m fairly open about being one of the least productive people in the history of the world. It’s something I’ve had to make my peace with over the last twenty-something years. No sooner do I sit down, determined to do some work, am I distracted by my phone or an email or a passing moth. This is not ideal, to say the least, seeing as I’m a humanities’ student and blogger – both of which require a decent amount of independent work.

That feeling you get after spending a day sitting your desk without getting anything done is one of the worst in the world. Believe me – I’ve had it a lot.

And I’ve tried it all: telling myself off, writing a detailed revision plan, the “60 on 15 off” method, studying in cafes, studying in libraries, studying at the train station, even bribing myself with Smarties. (This method fell down when I realised I could eat the Smarties without doing any work. I ended up no cleverer, but whole tube of sweets fatter.)

Finally, after having been in education for nearly fifteen years, I had an epiphany: since I couldn’t be trusted to work under normal circumstances, I would have to be smarter than myself. I needed to outwit myself.

In a very calm, grown up inner voice, I told myself that I wasn’t going to do much studying at all today. I was just going to do a little bit, and then I would lie in my bed and read Guardians of the Galaxy fanfic. All I had to accomplish was that tiny, little bit of work, and then I’d be free to do whatever I wanted for the rest of the day.

And how would I know when I’d done that tiny, miniscule bit of work? Well, I told myself in that teacherish tone, I would make notes just until my pen ran out. That wasn’t so daunting, was it? After all, even I couldn’t remember when I’d started using this pen; for all I knew, it would run out after a single chapter of Czech: An Essential Grammar. Bolstered by relaxation that seemed only minutes away, I set about scribbling down declension patterns.

Four and a half hours later, my pen ran out and I stopped studying. I was thrilled: not only had I actually got a fair amount of revision done, I also had an unfamiliar feeling of accomplishment. I could get used to that.

Enthused by this success, I racked my brains for other ways to wring a little productivity out of my reticent brain. Bribery seemed hopeful, since I’m almost always one stressful situation from eating my bodyweight in chocolate. But this method, as I’d already discovered from the Smartie debacle, was fatally flawed because, instead of studying hard and then rewarding myself, I would simply eat the incentive and go and have a sugar nap.

But what, I thought to myself, if I couldn’t eat it? What then?

Instead of buying my reward beforehand, I lay out 70p on my desk – 70p that, if I got enough done, I would spend on chocolate. The bribe worked: unable to devour the money but still dreaming of a sweet treat, I got my head down and studied hard – although I did spend a fair amount of time gazing longingly at those silver coins.

After scheming up these two strategies, I have to say my general work output has increased. Sure, I’m still not the most conscientious student in the world, but I no longer feel like I’m basically incapable of sustained periods of concentration. I consider this a success.

It does seem fundamentally stupid that I have to cajole myself into studying in this way, by treating myself like an unruly schoolgirl, but hey – whatever works. As far as I see it, it’s better to study because you think you’ll get some chocolate at the end than not to study at all.

How do you stop yourself from procrastinating? Let me know in the comments.

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