Do You Multitask, then Feel Guilty? Advice for Premeds, and everyone else, too.

How many times have you heard this? “The key to getting out of procrastination is to stop multi-tasking. Just get a little momentum on your project, and you’re all set.”

I think this is naive, and here’s why. We’ve all spent many thousands of hours in multi-tasking mode. It’s ingrained into our workflow, just like breakfast in the morning, lunch around noon and dinner by 8.

People talk about multitasking all the time, but it’s hard to find an actual definition. Here’s an example of what I mean by multi-tasking: Reading some homework for a few minutes, then looking up on a computer screen to read an instant message, then changing the music on your mp3 player, then checking your calendar for tomorrow, then back to reading your homework.

Face it: You’re going to multitask. And that’s ok.
You’re going to multitask. You’re going to have instant messages distract you, you’re going to be watching for new email coming into your inbox out of the corner of your eye, and you’re going to switch over to your favorite sub-Reddit for a look-see. It’s going to happen, so you might as well accept and embrace it. The solution isn’t to try to stomp out multitasking, it’s to harness it in a way that helps you get done what you need to get done. I’ve written about this phenomenon before, and talked about how to improve your focus.

OK, let’s say you’re doing a writing assignment, and it’s a 1,000-word paper that is due at 8 am four days from now. You’d really rather not wait until midnight the night before it’s due, crank up the ol’ lappy, and start from scratch. But it’s been really tough to motivate yourself to do anything on the paper. Maybe the assignment is dumb, or you don’t like your topic, or you think the professor hates you. How do you stop yourself from procrastinating, and get something done?

Here’s where multitasking really comes in handy. You integrate the hated writing assignment into your multitasking carousel, like so: Do a little reading for a class, then hop into Facebook for a couple of minutes as a reward, then spend 10 minutes on the hated assignment and write one or two paragraphs. Next, do some more reading, then adjust the music you’re listening to on your iPod, and think about a snack you’re going to reward yourself with after you spend another 10 minutes working on the hated essay. Then write up some more on the essay, and when the 10 minutes are over, go get the snack you promised yourself.

Repeat this approach for an upcoming study session, and you’ll be surprised at how much you get done on that hated assignment. And since you worked on it in small, easy to handle chunks of time, it wasn’t so terrible, and you made significant progress. So now the assignment is a lot easier to finish. In a sense, you’ve snuck up on the assignment and created momentum. (I use this method a lot when writing blogposts for INQUARTA.)

Procrastinate Productively
You can extend this concept further into something called “Productive Procrastination.” You have a reading assignment due tomorrow, and you really don’t want to do it. So as a way of avoiding the reading assignment, you start to work on the upcoming essay that you know is due soon, but you’ve been avoiding. It’s a kind of rebellion that works — “I don’t feel like doing the assignment I am supposed to do, so I’ll do the assignment I don’t have to do instead.” After 30 minutes or so, you start to feel guilty and terrible for not doing the reading assignment, and that overwhelms your previous desire to avoid doing the work. So you start to read. Thirty minutes later, you’re bored with the reading, so you switch back to the essay, and you start to feel pretty good about yourself because you’ve made a lot of progress on the paper and you’re way ahead of where you thought you’d be. This makes you feel better, so the reading goes a little easier.

You’re already in this rebellion-to-guilt-to-achievement cycle, so this is a great way to make it work for you, instead of against you.

Same goes for cramming — you know you’re going to do it, so it’s best to embrace the crammer within and use the reverse-cramming system I outline in Save My GPA.

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