Are you determined to quit procrastinating and be more productive this year? Even when you’re motivated, it can be tricky to stick with it—especially once your calendar fills up with deadlines.
“My goal was to start every project ahead of time, at least partially,” says Austin, a senior in Burlington, Vermont. “But when I felt like I had more than enough time, I would put it off until later. Soon the assignments were piling up and I hadn’t started anything yet.”
Luckily, we’ve got three evidence-based productivity systems to help you out. These techniques will have you getting things done more efficiently with fewer anxiety-ridden, caffeine-induced late-night study sessions. Harness their power and set yourself up for a productive year from start to finish.
1. The Zeigarnik effect
In the 1920s, psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik observed that we humans have a tendency to try to complete tasks we’ve already started (that’s why cliffhangers in TV shows work so well—we come back because we want to know the conclusion). Zeigarnik developed her theory based on her professor’s observation that servers at a busy restaurant were better at remembering a table’s order before their meal was complete, but that once the check had been paid, the server no longer remembered the details of the order.
Zeigarnik tested her theory in the lab and found that the same was true in other contexts. She assigned random tasks to study participants and learned that when a person was interrupted from their task, they actually became keener to complete it. In other words, you might have an easier time getting that assignment done if you can convince yourself to just start it, even if you walk away before it’s finished. Students agree: In a Student Health 101 survey, more than 78 percent of respondents felt that just beginning a project made them more likely to come back and finish it.
Begin by setting aside just 45–60 minutes to get started on a project. Chances are you’ll feel better about jumping back in and finishing the job once you’ve made a dent in it.
“I like to read up on the topic before I start a project because it keeps me interested in working on it,” says Olivia, a sophomore in Kettering, Ohio. “For instance, I was doing a world studies project on Mother Teresa just a week ago. Before I even started it, I gave myself time to read about her. I found myself really happy with who she was, and that made the project easier for me to complete.”
Don’t push projects aside for too long, says productivity expert David Allen, author of the bestselling book Getting Things Done. “Your brain hangs on to things that are incomplete, taking up valuable ‘mental real estate’ that could be used for other and better things. Keep track of those things that are incomplete and review them regularly.”
2. Deliberate practice
Another pioneering study published in 1993 by psychologist K. Anders Ericsson found that musicians who implemented deliberate practice became more successful than those who practiced without a strategy. In a 2005 study, Ericsson also found that the same was true for university studies. Think of deliberate practice as “goal-oriented” studying, where you’re trying to single out the specific elements you’re having trouble with for improvement (whether that’s periodic table interactions or Spanish verb conjugation). You’ll focus on problematic areas, ideally with help from a teacher, parent, or tutor, and then repeat exercises targeted toward those subjects until you’ve got them down.
What makes deliberate practice so effective? Here are a few key factors:
- Set intentions. Make an outline of what you’re going to get done. Focus on the hardest tasks first and schedule breaks every 45–50 minutes before moving on.
- Strive for improvement. Is your goal to get through an oral class presentation without reading off your notes? Rehearse it at home until you can do it without even holding them.
- Make it reasonable and consider your skill level. If you’re struggling with basic algebra, don’t try to “catch up” all at once by joining a study group for advanced factoring. Seek out teacher assistance or tutoring based on your individual baseline.
- Get feedback. Did your parents notice that you weren’t making eye contact during that presentation? Do it again, and make sure to look each “audience member” in the eye while you’re speaking.
- Repeat, repeat, repeat. Got it right once? Do it again a few more times so that it becomes second nature—whether it’s solving for X or speaking like a pro.
After all that praise of practice, this might sound counterintuitive, but here’s another important tip: Don’t lock yourself in your room for a nonstop study session.
“You absolutely need regular breaks from intense thinking to allow your brain to regroup and refresh itself,” says Allen. “Thinking engages a ‘cognitive muscle’ that can burn out if not given adequate rest. That means enough sleep and frequent breaks during the day to daydream, play, and think about nothing in particular.”
The makers of productivity app DeskTime analyzed their real-life data to find two “magic numbers”: The highest-performing employees were those who worked for intervals of 52 minutes straight, with 17-minute breaks in between. Previous studies have shown that human ultradian rhythms (your body’s natural intervals in a period of 24 hours) take 20-minute alertness dips, so the research matches up. You might not be able to control your class schedule, but at home, set your alarm to notify you when it’s time to chat with a friend or take a walk.
Do you ever find yourself sitting down at your computer to start a project, full of motivation, only to spend the next hour distracted by your phone: responding to messages, scrolling through Instagram, and checking your email?
“When we do work in front of a computer that’s connected to the internet, especially with our phone by our side, we interrupt ourselves on average every 40 seconds,” says productivity coach Chris Bailey, author of The Productivity Project: Accomplishing More by Managing Your Time, Attention, and Energy. “This means we don’t even get a minute’s worth of work done before we become distracted. Try downloading a distractions-blocker app—such as Freedom or Cold Turkey—and leave your phone in the other room to do your most important work.”
Research shows that when we hold ourselves accountable to something, we’re better at sticking to it. An accountability chart takes only a few minutes and can help you spot time management problems. With each work session, take note of the time frame and what you’ve accomplished. Be honest with yourself, even if that means realizing you’ve wasted 45 minutes taking BuzzFeed quizzes.
If you’re not satisfied with your productivity, plan the next chunk of time (say, two hours after school tomorrow) and write down exactly what you need to get done during that session.
“When you split a project into manageable pieces, it’s always easier to complete.”
—Jeremy, junior, Tyngsborough, Massachusetts
Here’s how an accountability chart might look for writing an essay over the course of a day. (This can also be split up over several days, of course—and it’s always best to review an assignment with fresh eyes after 24 hours.)
“Productivity is about time management, and time management is all about self-management. To manage yourself, it’s also important to cut back on stress,” says productivity coach Yvonne Surrey in Brooklyn, New York. Here are her tricks for taking care of yourself so you can be a productivity “geek” (in the best way).
Go to bed on time and get enough sleep.
Eat healthfully and regularly (don’t skip meals).
Keep a journal.
And while you’re mastering your productivity and treating yourself like the royalty you are, do us all a favor and cut down on the caffeine, suggests Bailey. Swap it for plain water. Not glamorous, but effective for less-erratic energy levels. Now select a productivity system and get on with making it your best year ever. We’ll do the same.
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Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada
“Ever have one of those days where you really just can’t forget something? So you write it on a sticky note…and then that sticky note gets mixed up with all the others on your desk and you lose it altogether? (I mean, I put it right there!) The Wunderlist app can eliminate ‘list stress’ from your life. Not only does it have ‘smart list’ templates for you to choose from, but also you can add your own titled lists. You can even add other people to them and chat with them, which is great for group projects. Another great feature: Wunderlist will send you reminders! Syncing alarms and adding contacts to tasks ensures that the app will have your back, especially if it’s a ‘can’t forget’ kind of day.”
Having one long list on paper can seem overwhelming; by breaking it down and organizing it into multiple lists, I’ve gotten more stuff accomplished with less stress. I can’t say I‘ll never forget things again, but this app should definitely help.
I found myself making lists just for fun—movies I want to see, songs I want to download, and places I want to visit. Who knew I had so many lists to make? While the act of creating to-do lists isn’t really “fun,” it helped to organize and de-stress my life—which leads to more fun time.
Not only did I feel less stressed about remembering tasks, but also I found the things on the list seemed easier to accomplish. Since my one long list was now spread out and organized, I could tackle tasks in one area (say, school and work) without stressing about the tasks that needed to be done in another (home life).
Chris Bailey, productivity coach and author of The Productivity Project: Accomplishing More by Managing Your Time, Attention, and Energy in Ottawa, Canada.
David Allen, productivity expert and author of Getting Things Done in Berkeley, California, and Amsterdam, Netherlands.
Yvonne Surrey, productivity coach and speaker in Brooklyn, New York.
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Student Health 101 survey, September 2017.