A med student's guide to (not) procrastinating

November 27, 2019 onboardMD Team

5 things to consider when you find yourself avoiding the things you can’t afford to avoid.

Procrastination: it’s the thing you do instead of the thing you should be doing. Putting off work, avoiding tough tasks, purposely distracting yourself—there are hundreds of ways you can procrastinate. But don’t feel guilty. Procrastination is a habit that even history’s greatest minds have struggled to conquer; the ancient Greek philosophers Socrates and Aristotle even came up with a word – akrasia – to describe their state of mind when they were acting against their better judgment due to a lack of willpower. With the sheer number of deadlines a med student like you is expected to meet, procrastination can be particularly troublesome.

Author James Clear describes procrastination as a conflict between your present and future selves:

“When you set goals for yourself, you are actually making plans for your Future Self. You are envisioning what you want your life to be like in the future. However, while the Future Self can set goals, only the Present Self can take action. When the time comes to make a decision, you are no longer making a choice for your Future Self. Now you are in the present moment, and your brain is thinking about the Present Self…and the Present Self really likes instant gratification, not long-term payoff.”

Essentially what this means is: your Future Self, who is all about keeping up your GPA, finding the right specialty, and paying down your student loans, is often at odds with your Present Self, who is probably really tired – both mentally and physically – and wants nothing more than to order some pricey Korean take-out and binge-watch the new season of The Crown.

Is there a way to hack your brain so that those far-off, long-term goals feel a bit more urgent? Or are at least a bit more pleasant to tackle in the present moment?

Here are a few tips that might help:

Little Goals vs. Big Goals

Some of the things you want to accomplish are so big and abstract that it can be easy to lose your motivation. Becoming a paediatric surgeon may require lots of clinical rotations in different fields, and when you’re getting up at 4:30am to do rounds with a resident you might not get along with, it can be hard to see how your present discomfort is getting you closer to your long-term hopes and dreams.

But, by creating micro-goals that you can reach in the short-term, you can give yourself a little perspective on the importance of your present task and feel the satisfaction of having made forward progress towards those important macro-goals. What can you do to get through the next hour, the next day, the next week? When you figure that out, you’ll be surprised how quickly those hours, days, and weeks add up.

Realistic vs. Unrealistic Goals

Human beings – especially ambitious ones like you – are notoriously bad at forecasting the future, particularly when it comes to how much they can accomplish in a given period of time. When you’re setting goals for yourself – whether it’s the number of hours you’re going to study, the mark you’re going to get on your next exam, or, if you’re a pre-med, which programs you’ll get accepted to – make sure that you’re being conservative with your estimates. Nothing will kill your momentum and send you into a procrastination spiral faster than not meeting your own expectations.

Set more realistic goals for yourself by reducing the size of your habits. Commit to an hour of study time instead of two, or to writing five pages of your paper instead of ten. This won’t reduce your efficiency but will increase the number of tasks you’re able to accomplish and help you build some momentum towards conquering the next ones.

Immediate Rewards vs. Immediate Consequences

If you’re having a hard time feeling satisfied with the progress you’re making towards those long-term future goals, you can reward yourself for sticking to your schedule. You know—the carrot at the end of the stick. Watch an episode of your favourite show, enjoy a glass of wine, go for a run, soak in the bath—whatever treat might help you keep your eyes on the prize. Likewise, how can the ramifications of procrastination be made more immediate? Committing to study sessions with friends is one way to raise the stakes: if you decide to bail, you’re not just letting yourself down, but your study partner, too.

You vs. Your Biology

As a med student, you might suspect that a chronic behaviour like procrastination might be symptomatic of some biological issue—and you’d be right. Research has shown that procrastination is related to the function of the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which regulates impulse control and also filters distracting stimuli from reaching other regions of the brain. In this sense, procrastination isn’t much different from ADHD, which is tied to damage and low activation in the prefrontal cortex. A recent study has even shown that procrastination and impulsiveness are heritable genetic traits.

Taking Care of Business vs. Taking Care of Yourself

Often, procrastination is simply the result of fatigue. You hit a wall, you’re too tired, your brain just isn’t working. And that’s okay—the human body (and mind) has limits. It’s important to know what your individual limits are, and to give yourself a break before you reach them. This might be your most important weapon in the war against procrastination: forgiveness.

Being a med student – or even being in a position to apply to med school – requires superhuman amounts of discipline, and the fact that you’ve made it this far should give you faith that you’re doing something right. So, when that little voice in the back of your head is telling you to wait, to delay, to avoid, know that you have power over it.

There is one fundamental truth about procrastination that just about everyone agrees on: when you finally get down to tackling that thing you’ve been avoiding, it’s always less painful than you think. So, do your Future Self a favour and jump right in—you’ll be thanking your Present Self before you know it.

About the Author

onboardMD Team

onboardMD Team
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