You procrastinate. And, worse yet, you feel terrible about it. You feel that it is inevitable. You might even feel guilty or have fights with your parents about this. Procrastination isn’t your destiny. It’s something you can hack. Yes, the scientific evidence shows that you can change your brain – and you can change from being “a procrastinator” into someone who can feel good about completing tasks. What do neuroscientists and behavioral economists know, and that you might not?
1. Calendar Your Week – Record Your Time
Where does your time go? Many high school students don’t realize that they are possibly busier than adults because of the time they spend in classes, homework, extracurricular activities, working, volunteering, and hanging out with friends and family. Who has time for simple things like sleeping and drinking water?
How much of your time is already spoken for? Figure out how much time you are actually busy – and then block off that time on your calendar. Mark down your entire week, seven days. Yes, this means when you are leaving home for school – your transportation – and the actual time you spend in classes, your breaks, and your return home. Mark all of your time, including your social time with friends and family. Mark your chores, exercising time, volunteering, or working. And mark the regular time you spend on homework – for this step, break down the amount of time you actually spend on each class, on the various days of the week.
Note: If one week feels too long, just fully mark one school day.
2. Reflect on What You “Got” Out of Your Time
- Do you feel good about how you spent the time?
- Did you relax?
- Did you learn something?
- Did you accomplish some task you wanted to tackle?
- Did you spend time on the relationships you treasure most?
If you were not satisfied, which could be the case if you were hanging out on Discord / YouTube / TikTok, the good news is – you have the power to CHANGE how you spend your time.
So, think about whether you want to make any changes to the ways in which you are spending your time. For example, one of my students put her least favorite class’s homework at the end of the night. How well do you think she could focus then? By marking all her time and seeing how effective his routine was, and where she could improve it, then, she moved that classwork earlier in the day so that she could approach it with a fresher brain.
Reflecting is the most important thing. One of my students told me that he wanted to spend more time with his parents because he realized that he would be attending college, and those family dinners that he was taking for granted now will be a precious thing he will miss when he is older. Wow!
Reflect, reflect, reflect – and you may notice some patterns! Use those patterns to inform how you want to set goals and ultimately schedule your life.
3. Now, Timebox Everything You Do
What is Timeboxing? And why would this help you? “Timeboxing” refers to mapping a specific time to a specific task. That’s it. So, now – timebox all of your activities that you definitely want to spend time on, each week. Try to map out the next 7 days. Think about – how would you like to spend your time?
Really. Timebox it all. Having very clear boundaries about how much time you spend on each activity will actually help increase your motivation. This also helps you prioritize how you spend your time. What if you want to attend a party? You will have to timebox it, and that might mean you move around other stuff. One of my students uses the “label” feature on the Clock app on his iPhone to clearly manage his time. This is one of the things he has done to have a smoother school semester.
The research shows that timeboxing helps reduce stress and distractions and increase focus! But is it all work and no play? That brings me to my next and perhaps most important point: reward thyself.
Read more: Setting up Routines for High School
4. Put A Reward into Your Weekly Calendar to Hack Your Motivation
This might seem like a weird thing for me to discuss – fun – but if you want to hack your brain, neuroscience research shows that if you have a reward system that reinforces good habits, you are more likely to be successful in changing your habits. Some of my students like to play sports with friends, lift weights for “me” time, or even schedule a regular trip to the mall with friends.
Why would I encourage such habits? Hopefully, when you were reflecting on step #2, you figured out how much of your time you dedicate to activities that are truly rewarding, fulfilling, and fun. But in case you didn’t, I am calling this out as a step of its own to make sure you don’t forget to build in a reward – because it’s not intuitive. But it IS important – and the science bears this out.
Because then, you are looking forward to something in your week. Better yet, it would be ideal to have something you look forward to doing, every single day. Neuroscience research studies showed that even anticipating a reward – not even receiving it yet – releases dopamine and improves performance.
Examples (these are real-life ones, drawn from actual former students of mine):
1. Working out at a gym with friends immediately after school
2. Keeping Friday nights open for friends and family
3. Walking to the park with the family dog
4. Solo biking for miles and miles
5. Playing with video games old friends each week at the same time to stay in touch
6. Movie night with family
5. Why This Works: The Brain Science of Rewards
First of all, self-control is not infinite – you have a finite quantity. Yes, just like pennies and minutes, you only have so much impulse control – it truly is a concrete thing. In fact, every time you push yourself to do something, you are engaging in “impulse control fatigue” – a fancy way of saying that you get tired of doing stuff you don’t enjoy doing – and are more likely to take impulsive actions – like binge-ing on video games, YouTube or terrible snacks – out of sheer exhaustion because you have been doing actions which require you to behave yourself. Does this sound familiar?
To counteract this impulse control fatigue, you can hack your brain by pairing a “reward” like the examples I listed above, with the things you find difficult to do (but which might be better for you in the long run). This can help motivate you so that you are better able to focus on your tasks – because you are focused on the fun.
You can also do this on a super small scale, for particular actions you find difficult, not just your schedule. One economist Dr. Katy Milkman coined the term “temptation bundling” to describe what happens when you pair something you find difficult to do, in her case, hitting the gym, with something enjoyable, such as audiobooks. Once she set out a “rule” that she could only listen to audiobooks when she was at the gym, she found that she started to look forward to going to the gym to find out – what would happen next? And as a result, she built a steady habit of working out.
5. Continue to Reflect and Refine Your Routine
This is something you can adjust at least once each semester. Be ready to make adjustments along the way.
1. Calendar Your Week
3. Timebox Everything
4. Include Rewards
5. Reflect and Adjust
I hope you enjoyed reading about your brain and productivity and hope you found it empowering. You can do it!!!
At Insight Education, our counselors do more than just help you with your college list, college essays, and applications. We help you build stronger study habits and life skills – Learn more and schedule a meeting with one of our expert counselors today!
This article is written by Insight Senior College Admissions Counselor Meilin Obinata.
Meilin Obinata is a Senior College Counselor who enjoys learning from her students. She believes education is a creative endeavor and creates a space that allows students to explore new ideas. As a Bay Area native who grew up in Santa Cruz, she is familiar with the local schools. Read her full bio here.