We’ve all been there - you’ve got an English exam and a Maths test you need to cram for, and a group presentation at the end of the week but you just can’t get motivated to start preparing... Why does this keep happening!? Here are some tips to help you get things back on track.

As the due date gets closer, everything and anything becomes a welcome distraction. Pour a drink, walk the dog, clean the house, make a coffee, get the mail, rewatch every episode of Game of Thrones... the list goes on. If this sounds familiar, it seems you're being crippled by procrastination.

Turn off the TV and put down the remote - it’s time to do something productive!

While it might seem obvious, lots of students don’t know that there are a number of different techniques we can use to study more effectively. You’re likely to find that one or two of these will support your natural strengths and allow you to learn (and retain information) with a lot less effort than others. Learning in ways that complement your natural abilities means that you can work smarter, not harder.

Here’s how...

1. Change your perception

Most of us put off studying for things that are seen as complex, challenging or confusing, leading us to lose motivation - but research suggests that this is actually a sign that we are on the right track! In their research on learning methods, Jason Lodge and Gregor Kennedy from the University of Melbourne say, “confusion occurs because the prior knowledge we have leaves us ill-equipped to deal with new information."

To beat the confusion, our researchers suggest we must change how we think about studying. "Most people experience [an inability to understand new information] as ‘confusing’, but that experience of confusion can often be a sign that they are meaningfully updating their conceptions”, says Lodge.

That’s a good thing - so embrace it!

In technical terms, this common response to complex problems is known as 'epistemic emotion'. That is, an emotion specifically associated with the development of our knowledge and understanding. If we are able to recognise this, we can harness its energy and work towards beating procrastination more effectively. As with any behavioural change, it can take a lot of practice to alter your perceptions, so stick with it, and make it a little easier by ensuring that what you’re studying will actually sink in!

2. Eliminate the threat

Exams preparation is one of the most reported procrastination-causing culprits. There’s always so much information to revise, and so little time to prepare! Part of the problem with this is that we often interpret an exam or test as a mental threat. This is perpetuated when we consistently study in comfortable environments, such as at home in bed, or in the living room with the TV on. Our comfort in these environments is great for retaining information and learning new concepts, as our brain is able to engage in ‘cold cognition’ - the term used to describe the logical and rational thinking process. No complaints here.

The real problem starts when we enter the exam room and conditions are silent, sterile and scary (for some). Under unfamiliar exam conditions, the brain engages in ‘hot cognition’ - the term given to non-logical and emotionally driven thinking processes. Hot cognition is typically triggered in response to a clear threat or otherwise highly stressful situation.

Working in comfort has its advantages and disadvantages (Image: Devin Boyer)

Along with Jason lodge, Jared Horvath - also a researcher at the University of Melbourne - summarises this process appropriately:

"When an exam is interpreted as a threat and a stress response is triggered, working memory is wiped clean, recall mechanisms are disrupted, and emotionally laden hot cognition […] overrides the normally rational cold cognition".

Get ahead of your class by killing the threat. It’s a moderately easy fix, simply practice studying under a range of exam conditions. Do it enough and you’ll breeze through exams relatively stress-free, allowing you to focus on what really matters and avoid blanking out!

3. Start self-regulating

So while preparing properly and being comfortable with uncertainty and confusion are key to avoiding procrastination and studying smarter, it’s useful to be mindful about how you are learning. Lodge offers up some advice to students, by suggesting ‘self-regulated learning’ (monitoring your own progress while learning) and ‘metacognition’ (thinking about your thinking) as the most important general learning skills students can develop.

As with anything worth doing, it takes a lot of practice to self-regulate properly, but it is the act of becoming self-aware about your learning process and deliberately focusing on monitoring your studies that ultimately help students to study more efficiently.

4. Procrastinate... Usefully

If you're in dire straits, take some time to read these helpful study tips compiled by the Academic Skills Unit. They should help you get back on track in no time.

Another great way to break out of procrastination is to simply take the first step - the easiest of which is to write a quick list of everything that needs to be done. Then, prioritise these things in order of importance, and start with one of the easiest tasks. As you tick each one off, tie it to a treat! By leveraging procrastination with something we actually enjoy doing, you’re retraining your brain to pursue the rewards that follow previously perceived menial, uninspiring tasks. This is the first step in changing your behaviours for good. Congratulations!

Alternatively, If you think your problem runs a little deeper, and you're struggling to focus, consider speaking to a counsellor. The University of Melbourne offers free counselling to students, helping you to get to the root of your problem and enabling you to reassess your priorities.

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