One of the cardinal challenges that many students preparing for standardized exams struggle with is procrastination.
Unlike classes, for example, where regular exams force students to catch up with the material at regular intervals, when studying for a standardized exam, there is, by definition, only one exam. What’s worse, that fact plays to procrastinators’ worst devices because the exam can seem so far away.
Students with procrastination habits trick themselves into thinking they have all the time in the world to study. Unfortunately, for exams like the MCAT, there’s too much information to cram at the last minute, and procrastination can kill your greatest goals.
Let’s break down the psychology of procrastination: Students with procrastination issues have issues with meting out difficult—sometimes painful—experiences at regular intervals. They overvalue the pain of certain tasks and make their decisions about how to use their time with respect to that pain on the margins. At any given time, a procrastinator asks himself which of two or more options would be least painful at the current moment: the task at hand, or say, watching the latest episode of Modern Family on Hulu, or playing some Halo with friends, or—you name it. Inevitably, procrastinators push the task at hand further and further back until the pain associated with doing the task is far outweighed by the pain associated with not doing it (the risk of failing an exam, for example)—but by then its too late. And because they are inevitably left with gargantuan tasks like, say, pulling all-nighters for midterms, they feels justified to “take a break” afterwards, which inevitably leads them to procrastinate their next tasks. A vicious cycle sets in.
If you’re a procrastinator, how do you break the cycle to get going on your test preparation? One option is tedious and inviolate scheduling.
A great way to nip procrastination in the bud when you’re studying is to schedule study hours to the minute. That doesn’t just mean allocating a large, amorphous block of time to the activity. That means scheduling everything within each study block. For example, rather than schedule four hours of study time in one block, schedule yourself a series of 40 minute intervals, with 10 minute breaks in between. And when you begin, use a timer to time yourself so that neither your breaks nor your study periods impinge on one another. After all, a schedule doesn’t work unless you follow it.
And don’t be afraid to enjoy your breaks—after all, if they really are breaks, then you earned them! Perhaps break that Modern Family episode into three parts, so that you can enjoy it throughout your study time. Go get yourself a coffee, or call a good friend. The more enjoyable your break, the more likely you are to study hard to earn the next one.
Over time, you’ll find that scheduling becomes a habit—one that makes you more sane, less anxious, and more productive. It may also help you keep your MCAT dreams alive, with or without an MCAT tutor.
Go schedule. Go you.