Beating Procrastination Cal's Way

Have you ever heard it said when a student is procrastinating their schoolwork that maybe it’s because the subject matter isn’t motivating enough, or the materials aren’t interesting enough, or the teacher isn’t engaging enough? While any of these could be possible problems in the realm of learning and education, what if the symptom of procrastination was caused mainly by the chronic disease of poor planning?

This past academic year (my senior year of college), I finally learned a valuable lesson. It came from Cal Newport in part from a talk he gave at a Texas school.

Procrastination is your brain’s way of telling you that your plan sucks. - Cal Newport

I have long struggled with procrastination. As I have reflected on why that is, no significant pattern emerges surrounding the tasks or goals, nothing ever being too difficult or too time demanding. It seems my procrastination is rooted simply in my chronic failure to plan for how I am to accomplish some task. Cal’s elephant-caveman analogy helped me understand my problem.

In short, a caveman decides he is going to sprint into a herd of elephants flailing a club, hoping raw effort will bring an elephant back to the table for dinner. His brain, no matter how primitive, becomes incredibly reluctant to inspire, motivate, and allocate the resources necessary for the caveman’s success. So when the caveman plans instead to track the behavior of the herd, hide up on a ledge or in a tree with a spear, and then take down an elephant that passes too close, the brain gets excited by the higher potential for success, and then allocates the resources or motivation or whatever necessary.

So to beat my procrastination I needed to change something in my approach to my work, something to do with my planning.

My typical “plans” involving school were phrased something like, “I’m going to go study.” But the word study is ambiguous. It’s vague. Cal Newport would say it’s dangerous. The word ‘study’ has never provided me any indication or description as to how I was to ‘study’ or where I was to spend the three hours of precious time I had that particular afternoon, etc. Two results usually came of this. One, I worked inefficiently and distracted for three hours getting one-hour’s worth of homework done. Or, more likely, I put off starting the assignment until the deadline forced me to focus.

What was actually happening, I now believe, was that my brain, my very capable, highly intelligent, God-given brain, did not want to allocate the resources and intensive focus it is able to because it was habitually unconvinced that my plans were any good. If my mind could speak with a mind of its own, it might say, “Austin, I’ve seen you try to tackle a five-page paper before without a plan, and you got distracted by other things less important and less urgent, and you were miserable trying to finish it before the deadline.” Or, “Austin, I’ve seen you try to catch up on reading before, reading five chapters in an hour before class, and it hurts me. I don’t want to do it again.”

Overcoming procrastination required, in part, the convincing of my brain that my plan this time around would be better than the awful plan I tried last time, and failed at. In order to confront my brain and convince it to work at the highly intense, highly intelligence level that I know it is capable off, I needed to be prepared with the answers to these three questions (for starters):

Three Basic Planning Questions

  1. How am I going to “study”? (What strategies, with whom, where, when, etc.)
  2. How long?
  3. How do I know this is a good plan?


Plan One-I have an exam on Thursday for my Rangeland Management class. I need to go study for it. And maybe…I’ll even stare at the Powerpoint slides 10 times.

Plan Two-I have an exam on Thursday for Rangeland Management. To prepare for it, I am going to start reviewing the study guide the professor posted today. I will do active recall, either with myself or a classmate, to determine what I know. Next, I will focus on learning the things I was unable to explain during active recall. The Powerpoint slides could help here. If I do this with someone, I could reserved a room in the library. If by myself, I’ll go to the bench southwest of campus where it is beautiful and quiet. I need to do active recall for one hour, followed by filling in knowledge gaps for one hour. I could space this out over two days, with half an hour each on both days. I know this will work because it worked for the exam in my class on Soils and Water Quality.

To which plan do you think my brain will subscribe?

I have long struggled with procrastination. So despite my successes this past year in academia, it will most certainly take a great deal of continued discipline to convince my brain to work at its fullest. At times, these focused efforts may be uncomfortable and stressing, but that stress is to be expected, like muscle aches are expected after starting to exercise again after a long period of laziness. Muscles take a while to warm up and function at their fullest without being sore.

As I push forward and experience more academic success, I am confident that my brain will continue to allocate its potential to my causes, with positive experiences replacing the memories of the negative ones.

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