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When we’re facing a deadline or getting ready to tackle a big project, the standard approach is to plan from the beginning and then work our way forward, starting with the first step and ending with our final task.
In recent years, however, a method known as backwards or reverse planning has been receiving a lot of attention, and it’s exactly what it sounds like. When you plan in reverse, you start with your end goal and then work your way backwards from there to develop a plan of action.
For example, if you have a paper to write, rather than focusing on the first steps, you would start by looking at the paper’s due date and identifying the last action you would need to take. How far along would you need to be the day before the deadline? When would the first draft need to be ready? When would the research stage need to be complete?
As counterintuitive as it may seem, working backwards in this way can give you a much clearer picture of what and how much must be accomplished during each phase of a project. It can also help you identify and avoid unnecessary activities.
In order to understand how the type of planning we use can affect goal pursuit, researchers from the University of Iowa and Peking University carried out a number of experiments with 300 university students who made plans to tackle goals such as revising for an exam or prepping for a job interview.
For the sake of the study, they identified two main methods of planning; forward planning and reverse planning. They found that when students used reverse planning, they were more motivated, had higher goal expectancy, and felt less time pressure.
There was also a marked difference in success between forward and reverse planning. Reverse planning not only enhanced student motivation and perception, but changed the actual outcome by improving student grades.
These effects don’t seem to be driven by the plan itself, however, because once finished, backwards and forwards plans tend to look pretty similar. Instead, it seems to be the process of reverse planning that can increase motivation and goal expectancy.
One reason for this is that focusing on the end goal allows us to use our imagination to think of future events as if they already happened, which makes it easier for us to visualize the steps we will need to take. The researchers refer to this as “future retrospection.”
Future retrospection can help increase our anticipation of pleasure from achieving our goal, which brings about goal-directed behaviours.
Another reason backward planning may be more effective than forward planning is that it helps us focus on a positive outcome. When we plan chronologically, it’s easier to get caught up thinking about all the obstacles that might prevent us from reaching our goal.
“When visualising the endpoint, things seem clearer and more positive,” explained study co-author and University of Iowa associate professor of marketing William Hedgcock. “If you start at the present, you could go this way or that way—it can be more negative.”
Earlier research also shows that our motivation tends to be at its highest at the start and near the finish of a project. But reverse planning provides a kind of map to the finish line by outlining each step we’ll need to take along the way, and this can help us stay focused throughout the whole project, even at times when motivation might otherwise be lagging.
Interestingly, these findings only hold true when the goal is complex, such as a comprehensive final exam that requires students to review a lot of information or a long-term project that involves a sequence of steps. When the goal is a relatively simple one, there doesn’t seem to be much difference between chronological and reverse planning.
Why? This is likely because simpler goals or less complex projects that require only a couple of steps are already easy for us to visualise and seem more attainable regardless of how we plan.
How to construct a reverse plan
So now that you know reverse planning has the potential to help you reach your complex goals and even improve the outcome, how can you go about crafting your first backwards plan?
The process of constructing a backwards plan can be a bit mind boggling at first, because you have to approach projects from an entirely different perspective than you’re used to. But if you’re ready to give it a try, here are a few things to keep in mind when planning in reverse chronological order.
1. Start with the end goal
Before you start constructing your plan, look at the end goal. What is it that you need to accomplish? Do you need to write a dissertation? Is there a big exam coming up? Are you going to an important job interview that you need to prepare for?
Once you have this goal clearly in mind, you can start working your way backward. What’s the last step you will need to take before you hand in your dissertation or turn up at your job interview? Perhaps you’d need to proofread your dissertation to check for typos and ensure clarity, or in the case of a job interview, maybe you would want to double check your outfit and review your notes.
2. Outline clear steps
Previous research has shown that envisioning the steps you need to take to reach your goal can increase confidence, reduce anxiety, and lead to more effortful actions. So make sure you identify and outline clear steps and milestones as you go along.
Try to make each step as specific, realistic, and actionable as possible, as this will help you work out which tasks are likely to require the most effort or creativity, and plan your time accordingly.
3. Focus on the process
Remember that the plan itself isn’t what’s going to make the biggest difference, because once you’ve finished creating your reverse plan, it won’t read all that differently from a chronological one. The thing that’s really going to help you in this case is the process of thinking about your goal and working backwards from there to identify each step you’ll need to take along the way.
So don’t try to rush through the planning process or feel like you have to put together a perfect plan, because reverse planning is more about the journey than the destination.
4. Visualise a positive outcome
Part of the reason reverse planning is so effective for complex goals is that it helps you focus on the outcome rather than on all the things that might go wrong along the way.
When you visualise a positive outcome, such as passing your exam with flying colours or acing your job interview, you’ll already feel closer to that goal than you would if you focused primarily on how much effort it’s going to take or what might go wrong.
Of course, it is also important to be realistic about the potential difficulties or obstacles you might face as you work towards your goal, but visualising a positive outcome can put you in the right frame of mind to succeed.
Researchers at MIT have found that students who take music lessons improve their language skills more than students who take supplemental reading lessons, raising the question of whether schools should place a higher value on music education.
Although brain scientists have long known that musical training enhances language learning, this is one of the first studies to link a specific type of music education (piano) to a particular language outcome (word recognition).
The study involved 74 kindergarten students in Beijing, divided into several groups. One group took three 45-minute piano lessons per week; a second group received extra reading lessons for the same amount of time; and a third group received no additional instruction.
After six months, the researchers measured students’ ability to recognize words in their native Mandarin based on differences in vowels, consonants, or tone (many Mandarin words differ only in tone). The idea is that more precise word recognition correlates with enhanced phonological awareness—the sound structure of words—which is an essential part of learning how to read.
“Children who had piano lessons showed a significant advantage over children in the extra reading group in discriminating between words that differ by one consonant,” states the MIT press release. “Children in both the piano group and extra reading group performed better than children who received neither intervention when it came to discriminating words based on vowel differences.”
Additionally, when students’ brains were scanned for activity while listening to a series of musical pitches, the music students showed a stronger response than the reading students. The researchers believe this sensitivity to pitch is responsible for their enhanced language skills.
“There are positive benefits to piano education in young kids, and it looks like for recognizing differences between sounds including speech sounds, it’s better than extra reading,” says Desimone. “That means schools could invest in music and there will be generalization to speech sounds. It’s not worse than giving extra reading to the kids, which is probably what many schools are tempted to do—get rid of the arts education and just have more reading.”
This research makes it clear just how powerful the arts can be in learning and development.
Over the past few years we’ve written a lot about creativity and how to spark divergent thinking, from physical activities like taking a walk or doodling to using technology more effectively. But the idea that creativity is something we can actually learn and develop is a still relatively new one.
Creativity is often viewed as a quality that a person either has or doesn’t have. It’s long been accepted as fact that some of us are born with the ability to think imaginatively and innovatively, while others are more down-to-earth and practical-minded.
Recently, however, there’s been a shift in this way of thinking and new studies suggest that creativity is indeed a skill that we can develop over time.
It is true that creative thinking comes more naturally to some people than others. A study led by cognitive neuroscientist Roger Beaty found that creative people are better able to co-activate the spontaneous thinking and controlled thinking networks.
These networks play a key role in idea generation and idea evaluation. Although they aren’t normally aren’t activated at the same time, fMRI scans showed that people who are better at creative thinking seem to be able use these networks simultaneously.
But although it does appear that creative brains are “wired” differently, this doesn’t mean that the ability to think outside the box can’t be learned and developed.
How creativity can be developed
Since creativity still isn’t fully understood and is difficult to measure, it can be tricky to pinpoint any one method for learning or teaching it. For this reason, efforts to develop creativity usually focus on understanding how the creative mind works and applying creative thinking processes rather than sitting through lectures or following a specific set of rules.
In fact, in order to think creatively, you need to be willing to challenge existing assumptions, be open to new ideas and possibilities, and get out of your comfort zone by experimenting, exploring and constantly asking questions.
Psychologist and leading creativity and innovation researcher Dr. Robert Epstein has identified four core competencies that can help individuals think more creatively and generate novel ideas. His research, published in the Creativity Research Journal, shows that strengthening these four areas can greatly enhance creativity.
For the first study, employees from Orange County, California participated in creativity training seminars that had been developed to increase proficiency in the four areas. When the same employees were evaluated eight months later, they had increased their rate of new idea generation by 55 percent.
So for anyone looking to develop their creativity, Epstein recommends working on the following:
1. Capture new ideas:
Find an effective way to preserve novel ideas as they occur, without judging or editing them. This might mean carrying a notebook and jotting down your ideas throughout the day, or using a voice recorder to record any original thoughts on the spot.
2. Seek out challenges:
Don’t shy away from challenging problems or projects. Even if there is no real solution or answer to the problem, simply forcing yourself to think about the possibilities will help you generate new ideas. Seeking out challenges also means you’ll fail at times, so accepting failure as a possibility is also a necessary part of being creative.
3. Broaden your knowledge and skills:
Epstein points out that acquiring knowledge and skills outside your current area of expertise will make more diverse knowledge available for interconnection, which is the basis for creative thought. You can do this by taking additional classes or courses, sitting in on lectures or reading journals in unrelated fields.
4. Manage your surroundings:
Your surroundings can also have a big impact on how you think, and Epstein says surrounding yourself with diverse and novel physical and social stimuli can stimulate new ways of thinking and original ideas. This could include anything from expanding your social network to visiting museums to decorating your work or study space with unusual objects.
A follow up study by Epstein confirmed that these four trainable competencies can enhance creative expression, but also showed that the one that was most effective was capturing new ideas. So if you want to get started with something simple, get yourself a pocket-sized notebook and make a habit of documenting your ideas, even if they don’t initially seem all that groundbreaking.
Too much structure is the enemy of creativity
In the same way that certain approaches can enhance our creativity, there are also some common practices that can hinder our ability to think creatively.
A recent study from the University of Toronto, Rotman School of Management, shows that although giving structure to information can help us organize our activities and work more efficiently, too much structured knowledge can also make us less creative.
The researchers designed a series of experiments to measure creativity and cognitive flexibility. They found that when participants used categorised sets of information, they displayed less creativity and cognitive flexibility than when they worked with items that weren’t organised in any special way.
So if you’re a person who loves structure and organisation, you may have to temporarily cast aside your urge to categorize and colour-coordinate for the sake of allowing your creativity to flourish.
How creativity is already being taught
Although it’s highly possible to learn and develop creativity, it can still be a difficult skill to teach in a structured classroom setting. Classroom environments may even inadvertently stifle creativity, because students are so afraid of getting poor grades or being embarrassed in front of their peers that they shy away from challenges and avoid taking risks.
The good news, however, is that thanks to the increased demand for creative individuals in the workforce, a growing number of universities and learning institutes are recognising the need for creativity and have begun to implement their own initiatives to teach it as a skill.
Here are a few notable examples of schools where creativity is already being taught.
Minerva College, a four-year for-profit college in Claremont, California, has taken a unique approach to higher learning, because rather than teaching students subjects or hard skills, it aims to teach them how to think. During their entire first year, students focus specifically on critical thinking, effective communication, creative thinking, and interacting effectively.
Dr. Stephen Kosslyn, a former Harvard and Stanford professor and Minerva’s founding dean, says that rather than training students for a particular profession, their goal was to give them the intellectual tools they would need to succeed at jobs that may not even exist yet.
As they learn to think creatively, students are encouraged to carry out hypothesis research, test their theories, conduct interviews and visualise data. They also learn to solve problems creatively and create products, processes and services.
University of Sydney
Professor Michael Anderson of the Faculty of Education and Social Work at The University of Sydney has been researching the role creativity plays in learning. His teaching aims to help students understand how creativity and the creative process works, and engage with their own creativities.
Throughout the unit, students are given a chance to explore theoretical, sociological, psychological and political constructs of creativity as well as different approaches to creativity. They also gain an understanding of how creativity can enhance their ability to think critically.
University of Georgia
The Torrance Center for Creativity and Talent Development at the University of Georgia is a research and instructional centre that aims to investigate, implement, and evaluate techniques that can be used to enhance creative thinking. Some of the ways in which creativity is already being taught there include thinking by analogy, looking for patterns, and using play to encourage new ideas.
The centre also conducts research on creative thinking, hosts professional development programs, and aims to serve as an expert on creativity within and outside the university community.
FourSight, developed by Dr. Gerard Puccio, chairman of the International Center for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State College, takes a new approach to teaching creativity by following a four-step process. This process involves first clarifying the problem or challenge by asking the right questions, ideating or brainstorming new ideas, developing potential solutions, and finally, implementing new ideas.
FourSight’s goal is to teach the science of good thinking, and it does this by developing research-based creativity and innovation tools for educators, HR professionals and others who are looking to support creative thinking and innovation.
Are you a teacher looking to help your students understand and develop their creativity? Check out some of our tips and ideas for promoting creativity in your own classroom, from allowing room for mistakes to encouraging curiosity.
Researchers at the University of Maryland have found that people remember information better when it’s presented in an immersive Virtual Reality (VR) setting.
Drawing on a spatial mnemonic encoding technique called the Memory Palace (or Method of Loci), the researchers had 40 participants memorize the positions of images in a virtual setting. The images were of well-known faces—including Abraham Lincoln, the Dalai Lama, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Marilyn Monroe—distributed throughout two imaginary locations: an interior room of an ornate palace and an external view of a medieval town.
The participants, who were Maryland students mostly unfamiliar with VR, were divided into two groups: one viewed information first on a desktop and then with an oculus display; the other viewed information first with an oculus display and then on a desktop. Participants navigated the environment for five minutes, studying the location of the images. Desktop participants used a mouse to change their viewpoint, while VR users turned their heads from side to side and looked up and down.
The idea was to test whether people recall information better in a traditional two-dimensional computer game setting or in a more immersive VR environment. Researchers guessed that the VR-immersed group would perform better since they would have an additional memory cue in the form of spatial relativity. In other words, they could use their own physical presence to memorize the location of images in relation to it.
The results showed an 8.8 percent improvement overall in recall accuracy using the VR headsets, and 40 percent of participants scored at least 10 percent higher in recall ability using VR over desktop display.
In a post-study survey, all but two participants said they preferred the immersive VR environment as a potential learning platform. Many of the participants said they could focus better due to the immersive “presence” of VR.
Recent research in cognitive psychology suggests that the mind is “inherently embodied,” says co-author and senior research scientist Catherine Plaisant, and that “the way humans create and recall mental constructs is influenced by the way they perceive and move.”
“This leads to the possibility that a spatial virtual memory palace — experienced in an immersive virtual environment — could enhance learning and recall by leveraging a person’s overall sense of body position, movement, and acceleration,” Plaisant says.
Professor of computer science Amitabh Varshney, who co-authored the paper, says this data suggests immersive environments could offer new pathways for improved outcomes in education and high-proficiency training.
“By showing that virtual reality can help improve recall, it opens the door to further studies that look at the impact of VR-based training modules at all levels — from elementary school children learning astronomy to trauma residents acquiring the latest knowledge in lifesaving procedures.”
It’s important to keep in mind that, while VR may qualify as “cutting edge” technology, it doesn’t represent a shift in human thinking:
“Humans have always used visual-based methods to help them remember information, whether it’s cave drawings, clay tablets, printed text and images, or video,” says doctoral student Eric Krokos, who was lead author on the paper. “We wanted to see if virtual reality might be the next logical step in this progression.”
While high school students are often maligned for wasting their time on Instagram or partying with friends, the stereotype is not true for two recent New Jersey high school graduates. Instead of hanging out with their friends or worrying about college admissions test, they decided to take on the slightly bigger problem of racial literacy.
Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi are two friends and former classmates at Princeton High School in New Jersey. Back in 2014, they thought they understood race, having heard all too common stories about race, discrimination, prejudice and stereotyping.
However, in their sophomore year, during one particular class discussion about current events, such as police brutality and racial profiling, they realised that this was the first time they’d discussed these topics in a classroom setting. Considering that children have been shown to develop signs of stereotyping as early as the ages of 3–4, it seemed crazy to the two friends that students don’t have these conversations in school sooner.
From this, they became convinced that racial literacy should have a place on every high school curriculum. So, instead of waiting for their teachers or the administration to tackle the problem, they took it on themselves.
But, before we go further, let’s take a look at what racial literacy actually means:
What is racial literacy?
Racial literacy is a concept developed by sociology professor and social filmmaker France Winddance Twine from her research in the UK with mixed race families.
The concept describes “a set of practices designed by parents and others to teach their children how to recognize, respond to and counter forms of everyday racism. The emphasis here is on teaching children as well as adults how to identify routine forms of racism and to develop strategies for countering it and coping with it.”
Guo and Vulchi considered themselves and their diverse group of high school friends as quite racially literate, until one particular lunch break.
One of their friends questioned the need for this discussion in their community, saying “there is no racism in my lunch group. There’s Asians and hispanics and a black girl.” When Vulchi asked her friend who the black girl was, she replied that she was referring to Vulchi, who is Indian American.
This conversation made Vulchi and Guo, who is Chinese American, realise that there was still a huge gap in racial literacy, even amongst their diverse group of friends, and that they wanted to try and improve education on this topic.
Of course, they encountered some criticism and even questioned how they would be able to bring about change as high school students. “But the more we thought about it, the more we realized that being high school students was our triumph” Vulchi says.
The way that racial history was taught in high school felt dry and disconnected from the real world and issues happening all around them. Of course, they had learned about Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, but it didn’t feel relevant in their modern context. They were interested to hear current stories of living people to bring the statistics and dates to life.
So, the duo set out to talk to people they saw every day in their neighbourhoods, and collect photos and stories, which they uploaded to their website.
These stories include that of a woman in Pittsburgh whose sister found out through a harmless Facebook search that their surname was that of a slave owner, the man who had owned her great great great grandmother. Stories like these make the historic facts feel more “relevant, immediate, because the connection to slavery’s lasting legacy today is made clear”, Guo said in their 2017 Ted Talk.
Once some stories had been collected on their website, the two students presented their findings to their teachers at a faculty meeting. The teachers were impressed and saw the value in the stories, but were still lacking a tool to translate these into a classroom setting. They were looking for action points to spark the conversation.
They were inspired by a tweet from Dr. Ruha Benjamin from Princeton University, who also wrote the foreword for their book, saying “all these schools and districts across our nation aren’t equipping their students with the proper tools to talk about race in America. What we need to do is equip all students with the historical and sociological toolkit for racial literacy.”
Encouraged by their teachers, Guo and Vulchi decided to create just that, a toolkit for racial literacy. With the help of Princeton University’s Department of African American Studies, they packaged the stories into a 50-page textbook about racial literacy, The Classroom Index.
Gaps in Education
Through their research, they learned that there were two gaps in racial education, which they call the heart gap and the mind gap.
The heart gap is “an inability to understand each of our experiences, to fiercely and unapologetically be compassionate beyond lip service.” And the mind gap describes “an inability to understand the larger, systemic ways in which racism operates.”
The stories and photos in The Classroom Index bridge both of these gaps, with the textbook equipping educators, parents and students with a toolkit to talk about race in America.
In an interview with Teen Vogue, Vulchi said “it enables students to enact change, it inspires activists so students leave the classroom not only equipped with other literacy such as math, reading, and science to make a difference in the world, but they are equipped now with a will and a fight in them for social justice.”
Guo added, “It’s really a platform for listening and learning and sharing the untold truths of race in America.”
In a recent interview, Guo stated: “we hope that anybody who has read through research in our book now understands race and racism in a historical, contemporary context. Now, they can have an idea of what we should do for a more equal society — actual steps that we can take moving forward.”
But the two friends have no interest in stopping there. Since publishing the second edition of their book, now 224 pages of stories, people of all backgrounds and walks of life, and discussion points, the friends have graduated high school and were accepted to Princeton and Harvard Universities.
However, instead of starting their college education right away, the two decided to take a gap year to travel through all 50 US states to collect more stories.
They have since travelled the entire country, documenting more than 500 stories and taking their mission to the next level with their next book, The Race Index, which will focus on the intersectionality of race, gender, class, religion, and ability.
By broadening the scope to the intersectionality of race, they aim to expand the conversation about racial literacy to include all the current important social justice issues that really matter.
The next edition will be published in Spring 2019 and a few sneak peek stories are already available on their website.
The production effect, coined by researchers at the University of Waterloo in 2010, was first observed in language learners who improved recall for new words by speaking them aloud. It was first documented in a series of experiments in which “the mere act of reading words aloud resulted in substantially better memory than reading them silently.” Although it has mostly been observed in language learning scenarios, the effect can also be used to improve learning and memory in general.
In a recent post for Psychology Today, Dr. William Klemm, senior professor of neuroscience at Texas A&M University, describes how the production effect helped him memorize an 18-minute-long TED Talk.
He not only practiced reading his speech aloud but also turned it into a full “production,” rehearsing by actually giving the speech, vocalizations, and mannerisms in front of a mirror. The brain likes associations, and Klemm was strengthening his memory for the information by providing cues his mind could draw on later.
“The usual thing we think of about improving memory is the need for rehearsal, especially the kind of rehearsal where you force recall at spaced intervals after the initial learning,” Klemm explains. “But another factor in improving memory is to strengthen the initial encoding at the time of learning.”
This makes sense. If you think about a particularly intense experience you had, you realize it’s easy to remember it vividly because, at the time, it impacted you so deeply that the details were firmly encoded into your memory. Klemm’s point is that we can force our brains to encode information better the first time we learn it by making it “a production.” We can speak it, sing it, draw it, or interact with it auditorily or kinesthetically.
The effect is consistent with studies on typing and handwriting, which have shown to improve recall for information due to their kinesthetic nature. Handwriting works particularly well as it’s even more tactile and physically engaging than typing. Another explanation is that greater attention and processing is required for production than for passive reading, which means your brain is going to remember the information better simply because it’s working harder.
Then, when it comes to recalling the information without an aid, you can create further associations to strengthen those connections.
“Anytime you retrieve a memory item, it is an opportunity to re-learn it in a sense, and the information gets re-consolidated,” says Klemm. “So, if you speak, draw, or use another production effect during forced recall, you further strengthen the encoding and subsequent consolidation.”
Try using the production effect yourself the next time you prepare for a presentation or study for an exam. You might be surprised how naturally it all comes to you in the end with a small boost at the start.
“Discipline is choosing between what you want now and what you want most.” –Augusta F. Kantra
I find that most time management strategies don’t work for me because they are designed around time rather than the way the brain actually works.
For example, it doesn’t help me to break my day into a series of blocks devoted to different tasks; I won’t stick to the plan because I’ll inevitably end up needing extra time or become mentally exhausted having to switch between projects so often. My brain wants the freedom to focus for long, open-ended periods of time. Time management apps like Taskr or Egg Timer are pretty useless to me.
Regularity makes more sense for some goals than others. For instance, if you’re training for a marathon, you’ll need to stick to a very consistent schedule week to week to stay in shape. But for other tasks you think you need to practice regularly, like language learning, the best approach might not be regularity. Instead, it might work better to choose one week out of a month where you are going to focus on the task intensively. Although this might sound counterintuitive, the fact is that it takes a lot of brain power to switch tasks all the time, so it’s easier to get mentally exhausted and lose focus if you’re trying to devote blocks of time throughout each day to different tasks.
There are different ways to organize your days, weeks, and months—the same strategies don’t work for us all. For some of us, it does work to break each day up into blocks devoted to different tasks; for others we’d rather spend a whole day on one task and the next day on another task; for others still it might work better to devote entire weeks or months to different tasks. The important thing is to realize there’s no “right” way of managing your time, but there are some things to be cognizant of which might make it easier for most of us to be more productive.
1. Know what you want most.
I tend to lose focus when I’m not confident that I’m using my time wisely or efficiently. If, in the back of my head, I’m thinking that I might be prioritizing one task when I should really be prioritizing another, then I’m more likely to be distracted. That’s why it’s important to keep the big picture in mind. You don’t have to have your whole life planned out, but as long as you know “what you want most” and align your priorities with that, then you can at least rest assured you are spending your time well.
2. Let yourself indulge.
Maybe one reason why we love to binge-watch TV shows is because we derive a guilty pleasure out of spending an indulgent amount of time doing one thing. When society tells us we need to structure our day a certain way and stick to a certain schedule, we tend to react by wanting to “do a lot of nothing” on the weekends. But many of us feel unproductive when we spread ourselves too thin—maybe we should allow ourselves to indulge in one task more often. It’s not a sin to spend a whole evening practicing Spanish if we are more likely to progress given the time and freedom to get “in the zone.”
3. Cultivate curiosity.
The latest research on motivation tells us that curiosity is key. If you have a desired outcome in mind related to the task at hand, and you are actively curious about the potential rewards it will bring you, then you’re more likely to stay focused and get things done. Feeling productive is a reward in and of itself, so you might try cultivating curiosity about time management itself: how much more can you get accomplished if you change your environment, routine, attitude? Treat it as one big experiment.
4. Experiment with spaced vs. massed approaches.
There’s a solid body of research supporting distributed, or spaced, practice over practicing in a couple of big sessions. Certainly, in the context of studying for exams, this holds true: You’re more likely to recall material and retain it for longer if you study at regular intervals over time rather than cramming for the test at the last minute. But not all tasks are created equal. If you are trying to get a new project off the ground running, your powers of energy might better be served if you choose one week to focus on it intensely. After all, creating momentum is the hardest part for a lot of us; if we allow ourselves to dive into one task for a while and ignore the others, we will be able to resume a more regular schedule once we’ve got that first big push in the right direction.
5. Create momentum when you need it.
Personally, if I find that I am not being productive, I have trouble turning it around and making better use of my time within the same day. But if I am already being productive, it’s much easier to continue getting things done. Productivity breeds further productivity. So beginning the day on the right foot makes a huge difference. One way of doing that is to make sure you start ticking things off your list early in the day—they can be small things, just so long as you can draw from that sense of accomplishment and keep pursuing it throughout the day.
What time management strategies work for you? Please share in the comments.
What is it about having an important task to complete that makes us want to focus on anything but that one task? Procrastinate, postpone, delay—call it what you like, but there’s no denying that our tendency to put things off until the last minute can be problematic.
Procrastination is particularly troublesome for students, and according to a meta-analysis by Calgary University professor Piers Steel, between 80 and 95 percent of university students procrastinate, especially when it comes to their coursework. Research by University of Denver School of Education professor Kathy Green found that procrastination was one of the top reasons doctoral students failed to complete their dissertation.
This is surprising considering that productivity is practically worshiped by society today, and we’re constantly being bombarded with new self-help books, blogs, and apps dedicated to helping us get more done in less time.
So why is procrastination still such a big a problem?
Having an impulsive nature is likely a factor, because an impulsive person is more easily distracted and therefore more likely to flit from one task to the next. But according to Carleton University professor of psychology Timothy A Pychyl, there’s more to it than just getting distracted.
Why Do We Procrastinate?
Procrastination is rooted in fear of failure and self-doubt.
Pychyl explains that procrastination is often triggered by self-doubt and is kind of like a coping mechanism. Putting something off allows us to avoid the negative emotions that we associate with that particular task, whether it’s stress, frustration, anxiety, or boredom. So when you choose to scroll through your Facebook news feed instead of study for that upcoming exam, it’s probably because you’re feeling anxious about performing well and want to avoid that unpleasant emotion, even if it’s just for a few minutes. Our self-doubt and fear of failure also prevent us from putting forth our best effort and sometimes even lead us to actively sabotage our efforts. We would rather have people think that we lack effort than ability, so we subconsciously make the decision to study less or leave projects unfinished.
This cognitive strategy is known as self-handicapping and can take many forms, from substance abuse to poor sleeping habits to procrastination. Oddly enough, we don’t only procrastinate because we worry about performing inadequately; in some cases we put things off because we’re afraid that succeeding will raise other people’s expectations of us and that we won’t be able to live up to those expectations the next time around.
Research also shows that we’re more likely to handicap ourselves when the stakes are higher. A study by leading procrastination researcher and professor of psychology at DePaul University Joseph Ferrari together with APS Fellow Dianne Tice, found that students were more likely to hold off on studying for a test when they were told it was a meaningful evaluation of their abilities. When they were told that they were only taking the test for fun, they diligently prepared for it. But when they thought the test real, they protected themselves by not trying too hard.
So in a way, procrastination is something we do to control situations that are beyond our control. Of course, in the long run, putting off the inevitable will only make things more stressful and chaotic. But subconsciously we’re doing it to let ourselves off the hook. We tell ourselves that if we’d only had more time to study we would have performed better, or if we had started on our essay earlier it would have earned a higher mark.
Aside from having a negative impact on final exam scores and assignment grades, procrastination can also take a toll on students’ mental health and physical well-being. Research led by Dianne Tice found that although students who procrastinated reported lower levels of stress and illness early on in the term, their stress and illness levels rose sharply later on in the term. Procrastination just delayed the inevitable and eventually exacerbated the problem.
So what can we do to stop putting things off and get to work?
Understanding why we procrastinate is half the battle, but it’s also important to find coping strategies that actually work. If you know that you have a tendency to delay or avoid important tasks until the last possible minute, here are a few things you can try.
How to Procrastinate Less
1. Focus on the root of the problem
The first step towards banishing procrastination is getting to the root of the problem. Pretending that your task avoidance issues are a result of poor time management skills would be disingenuous. Of course it’s never a bad idea to make lists and break large projects up into smaller chunks, but if the real reason for your procrastination is wanting to avoid unpleasant emotions like anxiety and frustration or being afraid to fall short of other people’s expectations, then basic time-management strategies aren’t going to be the solution.
2. Practice regulating your emotions
If you tend to procrastinate as a way of avoiding negative emotions like boredom, frustration, or anxiety, it’s time to practice your emotion regulation skills. Research shows that if we can learn to tolerate and modify aversive emotions, we will procrastinate less as a result.
One effective emotion regulation strategy is self-forgiveness.
A study led by psychology professor Michael Wohl found that University freshmen who forgave themselves for putting off studying for their first exam went on to procrastinate less the next time around. So simply not being too hard on yourself and accepting that you will procrastinate from time to time can diffuse some of the negative emotions you’re feeling and help you avoid it in the future.
3. Set short term goals with immediate rewards
If staying focused for long periods of time is difficult for you, try setting short term goals with immediate rewards at the end. Researchers from Princeton University found that two different areas of the brain, emotional and abstract-reasoning, compete for control when we have to choose between long term and short term rewards. The emotional area of the brain has difficulty envisioning the future, while the logical area is better able to understand the future consequences of our decisions. Because the rewards of long term goals are delayed, the emotional part of our brain has difficulty envisioning them.
So setting short term goals with immediate rewards can help us persist towards our long term goals. For example, you could set the goal of completing one practice test, and then reward yourself at the end of it with a quick social media break.
4. Visualize your future self
Research shows that we tend to focus narrowly on our present selves. We satisfy our immediate needs or desires while wrongly assuming that our future selves will be better equipped to deal with the consequences of the decisions we make today.
One study found that when people were shown a digitally-aged picture of themselves, they were more likely to put aside money for retirement. This is likely because they felt a stronger association with their future self and better were able to recognize the need to save money. So if you’re not feeling motivated to work or study, try to visualize your future self dealing with the consequences of that decision, whether that means imagining yourself pulling a desperate all-nighter to finish an essay or sitting an exam that you don’t feel prepared for.
5. Try active procrastination
If you know you’re going to procrastinate anyway, it makes sense to spend that time doing something productive. For example, if you feel stuck on your writing, you could procrastinate on it by doing some research or fact-checking. This strategy has been dubbed ‘active procrastination,’ by University of San Diego professor Frank Partnoy. His research suggests that this particular type of procrastination can help you get more done because although you’re still procrastination and delaying one task, you’re still working on something important and crossing items off your to-do list.
If you are going to use this strategy, however, it’s important to make a conscious decision about procrastinating. Don’t waste your time stressing about the fact that you’re putting off your essay. Instead, check your to-do list and use the extra time you now have to be productive in some other way rather than letting all your tasks pile up.
A new study from the University of Michigan confirms the importance of curiosity in learning, suggesting that cultivating students’ curiosity from an early age can help reduce the otherwise harmful effects of poverty, improving math and reading scores in particular.
During the study, published in Pediatric Research, Prachi Shah and her team found that students from poorer communities whose parents or teachers had instilled in them a sense of inquisitiveness performed better academically than their peers who’d come from similar backgrounds but hadn’t developed that “joy of discovery” or “motivation to seek answers to the unknown.”
Shah and her team drew upon data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, a nationally representative population-based study in the US which has followed thousands of children from their birth in 2001 until reading and math skills were measured in 2006 and 2007. They found that more curious children performed better in reading and math than less curious children, the levels of which were reported by their parents and teachers.
In fact, curiosity was just as predictive of academic achievement as effortful control. An eagerness to learn new things goes a long way, Shah explains, carrying students along even when they don’t seem to put in much deliberate effort:
“These findings suggest that even if a child manifests low effortful control, high curiosity may be associated with more optimal academic achievement.”
These are especially significant findings for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Since children from these backgrounds have less access to stimulating reading or math materials at home, they don’t get the same academic encouragement at home that students from richer backgrounds often do. So developing curiosity is a good substitute if parents can’t afford resources like books, educational computer games, and brain-teaser toys.
“Our results suggest that while higher curiosity is associated with higher academic achievement in all children, the association of curiosity with academic achievement is greater in children with low socioeconomic status,” Shah explains. “In such situations, the drive for academic achievement is related to a child’s motivation to learn, and therefore his or her curiosity.”
But Shah says few early childhood intervention programs focus on cultivating creativity, placing other skills like managing emotions and controlling attention in the foreground.
“Currently, most classroom interventions have focused on the cultivation of early effortful control and a child’s self-regulatory capacities, but our results suggest that an alternate message, focused on the importance of curiosity, should also be considered.”
By now most of us are aware that the quality of our learning depends on a number of different factors, some of which are easier to control than others. But the more we understand about why and how everyday things can affect our ability to commit new information to memory, the more effective our learning will be.
A growing body of research shows that even seemingly insignificant factors such as natural lighting, type of background noise, and the time of day we study can have a bigger impact on our productivity and learning than we ever imagined. Here’s a look what we know so far, and how you can optimise your environment and study routine to learn faster and get better grades.
When and Where You Learn
Have you ever noticed that you felt sharper and more alert when you studied first thing in the morning? Or maybe you tend to feel sluggish during early morning study sessions and prefer to get your studying done after lunch, or burn the midnight oil. Research shows that, in general, our cognitive processes are strongest in the middle of the day, while the ability to retain new information seems to dip in the early morning and towards the evening.
Still, while some of us might get our best work done in the middle of the day, a recent study carried out by researchers from the University of California Berkeley and North-eastern Illinois University found that most of us are probably most productive and sharpest at different times of day.
The researchers found that students whose schedules weren’t in sync with their “body clock” performed poorly compared to those who were able to structure schedule around their normal waking hours. With this in mind, they explain that when our peak alertness times are at odds with our study demands, our performance can suffer.
So what can you do to make the most of these peak productive times of day? First of all, you need to know at what time of day you’re at your sharpest and most capable of learning.
If you aren’t sure about this, start by keeping a study journal to track when you feel alert and productive vs. distracted or sleepy. Once you better understand your circadian rhythm, you can make an effort to tailor your study schedule around those times of day.
Another factor that can have a big impact on our ability to learn is the environment we study in. Numerous studies have found that our surroundings can affect the way we think and learn, so it makes sense to optimise our learning environment in order to make the most of each study session.
With this in mind, here are some of the most important things you can take control of to make your immediate surroundings more conducive to learning.
The Best Environment for Learning
Background noise and music
Do you prefer to study with music playing in the background or in complete silence? Or maybe you enjoy studying with the busy hum of a coffee shop in the background. Whatever your personal preference might be, research shows that there are times to use background noise and music to your advantage and times to seek out silence for your study sessions.
Low-level noise in the home or at school can disrupt our concentration and continued exposure to it may induce the release of cortisol. Having too much cortisol can impair function in the prefrontal cortex, which is the area of the brain that regulates executive functions like planning, reasoning and impulse control.
So if background noise or music is distracting you or stressing you out while you’re trying to study, it will have a decidedly negative effect on your learning. On the other hand, some research also shows that low-level background noise and some types of music can help us focus.
One study by Italian researchers found that classical music can significantly enhance working memory performance, which is the ability to hold and manipulate information in mind over shorter periods of time. However, another study from the University of Wales Institute in Cardiff shows that listening to music while trying to memorise things can impair your cognitive abilities, because the changing words and notes in the songs may throw you off.
Other research published in the Journal of Consumer Research shows that a moderate level of ambient noise can help us think more creatively.
How noise affects your cognitive performance may also depend on your personality type and whether you’re an introvert or extrovert. Research from Glasgow Caledonian University found that when people were exposed to different types of noise and music, they were more likely to have performance problems if they were introverts. This is likely because introverts are more sensitive to noise distractions and may be more easily overwhelmed by stimuli. So understanding your personality type and figuring out what works best for you is more important than following whatever the latest learning trend might be.
Artificial light vs. natural light
Lighting is another thing that can affect our cognitive abilities, and research shows that dynamic lighting can support student performance in classrooms. For the best results, though, you should pay attention not only to the amount of lighting present, but the type of lighting too.
Researchers have found that our body’s reaction to natural light is very different to that of artificial light. A study led by neuroscientist Dr Mirjam Munch found that artificial light tends to make us feel drowsy, whereas daylight helps us feel alert and focused. So if you want to optimise your learning environment, outdoor spaces or rooms with large windows and plenty of natural light are ideal.
Of course, studying in natural light isn’t always possible, especially during the winter months when the days are shorter.
Researchers in Austria found that students performed better on reading, writing and math exercises when they studied in classrooms with enhanced lighting (500 Lux) compared to those in classrooms with standard lighting (300 Lux). So if you can’t have natural light, the next best thing is to use extra bright lights.
Cluttered vs. tidy study environment
If your study space is tidy and completely free of clutter, you’ll likely feel more focused and persistent in your learning. But research also shows that a cluttered desk and haphazardly arranged room may spark your creativity.
A study conducted by psychological scientist Kathleen Vos found that disorderly environments encourage people to seek novelty and unconventional routes. So if you’re brainstorming new ideas or working on a creative assignment, a little clutter can be a good thing.
However, Harvard researchers found that people sitting at messy desks were less persistent and less efficient than those sitting at well-organised desks. People at messy desks also became frustrated and weary more quickly than those at neat desks.
So while there seems to be an upside to both types of study environment, in most cases, you’ll need all the persistence you can get just to stay focused, which means it’s probably a good idea to give your room a quick tidy before you start studying.
Mixing up your learning environment
Most of us have a particular room or area where we like to study, whether it’s the kitchen table or a corner in our bedroom. But although routines are comfortable, studies show that if you want to make new information stick in your long-term memory, it can help to study in a variety of locations.
This is because of what is known as context dependent memory. Research led by Dr. Robert A. Bjork of UCLA along with Steven M. Smith from the University of Wisconsin, Madison shows that our brain makes subconscious associations between what we’re studying and the background sensations we’re experiencing at the time.
So by studying different types of learning environments—such as at home, at a local coffee shop, and at the library—you’re helping your brain make multiple associations with the same material. Doing this makes it more likely that you’ll be able to remember the information in a variety of different situations and apply it to real world contexts.
Of course, it’s not always going to be possible to control every aspect of our study routine and environment. Sometimes we will have to study at times when our body clock is telling us to rest, and there will undoubtedly be occasions when we have to make do with an environment that isn’t optimal for learning, whether it’s too noisy, too cluttered, or not well-lit. Still, simply being aware of how our brain works and why certain routines and surroundings impact our ability to learn can help us become more efficient learners.