UBC student sitting outside using phone
August 31, 2020
3 mins read

A chronic procrastinator's guide to self-motivation

Starting university can feel like jumping into the ocean without a life jacket. Even if you’re a great student, it’s still overwhelming to suddenly be in charge.

While high school teachers might remind their students of upcoming deadlines basically every day, UBC profs expect their students to take the lead. For a first year, this can create the perfect conditions for a serious procrastination problem.

When I started out here, I thought it was totally possible to study effectively while watching Netflix. I pulled at least 3 all nighters in my first semester because I didn’t bother to figure out how much work a given assignment was actually going to take. I would open up readings an hour before class, only to discover that the “chapter” was 175 pages long. In short, I was a mess.

Self-motivation is one of the most important lessons I’ve learned at university, so here are some tips for those of you who are in transition—or are wondering how exactly you'll stay motivated during this (online) term:

Plan ahead

Keep a wall calendar or planner and write down exactly when you want to start working on all of your major assignments, not just their deadlines. Do this at the beginning of the semester, as soon as you have your syllabi.

If there’s a type of assignment you get a lot, like a term paper or lab report, keep to-do lists of all the steps involved in completing that type of assignment. For example, a to-do list for a term paper might include items like “find secondary sources,” “complete outline,” and “write thesis statement.” Break an assignment down into small steps so that the amount of work seems more doable. Chapman Learning Commons has an Assignment Calculator that will do this for you!

I like to use a bullet journal to stay organized. I’m told this system is intimidating, and I know it’s not for everyone, but keep in mind that it doesn’t have to be super fancy (unless you want it to be). It’s really just a planner that you can adjust for your week-by-week needs. My bullet journal pages during my UBC days ranged from minor works of art (usually at the beginning of the term) to barely legible scribbles (finals season).

Emily's UBC bullet journals

Stay on track

As painful as it may be, turn your phone off while you’re studying. It’s amazing how much you can get done when you don’t have a rectangle of infinite knowledge buzzing away on your desk.

If you’re using a computer to study, StayFocusd is a chrome extension that limits the total amount of time you can spend on time-wasting sites (which you pick yourself—as an undergrad, I had Facebook, Youtube, and Reddit blocked after 45 minutes!).

It’s also easier to concentrate if you schedule in breaks. Since I was an Arts student, I usually spaced these out by number of pages read or words written, but you could also just take a break every half hour. EyeCare reminds you to look away from your screen, move around, and/or have a snack at regular intervals.

Be realistic

You are not the same kind of learner as me, or your best friend, or your classmates on the other side of the screen. 

If you find that writing your notes by hand helps you remember things better, don’t feel pressured to type them out during lecture. If you feel silly starting a term paper weeks in advance, don’t worry about it—some people can write 10 pages in an evening, others only a page a day. Study with a friend if it helps you stay accountable; on the other hand, don't accept group study invites if you find them more distracting than productive. And if you need more time to read or write or make notes, give yourself that time.

University is sort of a starter pack for real life. Use your time here to figure out what kind of work style is best suited to your needs and stick with it. You know yourself better than anyone else and you are fully equipped to handle these choppy waters.