Ze Xin Yuan


August 21st, 2020

Are you struggling to keep up with online lectures and deadlines while studying at home? Are you easily distracted by YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat or Reddit? Don’t miss out on these tips based on evidence from behavioural economics and psychology. Say no to 3 a.m. assignments!

Last semester was a constant struggle for me. I’ve never found studying so hard throughout my degree. I hated studying online as I was procrastinating all the time. Recorded lectures and tutorials seemed long and impossible to finish.

I need a change. Therefore, I have dedicated my procrastinations to finding solutions on how not to procrastinate! Here is what I have found so far.

Why do we procrastinate more when studying online?

One possible explanation is that we make more decisions during online studies. When we are studying on campus, we go to lectures and tutorials in person. Few choices have to be made as to when to attend because tutorials and lectures are fixed. When we are studying online, we have to decide when we want to watch a lecture or a tutorial recording. Now you are probably wondering: What does that have to do with procrastination? Isn’t it good to have more choices?

However, research in psychology suggests that making active decisions and performing tasks use the same limited resource of self-control.[1] Making a decision freely (deciding when to watch the lecture) depletes our self-control and causes worse performance on our subsequent task (listening to a lecture), whether the following task is related to the first decision or not.[2] To put it in 2020 words instead of 1998 (when the paper was published), imagine self-control as a stamina bar in a game. Moving your character around in the game (making active decisions and studying) consumes stamina. When your character is out of stamina, it needs to recover by way of resting (procrastination).[3] If you want to move your character when it is low on stamina or out of stamina, certain penalties such as slower-moving speeds (poor efficiency when studying) apply.[4] Then no wonder the character needs to recover stamina (procrastinate) more because stamina usage is higher when studying online (more decisions are made).

Potential solutions

I’ve found several ways to deal with the increase in consumption of self-control. All the methods are soft nudges (unlike hardcore mandates such as locking your computer down). I’ve also noted the area of study and key concepts that these tips come from in case you fancy reading more about it.

Increase the amount of self-control available

  1. Reward yourself with something you like (i.e. watching an episode of your favourite TV show) only when you have not procrastinated and have studied your planned hours.[5] (Behavioural economics, temptation bundling)
  2. Write down on a piece of paper ‘I will not procrastinate while studying, and I will commit myself to achieve this.’[6] (Psychology, soft commitment treatment)
  3. Tell your friends/family about your goal.[7] (Psychology, soft commitment treatment)

The rationale behind the first tip is that it bundles the want of enjoying your indulgences with studying so that it increases the desire to study. Increased desire = more self-control to study. This also has the extra benefit of reducing regret when you have spent time enjoying your indulgences.

The second and third tip increases self-control using the psychological thinking that one derives utility from being ‘consistent’ with their words and actions. This effect is amplified when the promise is written down or made in front of others.

Decrease consumption of self-control used for decision making

  • Write out and plan what you need to do in the following week on Sundays.[8] (Psychology, ego depletion)
  • Dedicate a range of hours that you will study (i.e. 7 p.m. – 11 p.m.) and stick to it, so it becomes your habit.[9] (Psychology, ego depletion)
  • Watch live lectures and tutorial if possible.

The rationale behind tips 4 to 6 is that since making a decision consumes energy; we should avoid making decisions. Similarly, if decisions are already made, there would be no extra consumption of self-control. Planning beforehand reduces the need for self-control since you only need to make one decision about what to study per week. Forming a habit around when to study would help as well since you do not need to make decisions about when to study anymore. Watching live lectures avoids the decision-making process altogether.

If all else fails, try This is a commitment device created by 2 professors from Yale University. It lets you sign a legally binding contract that will send your money to nominated third parties whom you do not like (or charities).

We all need a good nudge to kick us back in the right direction. I’m ready to give up procrastination, how about you?[10] (Psychology, social proof)

[1] Baumeister, R. F., et al. (1998). “Ego Depletion: Is the Active Self a Limited Resource?” Journal of Personality & Social Psychology 74(5): 1252-1265.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Tice DM, Baumeister RF, Shmueli D, Muraven M (2007) Restoring the self: Positive affect helps improve self-regulation following ego depletion. J. Experiment. Soc. Psych. 43:379–384.

[4] Baumeister, R. F., et al. (1998). “Ego Depletion: Is the Active Self a Limited Resource?” Journal of Personality & Social Psychology 74(5): 1252-1265.

[5] Milkman, K. L., Minson, J. A., & Volpp, K. G. M. (2014). Holding the Hunger Games Hostage at the Gym: An Evaluation of Temptation Bundling. Management Science, 60(2), 283-299. doi:10.1287/mnsc.2013.1784

[6] Cialdini, Robert B. 2007. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. New York: Morrow and Company

[7] Greenwald, Anthony G., Catherine G. Carnot, Rebecca Beach, and Barbara Young. 1987. Increasing Voting Behavior by Asking People if they Expect to Vote. Journal of Applied Psychology, 72 (2): 315–318.

[8] Baumeister, R. F., et al. (1998). “Ego Depletion: Is the Active Self a Limited Resource?” Journal of Personality & Social Psychology 74(5): 1252-1265.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Cialdini, Robert B. 2007. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. New York: Morrow and Company

The views expressed within this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of the ESSA Committee or the Society's sponsors. Use of any content from this article should clearly attribute the work to the author and not to ESSA or its sponsors.

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