This academic year is almost done, and it’s time to put your focus on preparing for final exams. For a lot of students, there is a lot riding on the outcome of those exams. The trouble is – sometimes it’s very difficult to get down to studying. Sometimes it seems like it’s just too hard to concentrate. Sometimes it feels like there are so many more appealing things calling to you.
Roy Baumeister is a social psychologist who is known for his work in the area of willpower and self-control. He has a suggestion for dealing with situations such as this, when you are finding it hard to be motivated to work on a project (like studying) that must get done, when you are procrastinating, when you are being easily distracted.
It is called the “Nothing Alternative”, and it is often used by writers who are having a writer’s block, having a hard time getting going on a writing project. Instead of forcing yourself to work on the project at hand, give yourself a choice. Set a definite period of time during which you will either 1) study or 2) do nothing. The nothing alternative is simple and straightforward. You can get lost in your thoughts, stare out the window, even stand on your head. But you cannot check your phone, get a coffee, clean your bathroom, do a load of laundry, plan out your Halloween costumes for the next few years, or any of the other distractions that seem to feel so crucial as soon as you sit down to study. If you don’t allow yourself to get distracted by other things, you’ll eventually be so bored you’ll have to work on that main project of studying.
Only two simple rules to follow: 1) you don’t have to study, 2) you can’t do anything else.
Find a suitable place to study or do nothing (comfortable, quiet, free of distractions). Select a reasonable time period for focused studying without a break (60 – 90 minutes might be reasonable). A time period is better than a number of lessons or chapters to study, because it is easier to schedule.
Let those who might disturb you know that you will be busy for the time period you have chosen. Remove, turn off, or put away all distractions. Use the bathroom. If you want a drink or a snack, get it now. Make sure you have everything that you’ll need to study with. Then set some type of timer. Begin, and either study or do nothing.
You can have breaks between scheduled time periods of studying or doing nothing. Short breaks are a necessary part of the nothing alternative. Determine a reasonable length for your break, depending on how much you’ve got done, and how much is left to do.
An additional possibility is to have a piece of paper and pen handy during your study period to quickly write down whatever pops into your head that isn’t related to the task at hand, but that you don’t want to forget, like “I need to pay a bill” or “I need to buy something at the grocery store”. Just a quick note so you don’t worry about forgetting something important. Then back to studying, or nothing.
Seems simple, but you might be surprised at how this works. Given the choice between boredom and actually working on what you need to work on, studying actually becomes more attractive. And, once started on studying, many find that they get into the process, time passes quickly, and they are able to get much done.
Implementing the nothing alternative is not necessarily easy, especially at first. It may take some time to train yourself to respect the plan. But, if you follow this approach, you may find that it is a helpful tool when you haven’t been making the progress that you want to when preparing for final exams.
Take care, and try out the “nothing alternative” so you can get something done.
This blog is not a substitute for psychological counselling. If you do feel that you are currently in a situation in which you could use some additional help with issues that you are dealing with, please check out the resources presented here.