Procrastination and Studying

Ah, my good friend procrastination. We have been buddies for decades already and I anticipate many happy years together in the future.

Today an article on bit-of-news (an awesome daily mini-newspaper right to your email inbox) was featured about scientific research on procrastination - you can read the full article on The Atlantic, but I'm going to summarize and give some ways to apply the findings to studying for actuarial exams.

Finding #1: Breaking the Habit Loop

I'm also in the middle of reading a fascinating book on how habits are formed and I'll hopefully have some useful commentary on it in another post. But the same concept was brought up in this article - a series of thoughts or actions spur each other into repeating the loop over and over.

The proposed way to handle breaking the loop is to impose deadlines that "shock" the system into getting out of the procrastination loop and spur action. But the source of deadline matters - externally imposed deadlines are much more efficacious than internal.

External deadlines for the actuarial student studying primarily alone can be hard to find. But here are a couple of ideas:

  1. Many study manuals come with a suggested study schedule. Use that instead of your own calendar to set benchmarks.
  2. Find a local or online group of students studying for the same exam who are willing to set a schedule together. A good way to enforce those deadlines is to meet (or have an online discussion) to review the material up to that point and work through a set of practice problems or a quiz together.
  3. Find an exam "mentor" who you feel accountable to for your studying progress, like your manager at work or an esteemed peer who has already finished the exam. Work with them at the beginning of studying to establish a study schedule and have checkpoints along the way with them to report on your progress and re-set deadlines and goals if necessary.

Finding #2: Change Your Concept of Time

With a final deadline far from the current date, it is extraordinarily easy to to think in terms of "tomorrow" or "next week" or "next month" - this can "separate us from future selves". While humans are very intelligent, sometimes we're also very stupid. Immediate and instant gratification is much easier to reach for than something that is happening in a conceptually vague "future".

This concept circles back to setting deadlines, but also emphasizes a focus on keeping your eye on the nearest prize instead of something far in the future. Set small, measurable, and near-immediate goals.

  1. At the beginning of each week, map out study time - you can choose whether to schedule specific times of day, a set amount of time, or an amount of material that approximates the time planned.
  2. Each time you sit down to study, take a minute to review what you intend to accomplish, and make those goals specific. Make a checklist that you can cross off items as you complete them. It's a bit silly but something as easy as a checkmark can be immensely gratifying.

Finding #3: Make it Fun

"HA!" was my first reaction to this finding. Studying for actuarial exams is the opposite of fun, especially when you're sitting inside on a beautiful sunny day. But obviously there is some root of passion and excitement for mathematics and statistics underneath the dozens of pounds of study manuals, so let's explore some ways to incite that.

  1. Let yourself play with the numbers. Instead of feeling like you need to plod through the material and practice problems, let curiosity take hold every once in a while. Make up a practice problem for yourself. Look up real life examples of concepts you're studying.
  2. Spreadsheets. If you're anything like me, Excel is your favorite program. Find a fun way to record your studying progress or keep track of your notes in a spreadsheet. 
  3. Take pride in your progress. Instead of getting down on yourself for being behind schedule or feeling inadequate, take a step back and look at all the things you've learned in a relatively short span of time. 

I hope these ideas help you steer your studying into more productive territory!