Why Can’t I Stop Procrastinating? How to Overcome the Medical Student’s Nightmare

Why Can’t I Stop Procrastinating? How to Overcome the Medical Student’s Nightmare

Medical school can get overwhelming, so it’s no surprise that at some point, we become hesitant to study or we avoid it altogether. Imagine wanting to get started on work and saying, “I’ll get started in an hour” and one hour passes after another, and your work is still untouched. This is the terrifying phenomenon of procrastination.


Bianca Villanueva


January 20, 2022

Most of us have done it. We sit down at our study desks, grab a comfy seat, ready our highlighters, open a book, and… browse our phone for the next two hours. Suddenly, it’s time to sleep and we’ve barely gotten anything done, and we feel awful about it. Procrastination is hard to stop once you’ve started. That’s what we’ll be tackling in this article.

What is Procrastination?

Procrastination is when you put off the things you need to do until it’s too late. It can be something with your academics or daily tasks. As long as you’re ignoring the things you need to do when you could be doing them, you’re procrastinating. Most, if not all of us, have procrastinated in some way, no matter how disciplined we are.

In a way, it’s normal to procrastinate from time to time. Everyone needs those moments of rest or reprieve while studying. That’s fine, but it becomes a problem when it starts to affect how you work. Studies have shown that procrastination negatively affects medical students’ academic outcomes. They have a hard time catching up with requirements, attending classes, and performing tasks well.

A common occurrence among medical students is preparing their study materials only to end up spending most of their time browsing on their phones or playing games on their computer.

So, no, having your book open or your handouts printed doesn’t mean you’re being productive.

Why Can’t I Stop Procrastinating?

There are many reasons why people procrastinate. It is especially common with schoolwork because it’s hard to feel the urgency to do it until the last minute. Of course, there are several other factors in play that enable this behavior. Other reasons for procrastinating could be:

  • Underestimating the amount of schoolwork. Many students put off homework because they think they can cram it at the last minute. These  students put off their work only to find that their report takes a lot more time to write than they thought. This results in stressful hours and subpar results.
  • Overwhelming amounts of work. It can be intimidating to see how much you have to burn through in medical school. It’s a lot of material in a short amount of time. Some days, you might not want to burn through anything at all.
  • Switching between tasks. Multitasking is a skill that you need in medical school. But if you don’t know how to prioritize your tasks, you’re not going to get anything done. Many things in medical school need a majority of your attention, like studying. So, multitasking might not produce great results. Learn to prioritize and find time for each of your tasks.
  • Distractions. This is the most common reason why people procrastinate. As you are pondering something about your studies, your gaze shifts to your phone or another window on your computer. Next thing you know, 3 hours have passed and you haven’t gotten back to studying. Distractions are everywhere and they’re hard to get rid of.
  • Positive reinforcement. Many students claim to be “crammers,” which may work for them, but not for everyone. However,the fact that some people cram and still get good grades can lead to more cramming because the behavior is rewarded.
  • Unfulfilling tasks. When you don’t place enough value on a task, you don’t feel motivated to do it. For example, when you don’t like a subject, you’ll find it a lot harder to study it simply because it doesn’t seem interesting. Remember that everything you do in medical school, even if it’s about a topic you don’t like, is a step closer to graduating and becoming a great doctor.
  • Burnout. Sometimes it can feel like no matter how much you motivate yourself, you’re hitting a wall that’s stopping you from working. This is usually what burnout feels like. On some days, I don’t even feel like thinking and I just want to rest. There were days I still forced myself to work even though I was beyond tired, and I was actually less productive than if I had just taken a break for myself. Always take breaks and ask for help when you’re burned out or getting close to it.
Do it - procrastination
Image: “Do it” by Vic. License: CC BY 2.0

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Ways to Stop Procrastinating

A common question students ask themselves is how to stop procrastinating. It can feel frustrating to leave studying for later and ending up  looking at internet memes for an hour. But now that we know what causes procrastination, we can tackle the problem from its roots. Here are a few tips:

  • Lower your expectations, but do your best. You might be the kind of student who wants to make sure they know absolutely everything. Well, that’s not always possible in medical school. You need to prioritize your need-to-knows over your nice-to-knows because there isn’t enough time to work with.
  • Place value in the work you do. There’s more to studying medicine than passing an exam. Motivate yourself by remembering how far you’ve come and why you decided to get into medical school in the first place. You can even reward yourself with a small gift or an activity you enjoy afterwards.
  • Cut the tasks into smaller chunks until it doesn’t feel overwhelming anymore. You can reward yourself after each task or you can take breaks in between. You can even try working in intervals. The point is to work in manageable chunks.
  • Know how you study best. Not everyone finds it fun to read through books. Some people prefer watching videos or looking at diagrams to help them study. Some prefer to read real patient cases. Try not to waste your time reading over pages you can barely understand and look for resources that match your study style the best.
  • Minimize distractions. Your study space needs to be sacred and used for work and studies only. Avoid eating or resting in that space so that your brain knows that once you get there, it’s study time!
  • Avoid cramming. Although it may work at times, many people feel anxiety when cramming and even pull all-nighters. That isn’t healthy, especially for someone planning to make their career in the health industry. You might think cramming works well. What you actually experience is an adrenaline rush that helps you focus. However, it’s a short-term solution that doesn’t help you in the long-run. It actually doesn’t help you memorize things. But if you must, the next section is a guide to help you make the most of your short time.

How to “Procrastinate” Like a Pro

Okay, I’m not actually going to teach you how to procrastinate. But there will be times when you have to cram. Whether it’s because you’re really a cramming type of student, you forgot that there was a test today (yes, it happens), or you accidentally slept through the whole week somehow. Chances are, if you’re reading this, at some point you’re going to cram. So, let’s talk about how you can make the most of your adrenaline-fueled study bonanza:

  • Prepare your equipment for a battle. Bring out your notes, a handy laptop, pens, highlighters, snacks, and a drink of your choice (i.e. coffee). You’re in for a stressful time, but preparing your materials helps prime your brain to study.
  • Turn off any distractions. Turn off your TV, your phone, and any other applications you could open. Personally, I turn off the Wi-Fi connection on all my devices. You’ll need your undivided attention for this.
  • Get a timer. Contrary to popular belief, cramming isn’t about forcing yourself to keep going for hours and hours. It’s about rhythm. If you study without resting, you’re going to lose momentum by the time the exam starts, or worse, fall asleep. Instead, work in intervals of studying and resting.
  • Focus on the basics. Prioritize the general subject and key ideas of your readings. You won’t have enough time to study the details, so you’ll need to trust that your knowledge of general ideas will help you deduce the correct answer. At the very least, you should be able to eliminate a few choices in a multiple choice exam and make an educated guess.
  • Set goals and rewards. Having goals and rewards can motivate you to focus and finish what you need within a set amount of time. You’re going to need a lot of motivation, especially if you plan to pull an all-nighter (I don’t recommend this).

Remember that the material in medical school isn’t meant to be crammed in a night.

While cramming may work for an immediate exam, you’re not in medical school to just pass.

You need to space out your study hours and get enough sleep to retain what you learn in the long-run, which is the real goal of medical school. Doctors are more than the exams they pass or fail. They’re products of discipline, hard work, and a bit of luck. So, study smart and take breaks responsibly. You’ll thank yourself for it later.

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