Have you ever crammed for an exam or written an essay at the very last minute?
Cramming can very easily become a bad habit. Let me explain.
When you procrastinate and leave your work until the night before it’s due, adrenaline and motivation kicks in. This allows you to work with crazy energy and intense focus.
At times, you might find yourself nervously thinking, “Can I get this thing done? Will I be able to pull this off?”. But you can’t afford to dwell on thoughts like these. There’s no time to waste! You have to stay focused, push forward, and keep pumping out your work.
And pump it out, you do!
Amazingly, in the early hours of the morning, you manage to pull it off. You reach the word count of your essay (“Woohoo! I did it! YES!”). And in that moment, you feel this incredible sense of relief wash away the intense pain, anxiety, and fear you felt for the last five or more hours. Your brain’s reward pathway lights up. Your brain gets flooded with feel good chemicals.
It’s this intense positive feeling that you experience straight after finishing an assignment that wires in the bad habit of last minute cramming. As Dr Barbara Oakley states in her book A Mind for Numbers:
“You can feel a sort of high when you’ve finished. Much as with gambling, this minor win can serve as a reward that prompts you to take a chance and procrastinate again. You may even start telling yourself that procrastination is an innate characteristic – a trait that is as much a part of you as your height or the color of your hair.”
When students manage to pull off a few all-nighters, they can start to delude themselves with thoughts such as, “This is just how I work. I work best under pressure” and “I do my best work (and only work) at the last minute”.
But is it really how you work best?
Studies show students who leave their work until the last minute don’t do as well as other students. They also tend to make more mistakes.
This study found procrastinators report higher stress levels, worse health, and lower grades.
My cramming daze
When I first started university, I spent many late nights in the After Hours Computer Lab with my friends, crazily churning out essays the night before they were due. My friends and I were powered by bright fluorescent lights, sugary drinks, and snacks from the university vending machines.
At the time, it felt like fun. There was a sense of camaraderie in that computer lab. It was comforting to take a break when I hit a milestone (“Word Count: 1,000 words. Woohoo!”) and sink my teeth into a supersized chocolate chip cookie.
But looking back, that computer lab was a pretty depressing place to hang out. I can’t help but feel sorry for my younger self (Poor kid. What was I thinking?).
I can now see how the bad habit of cramming fuelled all these other bad habits at the time (e.g., bingeing on processed junk food and an erratic sleep routine). We were all suffering in that computer lab. We all needed help.
But when you’re stuck in that last minute, crazed, cramming habit loop you can’t see that you’ve got problems. You can’t see you’re heading for trouble. It’s the only way you know how to function and get stuff done.
Why can it feel so hard to break the cramming habit?
It can feel hard for two reasons:
1) Procrastination delivers instant rewards (i.e., relief from the pain and discomfort of studying or writing a difficult essay). In contrast, the rewards that come from studying for an exam or working on an essay aren’t instant or guaranteed; and
2) The negative impacts of cramming don’t hit you straight away.
If after you reached the word count, you instantly felt really awful (e.g., mentally foggy, completely exhausted, and highly irritable) and all the mistakes and errors you had made flashed before your eyes, you would probably reconsider pulling all-nighters. You’d think to yourself, “This isn’t worth it. I feel terrible.” But it doesn’t work like that.
Like a bad hangover, that awful groggy feeling doesn’t hit you until several hours later. In relation to your grade and feedback, you don’t usually receive these until several weeks later. By then, you’ve forgotten how awful the cramming experience was.
When you enjoy the challenge of cramming
Despite the negative impacts of cramming, some students tell me that they genuinely enjoy the challenge of cramming.
If this is you, I want you to think of cramming as being like an extreme sport, like Waterfall Kayaking, Skydiving and Barefoot Waterskiing. The sport of cramming requires a particular set of skills to pull off without seriously harming yourself. You’ll need to get better at:
• Managing your limited time and energy
• Managing your stress levels
• Memorising large amounts of material in a short period of time
• Keeping yourself awake for long periods of time (seriously not a good idea!)
I need to stress the following . . . going without sleep for long periods of time is incredibly dangerous.
In fact, this is why the Guinness World Records no longer accepts records for people going without sleep. This organisation will acknowledge records for people swallowing swords under water and pulling trains with their teeth, but not sleep deprivation records. That says a lot!
What about students who try to override their biological limits by taking medications like Ritalin (prescribed for attention deficit disorder) to get through cramming sessions?
Think twice about doing this.
As Dr Anna Lembke states in her book Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence:
“[These medications] promote short-term memory and attention, but there is little to no evidence for enhanced long-term complex cognition, improved scholarship, or higher grades.”
Life without cramming: A new approach
The good news is procrastination and cramming are habits. And habits can be changed.
This is the topic of my latest book Ace Tests, Exams, and Big Life Projects: How to End Last Minute Cramming, Reclaim Your Sleep, and Restore Your Sanity.
In my book, I explore why we often avoid preparing for exams. One reason we avoid exam preparation is because we’re scared. We fear the discomfort and pain it will bring up.
You see, we perceive exams as being like this creature . . .
A big jumbled, tangled mess of ideas (I call this creature the Beast of Overwhelm). We look at the creature (i.e., all the work we need to do) and it brings up a cringey discomfort. Since we don’t like feeling uncomfortable, we run from this creature. We run to anything that brings us instant gratification, comfort, and relief.
The problem is every time we do this we are moving further away from our long-term goals. Ultimately, when we procrastinate we are making life harder for our future selves.
So, what can you do instead?
You can start by making some tweaks to your environment. Redesign your study space to make it harder to escape from the beast. Create a focus friendly environment that allows you to hang out with the beast for a little longer.
For instance, set up barriers between you and the things that try to hijack your attention. Internet blocker apps, a Kitchen safe (Ksafe) for your phone, noise blocking earmuffs, and AdBlocker plugins can help you stay on track and move closer towards your goals.
Another strategy worth adopting is setting the bar really low. Try creating some tiny habit recipes.
The Tiny Habits method (created by Professor BJ Fogg) is the complete opposite of cramming. Tiny habits are behaviours that take less than 30 seconds to do. Unlike cramming (which can feel painful), tiny habits are fun, fast, and easy.
As Giovanni Dienstmann states in his book Mindful Self-Discipline:
“Don’t aim for perfect – aim for better than yesterday. Aim for 1% improvements every day. This compounds into huge results over time.”
This is certainly what I’ve found with using tiny habits. Tiny improvements add up over time to something really solid.
To sum up
You can break the cramming habit once and for all. All it takes are a few strategies, a bit of understanding of basic psychology, and some practice. By creating better study habits, you’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish over time. You’ll also feel a whole lot better, too.