How I learned to stop worrying and start studying (0.75 to 3.75 GPA)

I used to be a huge procrastinator. I tried to do as little work as possible, do it as quickly as possible, and do it as close to the deadline as possible. This post is how I changed my mindset and restructured my life in order to effectively get homework done on time in college. Notably, it didn’t require “trying harder“ or sacrificing my happiness.

This productivity system is inspired by many other approaches, but combines them together into a system that has allowed me to break out of the procrastinator’s mindset and get things done. Unlike other systems, it is not designed to maximize productivity or efficiency. Rather, it minimizes stress and anxiety, and asks relatively little of me.

My yoke is easy and my burden is light.
—Matthew 11:30

This is the description of the productivity system that I currently use. I wish that I had this document 4 years ago. It would have honestly been life-changing. I knew I needed something like this system, but none of the other systems that I tried helped me.

I’m sharing it because I think you might be interested, and it might be helpful for you. But I don’t know if it will be. I use “you should” or “you have to” several times because it is convenient. But I am not telling you to use this system.

The Procrastinator’s Failure Mode

In high school, my days were packed full of classes, homework, and extracurricular activities, with very little flexibility. In college, I had fewer extracurriculars, less time in class, and copious free time. I was utterly unprepared to make use of this time, but I didn’t realize it at first. I tried to apply the same strategies that I did in high school: wait until the last minute and try to spend as little time on things as possible. This worked fine in high school because I had so much going on. (I couldn’t have spent more time on my assignments if I had wanted to.) But my second semester Junior year, I ended with a 0.75 GPA (that’s 2 F’s, a D and a C). Something went horribly wrong.

I want this to be a post about the strategies I use now, not the particular failure mode that I ended up in. But I do need to explain why I ended up failing half my classes.

In short, my problem was simply that I couldn’t make myself spend time on it. This led to a disastrous feedback loop. See, the less time you spend on work, the more important the time that you spend is. If you’ve procrastinated, and you have two hours before the assignment is due to complete it, then that two hours is extremely important. This leads to engaging in two hours of work, which frankly, are miserable. It’s rushed, high stakes (you don’t have time to make mistakes), and high stress. The chronic procrastinator knows this, and so they are right to be extremely unwilling to sit down and face this two hours of work. So instead, they procrastinate more.


This post is applicable to a very particular type of person. High schoolers and younger, who largely have their time managed for them, are limited in how much they can mismanage their time, and thus how much this can help. Similarly, if you have a job that requires you to work defined shifts, then there’s little room to procrastinate. In fact, this approach is heavily inspired by the effectiveness of shift work.

I expect the primary audience is college students like myself, but this could also be helpful for people working from home with flexible hours.

In order for this to be effective, your work and your expectations cannot be exceptional. This system is designed to minimize stress and anxiety, and increase your enjoyment of the work as a consequence. Once this happens, it’s easy to get enough done to satisfy other people. In a college setting, what this means is that you have to be okay with getting Cs. (I found that once I implemented this system, I very rarely got below a B, but you have to be okay with Cs.) Look at it this way. Maintaining a 4.00 is stressful, and there’s no system I can give you that will make it stress-free. But a lot of procrastinators are stressed about trying not to fail. And not-failing shouldn’t be stressful. You can do it.

Four Mindset Shifts

At the end of the day, chronic procrastination isn’t a failure of an organizational system. It’s a mindset failure. While there are lots of resources for procrastinators to change their systems, few people talk about the required mindset shifts.

  1. Recognize that your time is not valuable.
  2. You should be comfortable enough that you can work forever.
  3. Create and stick to a routine.
  4. Left-align tasks.

This is the hard part. All of these mindset shifts are required. You can’t implement one of them and expect results, they all play into one another. If you think that your time is valuable, you’ll find it very hard to stick to a routine. If you’ve organized your time into a routine, you’ll be forced to left-align your tasks.

The next four sections will explain what I mean by each of these.

Recognize that your time isn’t valuable

I posit that the single biggest reason that procrastination is so hard to break out of is that this required leap is so counter-intuitive. At least for me, I tried to break out of procrastination by telling myself that my time was too valuable to be wasting procrastinating, and that I should start working right now. But as mentioned in the beginning, the procrastinator, usually, is under too much stress, not too little. Rather, I take the pressure off. It’s okay. You’re going to be okay.

And we know that God works all things together for the good of those who love Him, who are called according to His purpose.
—Romans 8:28

Procrastination, really, is a productivity system that’s concerned with spending as little time as possible on the work. What I’m about to suggest, in the later section on routine, is allocating way more time than you need to do the work. But before you can do that, you have to be okay with “wasting” your time by not perfectly scheduling everything. The procrastinator is frugal with their time, hoarding it, spending as little as possible and only when it is absolutely necessary. You should be liberal with your time, spending time doing work even when you don’t need to.

Additionally, lowering the stakes makes the work much more enjoyable. It removes the pressure and obligation from any one decision to do work.

You should be able to work forever

This is more difficult to describe than the other things discussed in this post. It’s also less important, so I’ll spend less time on it. It’s really a feeling, the feeling that you can continue at the same pace for the rest of your life.

I have a temptation to think that I just need to “push through” or “work hard for a short amount of time” but this temptation is antithetical to the system that is being described.

This is a system for pacing yourself. If you find yourself seriously struggling, that is a good opportunity to step back and reflect on why. If you’re not under time pressure, you can get help or take a break and do something easier.

Life isn’t a sprint, and it’s not even a marathon. It’s not a race at all. You can set your own goals and your own pace.

Routine is more important than getting things done

Routine is what happens when a schedule becomes habit. But you first need a schedule.

My current daily schedule (7 days a week) looks something like this:

It feels silly writing this out, because it’s not that peculiar of a schedule. However! What is unusual is my mindset. What is unusual is that I actually think about my day at this level of granularity. At 5:00 on the dot, I close my open documents, change clothes, and open YouTube. For a while I had these events in my phone calendar (“Study, 8:30—12” etc), until they became second nature.

The specifics of the times of course don’t matter, and I’m leaving out many details. For example, sometimes I’ll add a third working time block from 7-9pm for work on personal projects. What I want you to take away is merely the efficiency of the idea of large “working blocks,” without further subdivisions. I try to avoid breaking down my day any further. I never estimate the time it will take to do individual assignments or dedicate blocks of time to working on them.

In order to ensure I have enough time to get everything done, I simply allocate more time than I actually need. I don’t need to spent 8 hours a day doing work. But that is a reasonable amount of time to spend (it is an amount that I can commit to forever), based on the idealized day of 8 hours work / 8 hours at home / 8 hours sleep.

Having a distinct routine for working and taking breaks has no less than five distinct advantages: unscheduled productive time, consistent sleep, stress-free breaks, easy decision making, develop of habit. (I had to stop myself from adding more advantages. These are the main five.)

Unscheduled productive time

As explained, most weeks I can get all of my work done in less than 40 hours. What, then, do I do with the rest of the time? All of the time during one of my “working blocks,” when I’m not doing schoolwork, is spent in one of these ways.

First, I’m okay with “wasting” this time. Some of this time I spend scrolling on my phone, taking a nap, or making myself a snack. These breaks from work are relatively quick, and I’m often thinking about work, so they’re different from the hour-long “relaxation” block after work, where I’ll watch a TV show or read a book.

Second, some of this time is spent doing “miscellaneous productive things.” This includes updating my TODO-list, updating my calendar, making plans, cleaning my room, reorganizing files on my computer, etc.

Third, some of this time is spent on personal projects. If I really don’t have any school work to do and my room is spotless, then I’ll use my working time to write blog posts or code for my own projects.

Many procrastinators skip these things all together. Doing homework at the last minute is no fun, but it’s even less fun if your room is a mess and you don’t know what homework you have to do. So this time spent not doing homework is super important.

Consistent sleep

I’m a huge believer in the importance of sleep, and not just quantity of sleep, but consistency. If you wake up at the same time every time every day, and go to bed 9 hours before that, your body will learn your sleep schedule. You’ll start to feel tired at your bed time and awake in the morning.

I had nights in college where I stayed up until 5am and said hi to my roommate waking up at 5am. It’s fun. But it does lead to an effect where your body starts to fight you, and “demand” more sleep than it actually needs, because it doesn’t know when you’ll be able to sleep again.

On at least one occasion, I tried to fix my sleep schedule by going to bed early. All that happened was I slept through my alarm and slept for over 12 hours. I was very discouraged by this, but I shouldn’t have expected my sleep schedule to fix itself in a day. It takes closer to 2 weeks.

100% Stress-free, guilt-free relaxation time!

During my relaxation blocks, I straight up do not allow myself to work. This, combined with the fact that these blocks are relatively short (less than the work time and never a full day), means that I very rarely get bored or sick of playing too much Minecraft or binging too many videos. It was honestly shocking to me how, after just a few days of scheduled work, I felt more passionate about my hobbies than I had before. If you stop working and immediately go eat dinner, then there’s little time for rest or recreation. During my 5pm-6pm “relax” block, I’m tired and hungry, but I’m also more likely to pick up a book and read than at any other time of the day.

Easy Decision Making

For me, the most difficult part of doing homework was always making the decision to work on it. Making that decision always felt like it took a lot of motivation and energy and commitment.

One of the advantages of having a schedule is that it allows me a level of indirection. For the procrastinator, the decision to work is a complex affair, based on the amount of work they have to do, how difficult that work is going to be, when the assignment is due, etc. In contrast, I now need one piece of information to decide whether I’m working or not, and that is the current time.

Once I’ve decided to work, I still have to decide what to work on, but having these decisions be split up is actually an advantage. It’s easy to decide to work when you don’t have to decide what you’re working on, and it’s easy to decide what to work on when you’ve already decided that you’re going to work. For the details of how I decide what to work on, see the later section on my TODO list, but remember that “cleaning my room” or other low-stress tasks are always an option.

Build Habits

There’s a line in BoJack Horseman that gets used a motivational quote. BoJack (I think that’s his name, I don’t watch the show), has given up jogging and has laid down on the ground. Another character says to him, “Every day it gets a little easier… But you gotta do it every day — that’s the hard part. But it does get easier.”

Now, in my experience, this quote isn’t true in general. Math homework is hard, and doing math homework every day doesn’t make it easier. But it is extremely true for one thing, and that is sticking to a routine. Every morning that you get out of bed and choose to get stuff done, makes doing it the next day easier. They say it takes about two weeks to build habits. After that point, your default option is to continue in the habit. That didn’t make the work easier, and honestly, the voice in my head saying “screw this, go back to bed” never went away. But my default option is now getting out of bed. It just kind of happens.

To reiterate. The amazing thing about routine is that if you make the decision 14 times, then making the decision future times happens automatically.

Now, I want to add a quick note on deviations from routine. I ascribe a very high importance to following my schedule every day. That is my number one priority. However, it is still important not to beat yourself up when you do deviate from the routine. Let’s say, as an example, that it’s my 3rd or 4th day following a new routine, and I sit down for my lunch break, and I forget to get up. I got sucked into reading Twitter, and 1pm came and went, and now it’s 3pm. Well, my first inclination is to give up on my new routine. My second inclination is to “make up” the lost time and work from 3 to 7. But both of these responses make the problem worse. The correct response is for me to work for the remainder of the time block, until 5, then relax at 5. “But Matthias,” you say, “you haven’t earned that break.” But when you’re following a routine, there’s no concept of “earning” breaks. I’m going to relax at 5 because the schedule says to, and the quicker that I can re-align with the schedule, the better.

Left-aligning tasks

When I say “left-aligned,” I mean that you start work on assignments as soon as possible, rather than as late as possible. This allows you to avoid the last-minute crunch. Additionally, it helps reduces stress, guilt, and pressure around completing, postponing, or failing to complete tasks.

The procrastinator is always working on the assignment that is due soonest. But since I have flexibility to choose what to work on, I end up working on whatever item I’m most prepared to tackle at any given time. Sometime I won’t be in the mood for writing, but would rather clean my room. Other times I’ll be physically tired, unable to stand up, but have no problem doing some writing. This keeps me from fighting my body.

I’ve re-organized my TODO-list in order to store assignments in a “left-aligned” way, which encourages my to work on them soonest-first.

A better TODO list

TODO lists are necessary to keep track of what needs to be done. However, TODO lists should not be the motivator for whether you are doing work; that is the job of a schedule.

I removed the due-dates from my TODO list, and was left with just a list of work to be done. This re-organization allows the TODO list to keep track of all available work.

This is what that looks like for me. I keep my TODO-list in a paper notebook. I start a new TODO list on a new page in the notebook every day, and then I list out everything that I should or could be working on. This includes a section for homework and as well as any chore or other tasks. The one requirement is that everything on the list must be “immediately actionable.” If I can’t start working on something immediately, then it becomes a reminder or a calendar event. (Often I create scheduled reminders simply to add something to my TODO list.)

The list is roughly sorted by importance. I check my calendar often enough that I know what assignments are due in the next few days, and these assignments end up on the top of the TODO list. But the due dates are not written down on the TODO list itself.

What this means is that if I don’t complete a task on one day, then I have to re-write it on the TODO list for the next day. This can be annoying, since some assignments will stay on the list for a while, being moved from day-to-day and being re-written many times. However, this has one big advantage: I can put things that don’t have hard deadlines in my TODO list. Things like “do laundry” or “send email” go on my TODO list. (When I was using a TODO-list app with deadlines, I would put in “Do laundry” with a to-do date of “Today.” But tomorrow that’s marked as “Overdue” with a red exclamation mark, which is stressful and not helpful.) The second advantage of forcing myself to re-write things is that I can easily re-word the task as the requirements shift. If I work on “Assignment 3” on Monday, but get stuck on question 4, when I re-write the TODO list on Tuesday, I might say “ask teacher about question 4 on Assignment 3.” On Wednesday, after asking my question, it may be “finish and submit assignment 3.” With a due-date-based list, it doesn’t make as much sense for me to edit or replace a task that’s been partially completed. On a day that doesn’t have much homework, “re-organize closet” might end up on the TODO list. But if the next day I have a lot of homework, it’s easy to omit this unimportant task when rewriting the list. Manually re-writing the list ensures that entries always make sense to work on and aren’t “stale.”

This removes the focus from “getting items completed” and shifts it to “getting work done.” My TODO list is not a list of things I have to do, it’s a list of things that I could do.

(In practice, if my TODO list hasn’t changed significantly, I won’t re-write it. But most days it does.)

Other examples of left-aligning tasks

I had asked some of my friends who were more organized than me how they kept track of things. One of them said that she has a planner/calendar that she writes assignments in. The catch? She writes them in the planner section corresponding to the date they are assigned, not when they’re due. This is nonsensical from the perspective of someone who is right-aligning tasks, but you can now recognize that this is just left-aligning tasks. Another friend of mine has a whiteboard where he keeps a list of assignments to work on. He tries to erase it regularly and re-write it from scratch to avoid stale entries. This is also a left-aligned system, since the entries aren’t sorted and he doesn’t write out the dates.


This article is much longer than I expected it to be. If you read all of that, congratulations! If you didn’t, let me summarize:

Hopefully some of these ideas are helpful for you in your own life. If not, hopefully you found it an interesting insight into my life.

Background from Hero Patterns; CC BY 4.0