Fighting procrastination

Oh, how easy it is to put things off, especially if those things are difficult, ill-defined or repetitive.  Or if your deadline isn’t for a few years yet.  Unfortunately, that’s a pretty good description of postgraduate research, so a postgraduate research degree is fertile ground for a tendency for procrastination to flourish.

procrastination, n. The action or habit of postponing or putting something off. [OED]

Let’s learn a little bit more about procrastination and why it happens, but note that procrastination can become a habit for lots of reasons (or a combination of reasons) so if you are struggling with persistent procrastination, you may want to explore some of the counselling options available to you via the Mental Health and Wellbeing Service.

Perhaps ironically, there is a huge amount of stuff on the web about procrastination, but I particularly like Tim Urban‘s series of posts (1, 2 and 3) on the topic.  His is a slightly irreverent approach, so if you prefer something a bit more serious in tone, try this.  Either way, both cover some key aspects of procrastination which can help us understand it better and (hopefully!) overcome it:

  • Instant gratification is more appealing than long-term rewards
    • But it feels horrible to be procrastinating
  • Getting started is often the hardest part
    • But motivation and momentum frequently develop once you’re going

Do these descriptions of procrastination feel familiar?  If so, how can this understanding of procrastination help us to overcome it?  It won’t necessarily be easy, but there are steps we can take which can work well in a research setting.

Effective planning

Having a good plan is a really valuable tool in overcoming procrastination.  If the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, how would we ever take that step if we were unsure of the destination?  It’s helpful to have a view of the big picture (the destination), key milestones on the way, more detailed plans on how to get to those milestones, and immediate “to-dos”.  Break down your bigger milestones/tasks into smaller, more manageable ones.  If you’re still procrastinating, break them down further, ensuring that you’re as clear as possible about what’s required for each task.  Include deadlines where these are meaningful.

Hopefully, those individual tasks are now less scary than the big milestones you are working towards, but you also know that the more of these smaller tasks you do, the closer you will be to your milestone and therefore your final destination.  We’re reducing the barriers to getting started, and increasing the frequency of gratification (yay! I’ve done this task! I can cross it off my list/reward myself!).

Create urgency

Within the context of your overall plan, can you create milestones/deadlines which will provide you with a sense of urgency for the tasks you need to do?  Tell your supervisor that you will have a piece of writing or a particular analysis ready before your next supervision meeting.  Apply to present your work at a conference.  Agree with a friend/colleague to meet regularly and hold each other accountable against the goals you have set.

Be persistent – one step at a time

You won’t overcome procrastination overnight, and even if you could, you would need constant vigilance to stop yourself sliding back into bad habits.  Remember that every small step counts.  Create a visual record of the fact you are moving forward (e.g. a done list, or just a tick on a calendar if you did something today).  Momentum and motivation will eventually find you.

Have you struggled with procrastination?  What strategies have you used to overcome it?

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Helen Kara

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