Helen writes: #AcWriMo productivity vs procrastination

Writing Skills Advisor Helen Williams continues her occasional series during #AcWriMo with her thoughts on ways to deal with a tendency to procrastinate.

I recently read this column in The Guardian on procrastination – most likely when I should have been doing something else – and started thinking about the relationship between productivity and procrastination. When I speak to students about procrastination, they often seem to think they need to change a lifetime of habits, how they approach their work, and even the type of person that they are. Of course, this in itself becomes a mammoth (and impossible) task. Much more effective, as the article says, is to start changing the smallest possible habits that you can. If you’ve been taking part in Academic Writing Month (#AcWriMo), you may already have started to form a few new habits that can help with productivity, but if not, here are a few suggestions.

Baby steps: start by making small changes to your habits

Create a ‘get started’ routine

It is difficult to sit down and start writing. Most people need to ease into it, and this is a prime time for procrastination. Needing to reply to emails before getting stuck in to writing can quickly become replying to lots of emails, checking social media, checking the news, replying to more emails, having a coffee, checking social media…

Rather than forcing yourself to sit down and start writing (which is unlikely to happen) allow for the fact that you’ll need to do a certain amount of faffing before you can concentrate to write. If you give yourself a (time-limited) routine of, for example, making a coffee, answering any urgent emails and then writing, you give yourself a bit of space to warm up to the task, but also have strict rules about when to start. Save the social media scroll for a mid-morning break that you will have earned.

Under pressure

If you need pressure to write, try to harness this in different ways. Rather than neglecting your writing until a few days before your supervisor expects to see it, think about what other mini deadlines you can create. If you know you are going out at 6pm, or need to start cooking dinner at 5pm, see what you can achieve in the final hour before you have to stop working.

Alternatively, share deadlines for finishing work with people around you (friends; partners; fellow doctoral students) and ask them to take you to task on getting the work done. Serial procrastinators might have made a grudging peace with the feeling of letting deadlines slip, but bringing other people in to the mix might help to provide the extra pressure that’s needed to get down to work.

Forget about writing altogether

Sometimes it is writing itself – literally at word and sentence level – that is off-putting, particularly for those with dyslexia, for instance. Other people just find the right words don’t seem to come to mind when faced with a blank page and a flashing cursor. In this case, try experimenting with dictation. There is a wide range of speech recognition software (including a speech-to-text function on PCs with Windows 10 onwards), but for a quick solution you could just record your ideas as voice notes on a smart phone, and listen back. Whilst this wouldn’t be feasible across a whole thesis, if you are struggling to get a particular idea or tricky couple of sentences down, then talking through your ideas and typing them up might help your thoughts flow a bit more easily. 

Lastly, it can sometimes feel that churning out words – particularly at a high volume each day – is the be-all-and-end-all, especially during #AcWriMo. But also remember that quality over quantity is important; if you spend an afternoon writing and re-writing a couple of paragraphs just to get them right, then that’s ok too.

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