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Megan Poorman is a Ph.D. student in biomedical engineering at Vanderbilt University. You can find her on twitter @meganpoorman or documenting her travels on her website.


The internet is obsessed with ways to beat procrastination and we at GradHacker have shared many tips and tricks to help you overcome those times of low motivation. But let’s face it, everyone procrastinates and no one is 100 percent perfect. With the knowledge that procrastination is terrible for progress, I’m going to propose a radical idea: What if you could turn procrastination on its head and make it work for you? Could you procrastinate your way to a Ph.D. and still come out with a well-rounded and accomplished career path?


Piers Steel, a researcher at the University of Calgary, has written books about procrastination and coined the term Productive Procrastination.” In his seminars and YouTube videos he points out that we will do almost anything to avoid doing something we do not want to do. If you apply this to working, you can pit projects against each other - procrastinating on one by doing another. As someone balancing multiple research projects with life and organizational involvement, this idea sounded great in theory but I wasn’t sure that I could force myself to stick to work tasks. It took a mindset change but here is how I’ve made productive procrastination work for me.


Re-define your source of value: I get a lot of self-value from my research - I feel accomplished when my studies are going well but when they aren’t l feel like the biggest failure on the planet. Eventually I realized I had to assign other tasks as much value as my research. In doing so I could switch between work and life tasks throughout the day but still come out feeling accomplished. This helps to avoid burnout and clear your mind of background stress to approach your work with fresh eyes.


Let go of the guilt: This was my biggest struggle. I can preach all I want about assigning value to non-research things but I sometimes can’t help feeling guilty if I take a couple hours out of the work day to do something like attend a professional development event. We are our own biggest critics, but eventually we must let go. Your hours and progress aren’t going to be regular – forgive yourself for it and remember who you want to be at the end of your degree. Ultimately, taking the time along the way to develop as a well-rounded professional will only enhance your Ph.D. and career options.


Use the dead time: On days that are full of meetings, classes, and events it can feel like you have no time to get anything done, especially when there are awkward chunks of time in between. Instead of checking social media, work on an interruptible task that can be picked up again later without losing your train of thought. This should be something that may not be high-enough priority to take away from research time but still need to be done, such as required paperwork for the department and responding to emails. Getting these out of the way early will prevent the last-minute scramble before a deadline and clear your schedule for research later in the day.


Employ the law of averages: Graduate school is unpredictable and flexible - it’s hard to keep it to 40 hours a week every week. There have been times where I worked 10-12 hour days for 17 days in a row and others where I only worked 20 hours in a week. Recognize that your progress will fluctuate - those down weeks allow you to gear up for the long weeks. If you’re still worried, average your time spent working over a whole month – I’ll bet it comes out to at least 40 hours a week.


Recognize when you have to force yourself: Sometimes there are deadlines you have to make and you’re behind. Even if you don’t feel like working on a particular project, now is the time you have to push through and keep going. If you’ve been employing productive procrastination, you should feel up to the challenge instead of overworked and burned out.


Maybe you’re totally on board with me at this point, or maybe you’re thinking I’m nuts. I can’t say I’m not a little crazy (I mean, I’m voluntarily completing more school) but I can say that this strategy is do-able.  Here are some examples of how I use productive procrastination during my Ph.D.


  • My experiment will take 20 minutes to run. This isn’t long enough to get into serious writing mode but it’s too long to sit there doing nothing. I’ll pay my bills, work on the annual report required by the department, look at future job opportunities, or draft my next blog post. I am now being productive on two tasks simultaneously and can keep an eye on my experiment while it runs.

  • I have 10 minutes between meetings. I go for a walk, grab a snack, call my family, or clean my desk. I’m now able to focus in my next meeting and have a nice workspace to return to afterwards without the distraction of stray breadcrumbs.

  • I am burned out today and don’t feel like doing research. Instead, I do that homework assignment I’ve been putting off, make slides for my next outreach event, or even go grocery shopping and try to work again later in the day.

  • I’ve been focusing all day on one project and I am looking for something different. I switch to my side-project, help someone with experiments for a motivation break, or perform a literature search to see what is new in my field.

  • My code isn’t working and I’m fed up. I go for a run around campus to burn off steam or clean my room. I usually come back with a new idea to try.

  • It’s Friday night/Saturday and I could really use some me-time. I try to avoid the limbo where I can’t work because I’m tired but I can’t have fun because I feel guilty.  Instead I make the most of my time off and put the same level of effort into my relaxing as I would into my work.

  • It’s been a long day at work but, despite my best efforts, nothing seemed to go as planned. I take a break, write down brainwaves of things to try tomorrow, and give myself the evening off.


Procrastination doesn’t mean that time must go to waste – it’s okay not to want to work on something. Instead, put that time toward something that will set you up for future progress.


Do you think this strategy could work for you? How do you keep yourself motivated and focused? What are some activities you do to make use of the small chunks of time throughout the day?

[Image by Flickr user Asja Boroš and used under Creative Commons licensing.]

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