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Causes of procrastination and ways to work through them.

January 11, 2015

Erin Bedford is a PhD student in Nanotechnology Engineering at the University of Waterloo and the Pierre and Marie Curie University (Paris VI) in a co-supervised program. You can find her on Twitter @erinellyse.

Grad students procrastinate. I do. You do. Maybe that student in the office next to you who seems to publish a paper a month doesn’t, but if you asked, I bet she’d say that she procrastinates too.

Many of our tasks as grad students have no set deadlines, which means they can end up in the category of “want-to-do” instead of “need-to-do.” You want to finish that manuscript, but in most cases, you only need to do it if you want to be a successful researcher. And sure you want that, but you’ll still want it tomorrow, right? So it can wait. With many of the potential rewards and consequences for doing or not doing a task way off in the distance, why do it now?

Procrastination is highly related to task-aversiveness. We’ll avoid doing tasks that we perceive as being not much fun, even if we know that in the end, we’ll be happy with the result. But as many of us already know, the task is rarely as awful as what we first perceived it to be. Half an hour after finally starting on that abstract and looking at a finished draft, we realize that it wasn’t so bad after all—certainly not worth the five days we spent dreading its writing. So what makes us perceive a task as being bad enough to put it off for days, months, even years? In the spirit of being a truth-chasing, problem-solving grad student, I turned to the research to see if it could help. I’ve highlighted here a few of the points that stuck out to me as being classic grad student procrastination problems and some strategies that the research suggests can help us overcome them.

Lack of Confidence

Fear of failure is a pretty powerful thing. Just ask the new grad student who plans, designs, and is ready to run an experiment, but instead sits at his desk for hours, mindlessly refreshing Facebook and hoping that a new e-mail appears. This isn’t laziness—this is fear. He has little confidence in the planned experiment, so he puts off doing it.

Research confirms that a lack of confidence and a fear of failure are pretty major causes of procrastination. Yet somehow, that grad student eventually makes his way into lab, does the experiment, and a few years later, he’s managed to do this enough times to get a PhD. Chances are, he discovered that his anxiety about doing the task had little to do with his anxiety during the task.

There are some tried and true ways to build confidence. One way is to make sure that you’re doing things in other areas of your life that make you feel confident—this way, when the lab gets you down, you can easily be reminded that there is more to you than your research.

I’ll also introduce here one of the key strategies recommended by procrastination researcher Timothy Pychyl—just get started. We previously discussed how to get writing by just writing something—anything—which is a similar mindset. Acknowledge that you’re afraid, but draw the courage to do it from other parts of yourself—from your curiosity, your desire to succeed, your love of the topic, or whatever it is that made you want to go to grad school.

Not Knowing Where to Start

To do:

  • Write thesis.

If you’re anything like me, that is a terrifying to do list. It’s also not an efficient one. Often, procrastination comes from seeing a task like that and letting our feelings take over before we’ve had time to think about what is actually involved.

A better way of dealing with this type of procrastination is to make a detailed list with specific, achievable goals, often with a timeline associated with them. For complex tasks, set learning goals rather than performance goals, until you feel ready to set performance goals. For example, instead of “write introduction section on biosensing with gold nanoparticles,” state your goal as “read and make notes on the literature on biosensing with gold nanoparticles,” then when you’ve succeeded at that, write your introduction.

Lack of “Inspiration”

“I do my best work at the last minute.”

“I’m waiting for that great idea to come to mind.”

“I’ll feel more like doing it later.”

While all slightly different, these statements are more rationalizations than legitimate reasons for not working. These rationalizations can be due to self-handicapping—if you save it until the last minute, you’ll have an excuse as to why you did badly (discussed here). There’s no evidence that procrastinating results in better work. If we do feel that way, it might just be because we’re working at the last minute, as opposed to procrastinating. We’re also really bad at predicting how we’ll feel in the future. Chances are if we don’t want to do it now, we also won’t want to do it later, but your present self doesn’t seem to realize that.

Acknowledging that these are rationalizations is a first step to overcoming them. One strategy to move forward from that is by having implementation intentions. It’s about pre-deciding not just what you want to do, but also when, where, and how you’ll do it.

It’s Going to be Boring

Time for some tough love—ready?

Suck it up.

If it needs to get done, it doesn’t matter whether or not you want to do it. Your motivational state doesn’t have to match the task for you to do it (discussed in the book Solving the Procrastination Puzzle, by Timothy Pychyl). On the other hand, research has shown that willpower is like a muscle—use it too much and it becomes exhausted—so time your tasks carefully to avoid overuse. One way of doing this is by using something like the Pomodoro method, where a timer is used to set breaks for yourself.

In all cases, it’s a good idea to forgive yourself for your past procrastination; next time, you’ll be less likely to do it again.

If all else fails and you just can’t get to work, you can at least do something productive with your time. Get off Facebook and learn how to be a better grad student (maybe that’s what you’re doing right now?). Read about how to stop procrastinating and hey ... might as well write a blog post about what you’ve learned while you’re at it :)

What are your strategies for overcoming procrastination and getting things done? Share your stories and ideas with us!

[Photo courtesy of Flickr user Emilie Ogez and used under a Creative Commons license.]


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