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Messy DeskAshley Wiersma is a doctoral candidate in the department of history at Michigan State University. You can follow her on twitter at @throughthe_veil.

As I prepared to write this post, I found myself distracted by dozens of “important” little things – sending text messages, reading I “should” do, and trying to plan out my week. Many of these things needed to be done, but did I have to do them today? Were they more important than writing this post? Not necessarily. So why did I allow myself to put these distractions ahead of achieving my most important goals?

I don’t think I’m alone in spending an entire day feeling busy and productive only to find that I haven't accomplished the most important tasks. So let’s be honest about why we allow ourselves to be distracted. Our most significant work – writing a research paper, preparing for comprehensive exams, applying for fellowships, and our dissertations – intimidates us. It’s daunting work with little reward along the way, and many of us wonder if we’re truly up to the task or we feel that what we produce has to be perfect because it is a reflection of us.* Most importantly, these tasks seem overwhelming, and distractions – things that can be done quickly and provide a sense of accomplishment – creep in and steal our precious time.

To summarize, there are at least four primary challenges to our productivity:

  1. Delayed reward
  2. Lack of self-efficacy
  3. Perfectionism
  4. Embodying our own work

How do these develop and what can we do about them?

The underlying problem

Brené Brown, a shame research professor at the University of Houston writes in the introduction to I Thought it Was Just Me (But it Isn’t): Making the Journey from “What Will People Think?” to “I am Enough”:

that imposter or phony feeling at work or school rarely has anything to do with our abilities, but has more to do with that fearful voice inside of us that scolds and asks, ‘Who do you think you are?’ Shame forces us to put so much value on what other people think that we lose ourselves in the process of trying to meet everyone else’s expectations (xvii).

(Check out her TED talks and her books for more information and suggestions to overcome the effects of shame.) Similarly, grad school forces us to value others’ opinions of our work more highly than our own, and we often feel like we exist and continue at the mercy of our professors. Writers from backgrounds as varied as French social theorist Michel Foucault and counselor/ philosopher John Bradshaw have observed that the Western  education system is highly shame-based. Consequently, many of us suffer from anxiety, procrastination, perfectionism, depression, writer’s block, and any number of other related issues that lead us to focus on distractions and obstruct our creative flow.

Tackling Challenges to Productivity:

If writing, specifically, causes you anxiety, write every day and write in as many different venues as you can:

  • Write in a journal – the kind with real pages and requires a pen or pencil. Writing longhand makes the critical side of our brain take a backseat to our creative side, according to author Patrick McLean.
  • Create a blog for a less-critical audience – perhaps family and friends
  • Write for another blog on more academic topics
  • Write letters, emails, or postcards to friends and family
  • Use the “Daily Dozens” as a warm-up
  • Write summaries of each book you read
  • Tweet
  • Share the burden: Work with writing groups, go on a retreat to write, and/or meet with an accountability partner to discuss challenges you face and what is going well.

Meditate: In addition to anxiety, any number of other things may distract our thinking. Therefore, training our minds to focus and to relax is essential.

Connect with others: Share your struggles and successes with others. It’s one of the best ways to move beyond the self-doubt that holds many of us back. (Brené Brown, I Thought it Was Just Me)

Set small goals and reward yourself along the way: Many of our projects take many weeks, months, and even years to complete, so it’s important to establish objectives to measure your progress and to feel a sense of accomplishment along the way.

*Repeat with me: "I am not my work. My work is not me. Neither my work nor its reception defines who I am as a person." Next step: Believe it. The more we can separate our sense of self from our work, the less likely we are to procrastinate because we will experience greater freedom to explore, create, and make mistakes along the way.

What about you? What mental distractions do you struggle with and how do you overcome them? Let us know in the comments below.

[Image from and used under a creative commons license]

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