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Lindsay Oden recently graduated with an MA in History from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. You can listen to his podcast and read his website.


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Procrastination is practically inescapable. We feel drained at the end of a long day, too tired from teaching or coursework to start a seminar paper or polish a chapter in our dissertation; sometimes we need time set aside to do stuff that isn’t grad school related. But hiding in procrastination is another fiend that can sap our productivity and make us feel guilty about not working: boredom. Boredom is typically defined as a state of ennui or a weariness caused by dullness or tedium. But Professor of Educational Sciences Dr. Thomas Götz says he has discovered a new type of boredom: apathetic boredom, which he says is an “especially unpleasant form that resembles learned helplessness or depression…. It was reported by 36% of the students sampled.” Boredom is typically treated like a first-world problem, dismissed as a byproduct of the luxury of free time. And we’re grad students, we don’t have free time! But I think it’s highly probable that many of us succumb to apathetic boredom, that feeling of helplessness or desperation produced by overwhelming circumstances when we procrastinate. Erin Bedford has already laid out some excellent tips about how to overcome procrastination. But how can we overcome both procrastination and boredom?

In this post, I’m going to lay out my strategies that will help you conquer both boredom and procrastination without feeling overwhelmed by work. What you can do is defeat boredom by procrastinating: organize your workspace, declutter your intellectual workspace, and take care of small tasks that will make your big projects easier to complete. You can still procrastinate with your big projects, but you’ll be ameliorating those feelings of boredom and helplessness.

Boredom sets in when you aren’t currently doing something, and your naturally creative mind wants to work. But because you're already procrastinating on a major project, you can channel your energies into a task that is related to the project but won't cause you anxiety. Getting organized is easy but time-consuming, so if you're going to waste time procrastinating anyway, at least you can get something easy done. In essence, channel your boredom; make it one of your great spurs of innovation and creativity. Simultaneously, you’ll be reducing stress.

For one thing, having a disorganized or messy workspace can actually cause stress by tricking your brain into thinking it has too many tasks to complete. When I was preparing for my comprehensive exams, I felt this stress response just looking at my giant pile of notes. So while I was procrastinating from studying, I organized 1000 pages of notes into a binder by field and sub-field. It wasn't really studying, but it helped later. And the hours I spent working kept me from being bored or feeling overwhelmed.

Eliminating stressors will help you study and be creative when your procrastination wears off. More importantly, the act of cleaning helps relieve stress. And this isn’t just a question of your physical workspace either; this also applies to the intellectual workspace. Organizing your physical space helps you focus on one project at a time, meaning you are more productive and less stressed. Stress is relieved by taking away clutter and replacing it with order.

You can also reduce stress by handling a task that will make your larger projects easier. For example, we all know you can’t just start a paper. You think of an idea, you gather resources, you research, you do a literature review, etc. But there are many technical aspects that need to be accomplished too: footnote formatting, a catchy title, a robust outline, images or graphs or tables, acknowledgements, and a good solid font. I like to get these easy tasks out of the way to simplify the process of writing the actual paper. For example, I made sure that every citation in my outline was correct and properly formatted. It’s not writing the actual paper, but it eliminates a huge task that has to be done no matter what. This is a way to manage our digital workspace by handling tedious, low-energy work and making the act of writing much easier.

What we’re trying to achieve is efficiency, productivity, and stress relief, all while fighting apathetic boredom and procrastination. Organizing your physical, mental, and digital workspaces will go a long way toward these ends, not only by distracting and engaging you, but also by reducing the stress you feel once you do begin a serious project.

Do you have any tips on how to fight boredom? How do you organize your workspace? Let us know in the comments.

[Image from Flickr user Design Milk, used under Creative Commons license]


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