PhD Life

Hacking PhD procrastination.

Procrastination during your PhD shows up for everyone. It’s important to check in with yourself to see why you’re avoiding certain tasks. On occasion, you might actually be able to use your procrastination to your advantage – read more to find out how.

Procrastination is a feeling all of us experience at some point, not just necessarily if you’re a PhD student. Procrastination is essentially the action of delaying or postponing something. More often than not however, procrastination is just simply avoidance – you don’t want to do something, so you put it off for another day. However, soon enough the deadline approaches and you’re in a frenzy trying to scramble and put things together. Most of the time it works, 9 times out of 10 it always gets done.

The only real caveats with procrastination are that this approach either causes a significant amount of stress and anxiety, as you panic and scramble to get everything together whilst also negatively impacting the quality of your work. Rushing through things, especially for PhD students, is not the best method. Research in and of itself is a slow and laborious process, paying good attention to detail, articulating complex concepts and juggling a range of tasks means that it’s a lot harder to do well during your PhD if procrastination shows up for you a lot. If this post rings true to you or at least you feel as though you could work on your procrastination, sit tight as this post plans to reframe the way you approach procrastination (or at least hack it) so it can work for you instead of against you.

First and foremost, lets normalise procrastination. It shows up for everyone and is actually part of the PhD process. More importantly however, sometimes it’s easy to get procrastination mixed up with other things. Maybe you’re not actually avoiding writing or publishing after all. You might start avoiding work, or at least delaying starting it, not because you can’t be bothered, but actually because you’re scared to get started. Big projects or deliverables can feel overwhelming, making it extremely difficult to get motivated. The end goal is so far away it just feels almost impossible to get there. Often, this lack of motivation does stem from imposter syndrome. If you were truly an imposter (which you’re not) the quickest way you would get ‘found out’ is to essentially get a big project wrong, or to make a mistake. So, the best way to prevent this from happening and keep your cover story going a little longer is to just not engineer opportunities where ‘mistakes’ could happen. Thus, procrastination takes hold.

Imposter syndrome is relatively normal, especially in academia. And if you do not get to grips with it sooner rather than later you run the risk of impairing the quality of your work – the whole piece about scrambling last minute to meet a deadline because you delayed starting it will inevitably have a knock-on effect. In fact, funnily enough, when imposter syndrome meets procrastination you actually create a negative feedback loop. In essence, imposter syndrome makes you delay starting a project through fear of ‘not being good enough’ (i.e., procrastination), then due to the last-minute rush you’re more likely to actually make mistakes, which in turn sort of ‘confirms’ your false belief about your imposter syndrome. The imposter syndrome gets bigger, the need to procrastinate becomes more intense, leading to more mistakes (due to more rushing) and so the cycle continues. Let’s hack that negative feedback look and opt to break it. Start early, if you’re worried about making mistakes it just means you might need MORE time to plan, prepare, problem-solve, and proof your work. More time means less mistakes. Which also means bye-bye imposter syndrome.

See ya imposter syndrome…

The next key driver behind procrastination is burnout. Procrastination in this sense is not actually a problem nor is it procrastination. As discussed elsewhere, PhD’s have periods when they’re busy and when they’re quiet. Sometimes you might actually feel like you’re busy all the time! Procrastination in this sense is actually more likely to be your body telling you that you need rest. PhD burnout is a common feeling and when you push yourself too far, work long hours, work over public holidays, and other ridiculous things – it’s bound to take a toll. If you’ve worked a 60hour week or more, showing up on a Monday and sitting at your desk to try and do more work simply won’t happen. Then you panic and feel guilty for not doing work! The panic stresses you out, and you’ll feel like you’re procrastinating.

Honestly, it’s not procrastination. It’s your body telling you to rest. Listen to it, take a break, recharge. Spend some time thinking about your time management, are you doing too much? Could you prioritise things differently? It’s important to re-calibrate at intervals during your PhD so you don’t get lose sight of the end goal. Certainly, this is part and parcel of setting yourself up for PhD success in the long hall. Furthermore, we run the risk of re-entering that negative feedback loop again. ‘I feel as though I haven’t done enough’ (when you’re already overworking), so you try to ‘force’ yourself to get some work done, you physically can’t, you feel more guilty and the cycle continues.

Eventually you’re going to break. The more you overwork the closer and closer you get to a bigger burnout period. Ultimately at that stage you’ll need to have a longer break to recharge, thus meaning even more ‘procrastination’. So again, to hack your procrastination to work for you, take more frequent and smaller breaks, as this will prevent the need to take an extremely long one right in the middle of an important deadline – when you can’t afford to. Similarly, working long hours when you’re not feeling 100% will lead to more mistakes, mistakes will require more time to fix them, meaning you’re more likely to feel burnout, which will lead to even more procrastination. Recharge when you’re not feeling your best to truly save time. Remember, quality not quantity is the way to go.

What we’ve discussed so far can often sit in opposition to one another. Procrastinating because you don’t feel smart enough (imposter syndrome), so you avoid mistakes, verses working too hard which means you procrastinate more due to burnout. It’s a double edge sword, and it’s really important to get in that sweet spot. It requires some time to reflect and think about what you’re currently doing. Another key example of this is that one of the best ways to procrastinate is to be productive in ten million other things. This is usually where PhD students sit.

High functioning individuals are aware that avoiding work isn’t the best strategy, so instead, they pursue other less important pieces of work to help resolve that guilty feeling. When you’re doing this, it might not even feel like procrastination! So again, it requires some time and consideration to think about what you’re doing on a daily or weekly basis. Is it adding value and is it part of the end goal to succeed in your PhD? If not, and it’s not adding a new transferable skill, then it’s likely to just be poor time management. Doing things, you don’t need to do for the sake of it. Cut these things down, free up some time, so you can’t keep avoiding your work by being productive in the things that don’t actually matter.

Does this photo feel familiar?

The last and final part of hacking PhD procrastination is laziness. This is less common amongst PhD students, so take this with a pinch of salt. You also might feel that you’re being lazy, but it’s just your imposter syndrome talking – so be mindful when reading ahead. Laziness, or that ‘I can’t be bothered’ feeling can happen to anyone. It’s all too easy to say, ‘I’ll do it another day’. However, the truth is that it’s always going to need to get done. In order to truly save time, start early. It sounds counterintuitive but let’s use this with a typical PhD example. Elsewhere on this blog we’ve discussed the importance of publishing or at least writing throughout your PhD. Often, writing is a key task which we avoid or procrastinate from. Writing is usually at the bottom of the to do list, however, because it needs to be done ahead of your PhD viva in the form of your thesis you can’t avoid it.

A great way to actually save yourself time in the long run is to write throughout your PhD. If laziness truly is your Achilles heel think of it like this. Rather than having to do loads of work at the end of your PhD (which ultimately, if you’re a lazy person you will want to avoid) why don’t you stagger it slowly before the end? In essence, write a little bit consistently and frequently. This won’t require as much effort in each sitting (i.e., you can still be lazy) but will also mean you get most of your PhD thesis complete before your final year – which also means you won’t have as much work to do at the end, and you can continue to be lazy. When thinking about procrastination, what you’re basically doing is being as efficient as possible in order to save yourself time in the long run. You’re just doing the same amount of work in order to be lazier. You’re able to spread your workload over more time, which feels less intense. The inverse of this is true too. Because you’re spreading your workload over time, you can actually afford to let procrastination in more frequently – which feels counterproductive, but it’s not. Working more consistently in small bursts gives you more time and space to procrastinate. In other words, if you know you’re a raging procrastinator, get ahead so you’re able to procrastinate more or leverage/hack into your desire to be lazy by only doing a small bit every day (rather than a massive chunk in one go).

We hope that you’ve found this blog post useful as it provides you with some nice little reframing to consider when thinking about procrastination, or maybe it’s not even procrastination at all…

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