I’ve always been the kid who was working through the night before a deadline. It started in secondary school, and really just carried on right through my undergraduate into studying for a PhD. Right off the bat I’d say that it’s definitely not the ideal personality trait for a PhD student, but it’s manageable. Sure, sometimes I end up getting less sleep than I’d like, but on the whole I can still function well enough to read papers, analyse data and write manuscripts.
The most frustrating thing about this particular behaviour is that it might seem like something you can just train yourself out of; to rewire your brain and miraculously stop putting things off. A common misconception of procrastinators is that their behaviour is driven by negative emotions of boredom or stress, but for many people that’s not the cause. For me, it’s mostly a case of an alternative perspective. I look at tasks purely in terms of their urgency, and use this to decide when/in which order to tackle each one.
Based on what I've read, procrastination tends to come from one of three distinct sources: you put things off because you enjoy the feeling of working against a deadline; you want to avoid failure or being judged; or you’re indecisive and a habitual perfectionist. Understanding which source is driving your procrastination can let you tailor the best strategies to manage it (see this figure by Joseph Ferrari).
You’re probably reading this from one of two likely perspectives: as someone who procrastinates; or as someone who has to deal with people who procrastinate. I’m writing this predominantly for people with the problem, but hopefully it also helps those dealing with procrastinators to see life from the other point of view.
All scientists are fundamentally curious. We want to understand the world around us, and we want to learn how to explain it better. The only problem with innate curiosity is that the internet holds a near limitless amount of things to look at (be it dogs on imgur, or Youtube videos of household objects in a blender).
One other key thing about being a PhD student is that despite your curiosity, you spend a lot of time feeling stupid (from this great piece by Martin Schwarz about the importance of stupidity in scientific research). This “immersion in the unknown” can make doing a PhD incredibly daunting. Beyond feeling stupid, there’s also the idea of the ’goldilocks rule’ of motivation, which suggests that humans have the greatest motivation when working on tasks that are right on the limit of their current abilities. For PhD students, we spend so much time beyond this limit, that demotivation can occur almost constantly. Worse still, if ‘analysis paralysis’ (the paralysing fear of doing the wrong thing) sets in, minor bouts of procrastination can become even more drawn-out.
Put simply, even though certain people might be more prone to procrastination, PhD students are probably one of the worst-affected groups. The unique combination of stressors results in a higher risk of sapped self-belief and demotivation, starting a cycle that's tricky to break when you need to get back to work. Below I'll share a by-no-means exhaustive list of potential things to help control the procrastination beast. Some of these work for me, and some I’ve heard to work for others. Many are taken from different posts that I’ve read on the subject, and so credit is due (Bidsketch, FastCompany, Waitbutwhy, Quartz, Lifehacker).
Ok, not that kind of self-control. SelfControl (MacOS) and Cold Turkey (Windows) are two of the many applications you can use to block yourself from accessing a self-defined list of distracting websites. They normally have a timer, so you can sit down at your desk, hit start, and come the end of the work day, you’re free to fire up Youtube and watch videos of red hot nickel balls melting stuff. There are also lots of other apps to help focus on work and maximise productivity (read more about some here).
Set your own pre-deadlines
When you receive a deadline for a piece of work, set your own pre-deadline for a number of days before. You can lock these deadlines in by arranging with your supervisor, boss or advisor to send drafts to them by this date.
Break the task up
Take the biggest project you have and break it up into small parts that you can tackle individually. Making even a little progress on multiple small tasks amounts to a greater sum of net progress when looked at together.
Work at your most productive time
Be honest with yourself about when you’re most productive, and focus working during that time. I know several PhD students that have arrangements with supervisors to meet at specific times of day (particularly if student and supervisor have different peak productivity times).
Make lists of tasks (I do this a lot), and try to be realistic about how much you can do in one day (I’m terrible at this part). At the least, having a continuously updated list of things to do helps you keep track of tasks, and prioritise them accordingly.
Give yourself a break
If you really think you’re not working, set yourself a specific amount of time to get away from your desk. Get outside and go for a stroll, grab a drink, or juggle. As long as you don’t break the time limit to come back, short breaks can really help with productivity (the Pomodoro technique is a popular method to manage breaks in a structured way).
If you're someone that procrastinates, hopefully some of these will help to minimise the effect that it has on your ability to work. Even though there isn’t a silver bullet solution to rid you of procrastination woes, with practice, it's something you can learn to manage.