Procrastination and the PhD


Managing your time as a PhD student can be exhausting. As part of the PhD process students often find themselves swamped with a number of time-consuming tasks. Read Jame’s advice for avoiding that awful PhD procrastination…

Since the start of this academic year my juggling act has included redrafts on my literature review, a number of research skills workshops, preparations for conference presentations, teaching commitments, and external research. Often you’re doing these tasks for the first time and the learning curve only accentuates the pressure. Even for those who are blessed by a productive nature and excellent time management skills, the workload can be a strain. This is acutely felt by those who ‘suffer’ from a near-universal condition: procrastination. Given the personal freedoms associated with managing your own research and the often harmful working habits contracted during undergraduate study, completing the bare minimum can be a constant struggle. Do not fear though, help is at hand.

Managing online distractions

The Internet is far-and-above my biggest vice. I can easily waste an entire afternoon contemplating a friend’s latest tirade on Facebook or tweaking my fantasy football team. The ideal solution is to disconnect completely. However, this is increasingly difficult given the rich array of resources online and the move to cloud based services. Instead, turn off those services that sidetrack you the most. Block email and social media notifications and revoke access to those pesky sites. This article offers an overview of simple tools for this purpose. Personally I use two browsers, FireFox with ‘Leechblock’ for work, and Chrome for play.

SMART Targets

Procrastination often comes from poorly crafted planning. Throwing yourself into your PhD without some kind of structure can be overwhelming and can trigger procrastination as means of distraction, which only worsens PhD anxiety. Specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-specific targets can help break down the colossal beast into something much more manageable. Try adopting a timetabled daily or weekly plan and prioritise the tasks that need to be completed. Make sure they are realistic targets. Failing to meet a set of unfeasible goals only heightens negative feelings which are the breeding ground for those comforting time-wasters.

A clear, organised, and efficient workspace

Your working environment needs just as much structure as your work itself. Clear the stacks of papers and books cluttering your desk. They can form an intimidating obstruction to productivity. The same applies for your virtual workspace. By reducing the time it takes to search and find the document you need, you will diminish the likelihood of becoming distracted. Try using Evernote, a note storage tool you can access from any device with access to the web. The in built search and tag functionality makes finding the relevant work a breeze. For those who prefer a pen and paper, try the ‘Page Camera’ function to convert your handwritten notes into digitally-optimised images. Finally if, like me, you enjoy working in a communal office space but need to send a signal to your colleagues that now is not the time to discuss the shocking revelations on last night’s Eastenders, then don a set of headphones. Even if the euphonious sounds of Slipknot aren’t your idea of a relaxing working environment, headphones without music still display a resolute ‘do-not-disturb’ vibe.

‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’

I quickly learnt that pushing yourself too hard can be an isolating and unproductive experience. The key to productivity is a positive state of mind. As with anything in life, you will encounter peaks and troughs during the PhD process. During those periods of dejection it is all too easy to think that the solution is a dose of hardcore, isolated study. As a result you can quickly find yourself staring longingly at a blank page hopelessly willing for some divine inspiration. This can manifest itself in all sorts of unpleasantries. It is therefore essential to embrace procrastination within your schedule, as the time you enjoy wasting isn’t wasted at all. Long days in the library slaving away over your PhD should always be rewarded. Go out with friends and have a beer. Spend some quality time with your favourite TV show. Load up Football Manager and weep uncontrollably as Jeff Hendrick requests a transfer away from your beloved Derby County. The key is to ensure a healthy PhD-life balance.


This post was originally published November 13, 2012

James Dennis (@dennisdcfc) is a second-year PhD student based at the New Political Communication Unit at RoyalHolloway, University of London. His research aims to explore the effect of routine social media use on political engagement. Outside of his PhD James gets distracted by vinyl records, basketball, and the perennial life-destroyer that is Football Manager. For more information on his research visit his research website


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One thought on “Procrastination and the PhD

  1. Hey James.. It was nice knowing from the solutions to keep procrastination at the bare minimum… How did you come up with all these solutions? Is it solely based on you own experience or also from friends and colleagues?

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