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PhDs and the Power of Procrastination

Part 2

‘Procrastination’ is really a wonderful word. It comes from Latin, meaning ‘putting things off for tomorrow’ (pro: forward + cras: tomorrow). It sounds appropriately serious, like a terrible disease. PhDs might indeed want to believe that they cannot help procrastinating, or that they’ve caught it from some friends. Unfortunately, it is a self-created condition which can become chronic and impair research if not controlled.

The first step to prevent procrastination from seriously affecting research is, as I hinted in the first part of this post, to accept that we rather like to procrastinate. We might enjoy the stimulating feeling of working under pressure. We kind of relish being able complain to our friends about the millions of things we have to do for work but instead are procrastinating again. Little note of caution here: chronic procrastinating is taxing, and the complaints might become real. Nobody likes a PhD student who always seems stressed and walking around under a little rain cloud.

It is also important to realise that procrastinating in its milder form is OK. We need to eat, sleep, clean, and cook, aside from a hundred other things which take up part of our day. Then there are activities we like to do but may not be strictly necessary for survival: sports, music, facebook, meet up with friends, go shopping, etc. As in many things in life, it is a question of balance.

In this respect procrastination is related to time-management. One simple way to manage our time is to get a diary. Sounds basic, but a diary helps to visualise days and weeks and thus to estimate the time needed to produce written work. Speaking of deadlines, if you tend to procrastinate and do not have deadlines, ask your supervisor to set some. The pressure will help. If you dread specific deadlines try to set generous ones such as ‘by the weekend’ or ‘the end of the month.’ At the same time, aim to finish a few days before the deadline. Supervisors vary in their strictness over deadlines so it is important to know how flexible they can be. And be ready to negotiate. If you find that days are too short to do research and fun stuff consider getting up earlier. In short, try to find a routine that works for you.

In my previous post I wrote about ‘brain time’, a period of time away from the desk that we need to process readings and make creative connections among ideas. While I stand by this, one can only do so much during ‘brain time.’ I have found that some of my best ideas came when I forced myself to write something. Then I discovered connections and patterns, and refined or completely altered an argument. However, there are more gentle ways of inducing brilliant writing than shutting yourself up in your room for five days. The essential groundwork must be laid beforehand, i.e.: you must have taken notes about your reading. During or after ‘brain time’, write down your ideas, make diagrams or mind maps. Then, as you start writing and find that procrastination threatens to take over, you could ask a friend to make you work for a certain period of time. If he or she is a willing listener, tell them about your piece. If there is no one around, tell yourself. It will make the big picture seem much clearer and help you move forward. And finally, don’t forget to reward yourself at the end with something you love to do (or eat or drink).


Photo Credit: Emily Ogez – Procrastination Meter/ Creative Commons