The Procrastination Chronicles: Chipping Away at It

When things get too overwhelming, and that mountain you have to climb seems too high, too impossible, it may help to think of your challenges in little pieces, little instalments. In the second part of the Procrastination Chronicles, PhD student Lúcia explores the idea of dealing with burnout and procrastination by “chipping away at it”.

Where I come from we have a saying. Loosely translated, it says “little by little the chicken fills its beak”. You may have a similar idiom where you come from, but the image of pecking at something, tiny grain by tiny grain, until you have a mouth-, or a beakful, is a helpful one when we think about procrastination and ways of beating it. It seems that even in the grand scheme of things, doing a PhD involves, basically, pecking and pecking, chipping away at something until you have enough to build yourself another mountain with. 

If “eating the frog”, the strategy I mentioned in the first instalment of this series, did not work for you, then maybe consider the idea of “chipping away” at something. This is what my psychologist presented me with when I was struggling with burnout. Sometimes when you are burnt out, anxious, depressed, going through any mental health issues, it might seem impossible to do ANY task, let alone the hardest one first. In these instances, it might be helpful to think of a task as a fresh slab of marble. Like Michelangelo finding the David within (no pressure there, you little genius!), you must find the work of art within, but in order to do that you need to start chipping away at that block. When you look at the block, when you look at a mountain, it seems unsurmountable. Yet, it isn’t. I realise this must sound a bit daft, a bit like a fake motivational speech (after all, every corpse on Mount Everest was once a highly motivated person!) but if you look at something by its constituting parts and not by the sum of them, this big block of marble or this huge mountain starts looking a bit less overwhelming.

“You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”

Jack London

But how does this translate to your PhD work? A thesis, whatever it looks like in your specific area, is a leviathan, a monster, a mountain, a block of marble. One thing is for certain, it is looming closer, and you won’t be able to avoid writing it for too long. For people who work in a lab, keeping a diary of your thoughts on experiments may be a good idea. As well as recording data and methods, is incredibly rewarding to look back at your thought process over time. It may even prove essential later on. It doesn’t have to be organised; it can be just a dumping ground for your thoughts.

The practice of freewriting comes into play here as well. Often when we sit down to write we think we have to know exactly what we want to write, and the structure of what we want to write. We think we need inspiration to strike; a muse to appear. But, according to studies, if you practice with free writing of getting into the zone, getting inspired, with time your brain will get into gear and help you get inspired when you need it. 

So, before making a to-do list with a thousand items first thing in the morning, looking at it and despairing over the seemingly insurmountable mountain of tasks you have ahead, why not try taking one thing at a time, chipping away at it. Maybe today you won’t read 2 whole chapters plus pull quotes plus write an abstract plus answer all your emails plus whatever else you convinced yourself you need to do today. Especially when you are struggling mentally, you need to see this mountain as a little rock first, then you add another one on top of that, and so on. Maybe today you will read a couple of pages of a chapter, reply to two emails, and pull 2 quotes from a book. Maybe at the end of these you will feel a bit more inspired and start on a draft of your abstract. Maybe. And then maybe a couple of days from now, when you are feeling a bit better, you will go and find that you’ve done something, and your future self will thank your past self for doing something, even if it seems very little. You’re chipping away at it, little by little, until you find the David within.

Want more tips on chipping away at it? Why not have a look at our post on Organising your PhD Brain or A Short Guide to Productive Procrastination. We also have a full list of all our posts on the Contents page.

How do you beat procrastination in your daily life? Are you chipping away at it? Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at, or leave a comment below.

By Lucia Collischonn

Lúcia Collischonn is a third-year PhD student in Translation Studies at the Warwick Writing Programme. Lúcia is an award-losing literary translator, writer and language nerd. Her translation of Yoko Tawada’s Etüden im Schnee was published in 2019 in Brazil. You can find her ramblings on twitter @lucycolli.

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