Procrastination Part Two: Nine Suggestions

Procrastination. I am still on the topic. As I shared with you in the previous blog post, changing your procrastination habit involves changing your tiny daily actions. It is the smallest, subtle, incremental changes that produce the eventual substantial change in productivity. I am keen on this idea. It makes overcoming procrastination doable. You are no longer mentally fighting the huge imaginary procrastination beast (aka PhD monster), depleting all your resources, but instead see its ability to impress shrink one small action at a time.

Nine anti-procrastination suggestions:

1. Create a minimal, doable schedule

Start small. If you have gotten out of the habit of writing, if you are paralysed by the page, it doesn’t make sense to expect yourself to leap into writing for long hours, days!, on end overnight. The good news: you don’t have to. Start small and over time your routine will expand. I like to start with two successive working sessions a day, of 45 minutes each. Three quarters of an hour is enough to get a substantial amount of work/ writing done, yet it isn’t overwhelming. Think small successes. Small is where the job gets done. Check out this schedule for an idea of what this might look like.

2. Be specific. Schedule it. Visualise it.

At the end of a work session, decide when you are going to write the next day. Decide. Schedule. Hold yourself accountable. This is a non-negotiable date with your work. Treat it as you would a meeting in regular life. Be on time. Engage. Show your work some love and respect. It helps to take a second to visualise yourself writing at the time you intend. Oh, all the wonderful feelings that flow from that picture… Feel it. Then on the day sit down at the scheduled time, open your document and become it.

3. Don’t give yourself the option of not writing. JUST DO IT

There’s a decision you need to make, and that decision is: from now on, I am going to write for x hours (not too many) every workday. No Matter What. This isn’t a superficial decision. It is deeeeeeep. (As are you.) And what I mean by this, is that it’s a decision to from now on disobey your fears and ‘reasons’ and excuses, and support yourself wholeheartedly instead. No ifs, no buts, no maybes.  Make it non-negotiable. I made this decision in the later stages of the PhD and it made all the difference. The problem is: we waste our energy on choices, on staying in between yes and no. It is exhausting. Say yes I am going to do this. And do it. It is clean and simple and it frees up a lot of energy that would otherwise be lost.

4. No Guilt

Despite 3, you may mess up. You may not work (as much) as you had intended to. You’re human. Life happens sometimes. The first rule in this situation is No Guilt. The decision I was talking about in tip 3 is about supporting yourself. Guilt is not part of that. We (often unconsciously) think that guilt is what helps us become ‘better’. It doesn’t. All it does is make us feel awful. Honestly, not a good idea. So say no to your inner Calvinist and be your more objective self-compassionate self instead. Recommit, and schedule your work for tomorrow. There is no need to compensate or feel bad, all you need to do is get back on track.

5. Know your triggers

If for whatever reason procrastination got the better of you, be curious why. (Remember 4. No Guilt)
I use a few questions to work with this:

What happened that was more important than doing your work?
What was the excuse that sounded believable that got you out of it?
Was there a warning sign that signalled you were not going to stick to your schedule? What was it?
How could you prevent this from happening tomorrow?

Just another reminder: No Guilt. This is about creating an understanding of yourself, of your patterns, of your triggers. It’s not about making yourself feel bad. (There’s no prize or reward for that.) Being aware is crucial. It helps you create the changes you want to create. So look, be curious, find out. Know yourself.

6. Work offline

This one is so important. We get distracted. Of course we do. Email. Facebook. Whatsapp. Online news. Twitter. Or the seemingly virtuous one: looking up research and references. I am pretty strict about this one: writing time is for writing. It is for creation, not consumption. If you really need to look up an article, make a note in your piece and do it after your work session is over. We need to focus on our thoughts, we need to FOCUS to get our best work done. Going offline (I used Freedom for this purpose when I was finishing my PhD) is the mini ritual that signals to your brain: time to get stuff done. And you will. You may have a lot of resistance to this idea. “I need the Internet” you may object. You probably don’t. Trust what you know already. It is the best source to work from.

7. Set boundaries

In the same category of distractions: set boundaries. This is another reason for a short and sweet and consistent writing practice, instead of one that meanders on all day. It gives you a timetable of availability and non-availability. So useful. When I was finishing my PhD the hours from 10:00 to 13:00 were sacred. I let people know: “those are my writing hours, I will not pick up the phone. I am not available. I’ll be back ‘online’ this afternoon.” I believe that being strictly non-available some of the time is incredibly helpful. It says ‘I respect my work’. If you work in an office environment, learn to say: ‘no’. If you really can’t say no make sure you escape for an hour or two daily to write. Create your own writing bubble. It is bliss.

8. Set yourself up for success

Every writing session ask yourself what the next step is, to get your article/ chapter closer to completion. Answer in terms of what you can get finished today. Find the fine line between being ambitious and being realistic. Challenge yourself, but make sure that what you are trying to do is indeed doable. Write your daily work/ writing goals down if at all possible. Then once you have succeeded, cross the item off your list. Congratulations, well done! (Never too small an accomplishment to celebrate.) This habit helps break the loop of fear and failure and guilt that is procrastination. You’re creating a virtuous cycle of work and productivity and (small, though one day it will be BIG) success instead.

9. Focus on finishing

I want to challenge you here. Focus on the finish line. Everyone can read articles for a couple of hours a day. I want you to go beyond that. I want you to create, to produce, to develop your work. To write and FINISH an article. We often get stuck in our fears of not-yet-knowing-enough to write. I say go for it anyway. GO! You can do it. Don’t dither, do it! Academic underconfidence is rife in the formative years of the PhD and the only way to get through it, is by engaging. So make that switch from passive student to active contributor. BE the academic you want to be. Focus on creating. Focus on the finished paper. What can you finish in a week’s time? In a month? In two months? Get excited about your (self-imposed) deadlines and take a leap. Finish something.

I could go on and on, but I need to stop. Do you have anti-procrastination tips to share? And which one of those above is your favourite? Let me know in the comments! If you’d like tailor-made advice I do offer this in my coaching sessions. As always, if you liked this post, could you share it? I appreciate it!

Shrink the PhD monster

MonsterPhDOne of the PhD students taking my online course refers to her PhD as having become an ‘uninvited monster’ that has gotten into her body and her feelings, and doesn’t ever seem to leave her alone, no matter what she is doing.

The problem with PhD monsters is that they don’t really go away by themselves once they have taken up shop. But there are some tried and trusted remedies to use when dealing with one. (If you don’t like the monster analogy, and don’t want to admit to owning one, this blog post could also read: how to increase your PhD productivity).

1. Work, and then relax. Repeat.

PhD monsters appear mostly when we spend a lot of time thinking we should be working when we’re not. To shrink the monster it helps to not just sit at your computer, but actually work on your PhD. It scares them. For best results work in intervals. Choose work sessions with a fixed length (20-90 minutes maximum), work!, and when the session is over consciously choose to relax. Then repeat. After a couple of work sessions you can, with authority, tell the monster to get lost for the rest of the day/evening. PhD monsters hate when you’re relaxing and having a good time, so make sure you do enough of it. (Translation: alternating between work and relaxation ensures sustainable productivity.)

2. Create structure in your day

PhD monsters thrive if you allow them to take over your day. Do not allow this. Take charge by creating a daily schedule in which working on your PhD for a set period of time is a priority. Preferably work on your thesis first thing in the morning, and get rid of distractions, whether email, internet or colleagues. Don’t think you can work on your PhD for more than so many hours a day (say 2-4 on a normal day, with 6 being the occasional absolute maximum). Don’t believe people who say they can. Dismiss the PhD monster once the work for the day is done. Don’t believe it when it tells you you should still be working. You don’t. It’s better to work shorter focused hours, than prolonged procrastinating ones. (Translation: prioritising the PhD and being realistic about your limitations allows for a steadily growing body of work, without the guilt created by unrealistic expectations.)

3. Make writing a habit

PhD monsters are sneaky. Beat yours at its own game. You can slip past it by making writing a habit. Write every day, preferably starting and stopping at the same time. The less room there is for conscious decisionmaking concerning whether or not you are going to write, and for how long, the less room there is for the PhD monster to sneak in and start harassing you into procrastination. Once you’ve done your writing for the day, the more chance of it leaving you alone for a bit. (Translation: habits minimise choice, doubt and mental anguish, thereby increasing energy and focus available for the task at hand.)

4. Stay plugged in

PhD monsters like attention. They shrink when you don’t give it to them. Learn how to let your monster be there, without paying it too much respect. One way to do this is to learn to meditate. Another is to do things you enjoy doing. Stay plugged into your life. Your real life, in which you do actual things. Not the life created in your imagination, where your PhD monster can take over and the edge of the cliff feels very near. It’s called being present. PhD monsters tend to be allergic to being present, and similar spiritual stuff. They are also allergic to having beers with friends. (Translation: Having a life outside the PhD increases the odds and ease of its completion.)

If you need more help shrinking your PhD monster, the online course might be for you. It is a bit more serious, and a lot more in-depth than my writings here. Plus I will gladly help you with your personal PhD struggles. It’s what I enjoy doing most.