How Do I Stop Procrastinating?

I put off writing this piece long enough…

One of the most frustrating aspects of being a student is seeing others be productive when you can barely get started on any given task. What a way to feed your imposter syndrome! That was certainly the case for me as a grad student. Yes, yes, we should always be supportive and happy for others, but that damned green-eyed monster would rear its ugly head and make things worse for me. The problem: PROCRASTINATION. I went through the majority of my grad school years as a master procrastinator (still an expert at it, thank you very much). But there are a few simple questions you can ask yourself to kick the habit or, at the very least, not succumb to it so often.

So, how does a procrastinator manage to succeed in school? I wish I had taken the steps described below much earlier in my career, but it wasn’t until late in my grad school program that I actually dealt with my habit of procrastination head on.

Six years into grad school, in June 2017, I proposed my dissertation topic to my department and set a three-year plan to get the project done: 18 months for research and 18 months for writing. The first 18 months were fine. I took a few research trips to archives and libraries. I gathered materials. I organized files. It was lovely. I felt productive and thought that once I actually needed to produce words on a page, I’d be able to do it easily because of all of the, you know, “productivity” I was feeling.  

And then it came time to actually start writing. January 2019, almost exactly 18 months after I had proposed my project, my advisor asked to see a chapter… a section… a paragraph… anything. Maybe a working table of contents?  Or just section headings for a single chapter?  I had nothing to show.  All of the work I had done was in my head or in nice, organized files on my computer. I had to contend with the fact that I needed to write five chapters with enough time to have my committee read the dissertation, suggest edits, and approve of the full draft before my defense and graduation in June 2020.

I read through Piers Steel’s The Procrastination Equation and Tim Urban’s writings on the subject, and it became clear to me that in order to address my habit, I would have to identify precisely why I procrastinate. After thinking on the matter for a while, I came to the conclusion that other than simply not wanting to do something, I procrastinate for two main reasons:

(1) I’m scared of failing. Most often, the reason that I put off working or doing a task is because I’m afraid of failing. Rather than trying to take baby steps toward accomplishing something, I’d rather leave it until later—might as well postpone the failure as much as possible.

(2) I don’t know what the end product will look like. I like having a clear idea of what the complete project will look like before I start, so I often make mind maps or outlines in order to know what I’m working toward. If the project is too big, like my dissertation, for instance, I have to “mentally prepare” myself to even start thinking about a plan. Just an extra step in ol’ procrastinator’s guidebook.

To address the problem, I tried every variation of fad technique to curb my habit. “The Pomodoro Technique” (work for 25 minutes followed by a 5-minute break) worked for a few days before the novelty wore off, and I realized I was putting off even starting the 25-minute block. Irony. I then tried the “treat method” (working for a set time, then rewarding myself with a show or sweets). That worked for a time, but again, after a few days, I would fall back into the habit of postponing my start time until it was too late in the day to even try writing.

Since none of the techniques were working, I took some time to think about why I manage to complete some tasks without hesitation whereas I can’t even begin others. It became really clear to me that I’m an incentive-based worker, and my desired incentive is acknowledgement/recognition. “Accomplishing” small tasks doesn’t really do much for me if there’s nobody there to see it be done. I could always be productive in a café because my brain’s inner-movie dialogue would go something like, “Ohhhh, look at how productive Auggie is. He’s so smart.” But at home, there was nobody to see my productivity, so it just wouldn’t happen. My desired incentive wasn’t there. 

Since I had figured out why I procrastinate and what my incentives are, I had two problems to tackle: breaking down the dissertation writing process into manageable chunks and finding ways to motivate myself to produce work. My solutions were (1) writing 250 words a day and (2) partaking in a weekly writing group. For my 250 words a day, I set some parameters: I had to write new content (not reworking older content), and only after writing at least 250 words could I move on to editing older material or trying to fit the new content in with what I had written before. Often, though, I found that I’d hit the 250 word mark and still “feel like” writing more, so I’d end up with far more than I had intended on writing that day. But no matter what my day was going to be like, I spent my morning getting in my 250 words. Day after day, it became easier to produce my 250 and by the end of the project, I was able to hit my target word count in about 15 minutes, which I assume was because the habit had been well established.

The second useful tool was participating in a dissertation writing group. Aside from the fruitful discussions and critical feedback my group provided, the simple fact of having accountability and a group to show my work to made me more productive. Remember, I’m an incentive-based worker, so having three people constantly praise me for producing 5-10 new pages of writing every week scratched my incentive-itch and made me work harder.

The Upshot:

Fear, anxiety, and stress are the most common factors in procrastination. By avoiding a task that causes stress, we are essentially seeking the instant gratification of stress release—but that task isn’t going anywhere!  The solutions that I came up with for finishing my dissertation worked for me. If you find yourself struggling with the nasty habit of procrastination, you might consider spending some time figuring out what it is that will get you to actually accomplish what needs to be done. What incentives will get you to actually start working? 

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