How to deal with procrastination

One of the greatest problems one has to deal with when performing research, is procrastination. What I mean by procrastination is not only the fact that you are not working when you’re supposed to. Besides that, you can also fall in the trap of procrastination when you are working on things you are not supposed to be working (e.g. due to their lower priority/importance). Through these years, I have been a victim of procrastination multiple times (and still am), but now, at the end, I am thinking that I could have achieved so much more had I managed it a bit better. While talking to colleagues about it, I tried to distil why procrastination is so common for PhD students, and I came up with three very good reasons for that:

  • A PhD is a long long process made out of tiny little steps

When working on a project that needs at least 4 years to complete, it is very easy to think that ‘you have time’. And on top of that it is equally easy not to feel the negative impact of slacking off for a whole day. It makes sense right? You have time to catch up. Only that when these unproductive days pile up, things start getting more serious and urgent. And then you need to run in order to catch up. Only to start relaxing later on again.

I often had this impression, especially during the first year of my PhD, that I was constantly in a periodic state of slacking and being super productive. In the end, the net effect is probably the same as being productive constantly, however, this cycle might have negative effects on the stress levels

  • Researchers often work alone

At least that was the case for me. When no co-workers depend on you, it is easier to slack off more often than not, as no one is waiting something specific from you directly. Of course that does not apply to everyone, as it is also common to work within a team where colleagues are depending on your work to progress with theirs. Nevertheless, if you do work alone, be sure to identify this is one of your excuses.

  • The relaxed working style of academia just allows it

In general, the academia is a very flexible place to work at. Almost independently of the country or the university, there are no strict working hours. It is generally acceptable to work from home every now and then when there is a need for it. Finally, you rarely hear the word ‘boss’ being pronounced in the university, with the word ‘supervisor’ having a lighter feeling about your relationship with the person who is paying your salary.

Of course, these are not the only reasons why we procrastinate, I just think that it is what makes it different from working in the industry.

So why do we procrastinate and how can we reduce the procrastination time?

I think that major part of procrastination is related to distractions. More distractions take your focus away and make your mind wander to other things. It is often easy to make your mind land on things such as your favourite social network and once you are there, the game is already lost. So the point is on keeping your focus and on staying away from black procrastination holes.

Let’s then take them one by one: how to keep your focus?

Emailing

One of the most exciting things that happens during my day is when I receive e-mails. I just love it when people send me e-mails (or give me phone calls for that matter). It’s like adrenaline, caffeine and oxitocyne combined together in a shot that makes me feel the centre of attention (yeah, I am an attention whore I know). And when I know that someone has sent me an e-mail, it is just impossible not to check it. Say what you want, but I cannot decline that sweet jolt of attention, I need to read and reply as fast as possible.

But then… what was I working on? What was I doing? My attention is lost and I have to start all over again…

Do you recognise yourself in the above situation?

A lot of people I know are complaining they receive a lot of e-mails and that they need to respond to all of them. This probably takes a lot of time. The source of the problem with e-mailing though, is not on the fact that you are receiving a lot of e-mails, but how you manage them. During my very active years in BEST (a volunteer student organisation), I used to receive hundreds of e-mails on a daily basis on topics that I had to follow and in many cases respond to. Being able to deal with that vast amount of e-mails in a smart way was crucial if someone wanted to have a personal life, be able to study and relax. And it was doable to combine all three together for very long periods with proper management.

The idea is that there is good time to deal with e-mail and there is bad time to deal with e-mail. A good time to deal with e-mail is a dedicated slot in your daily agenda where you only deal with e-mail. A bad time to deal with e-mail is any time other than that dedicated time slot. Do you want some ideas on how to become disciplined enough to only check your e-mail in specific times of the day?

The first, very simple measure that you could take is to force your mail client to check for e-mails only at a certain period, or specific hours of the day. This way, you can deal with incoming e-mails only once, twice, three times a day. The number of times is not important, as it has to do with the amount of e-mails you are receiving. The important thing here is to allocate blocks of time when you read and respond to e-mails. This can be good for two reasons: first you are not distracted from your actual work all the time someone wants to invite you to a new conference that you (and neither any of your colleagues) never heard of. Secondly, reading and answering e-mails can be a relaxing activity similar to taking a break. Only that it happens when you actually WANT to.

You can even extrapolate this to help you manage your personal life too. It’s often that I had caught myself checking e-mails from work during my holidays or weekends. Although it’s good to show to your promoter that you’re always on the go and can respond to his e-mails even when they arrive on Saturday midnight, this might have some impact on your well-being. It affects first of all your personal life and second of all doesn’t allow you to fully detach during your time off, an essential process for being creative and productive again on Monday. That becomes even more relevant lately with all the devices of constant connection that notify us whenever anything happens anywhere in the world…

Another solution is to disable any kind of e-mail/message notifications. And God, my e-mail client had a lot! Every time I would receive an e-mail, my PC would play a sound, I would get a notification on the tray bar and if that wouldn’t have been enough, the icon of the software would also change…. Just in case I was not in front of my computer when the e-mail came and I would have missed it. The problem, as described at the beginning of this section, if you know there is an e-mail waiting for you it is very difficult to resist checking it. But with all notifications gone and I became more peaceful, focused and less needy for attention. Both me and humanity wins.

Take a break, set-up your e-mail client to only check e-mails at specific intervals (more loose during time off), disable all notifications and trust me: your focus (and your smartphone’s battery lifetime) will increase :)

The internet

Another great source of distraction and cause of constant procrastination is the internet. Your favourite social network, micro-blogging, news-sites, videos etc. etc. offer information from all your ‘friends’ from any point of the planet (or even outside of it). That means constant information flow, as nowadays we tend to have friends or colleagues in several different time-zones, with a big spectrum of interests. That means that, first of all, there are posts arriving constantly, but secondly that these posts are highly probable that are interesting to you. Cause let’s face it, who is not interested in the 20 most funny pictures of cats of 2015? For one thing, I usually cannot resist clicking on such things.

So what can be done about it? After falling in the trap of ‘checking x website for only 1 minute before going on with that task’ too many times, I tried to analyse my behaviour and see why did I end up on the famous social network too often during the day. I realise that checking a specific website of interest does not take any effort and therefore I was usually too weak to stop myself from doing a few clicks. So what’s the method to avoid this pitfall? Introduce more clicks and more decision making in the process.

The further away we are from doing a habit with a negative impact (e.g. checking cat videos), the more protected we are against our evil, stupid self who wants to see what his friends in Australia are having for dinner. If, instead of two clicks, you need to additionally type the website, insert your password and click further, that makes your separation from the negative habit greater. And that’s a safe-zone that can help you avoid doing it.

Simple steps to increase this distance:

  1. Log-off from each website you visit each time you finish with it. This way, you will have to re-login next time you want to check it, increasing the distance. One good way to do this automatically is to never click the ‘remember me next’ time option when you login.
  2. Even better than logging-off, since you might forget or omit occasionally, is to destroy the cookies that your session is stored in after you leave the website. That would be paranoiac (and probably an even bigger waste of time) if you would do it manually, but to the rescue come several add-ons for your favourite web browser that do that for you automatically (e.g. https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/self-destructing-cookies/ )
  3. Erase your user-name and password from your browser’s memory. this way you will have to type it in again and again each time you want to login
  4. Extra: make your password extra complicated and long. That increases the distance between you and your bad habit even more.
  5. Two-factor authentication: it’s a recently introduced security measure that in order to login to a service, you not only need to provide your user-name and password, but also a short code that is sent to your phone by sms. (read more on https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Two_factor_authentication)

Notice how several of these steps benefit you in other synergistic ways as well. For instance, increasing your password length is also a good measure of security. The same for not storing it in your browser. Finally, deleting cookies is also a very good way to increase your transparency on the web and don’t allow advertising services track what websites you are visiting.

If all these don’t manage to keep you away from all the time-sucking web, you could even try more radical solutions. You could install add-ons for your browser that block specific websites for specific days and hours (https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/idderall/ ). As long as you are disciplined enough to not deactivate these add-ons after 15’ of asphyxiating existence, then you’ve solved the problem once and for all. Finally, depending on how essential the internet is for your work, you could also just pull the plug and switch internet completely off.

Filtering ideas

Another source of distraction that I often had to deal with was not so apparent as the ones described. It’s a hidden form of distraction as it doesn’t really feel like procrastination in the short term, but it becomes more evident in the long run. It’s the camouflaged procrastination that leads into doing stuff for your work from one hand, but stuff that might be neither essential nor urgent. It can be that you have a great idea for a new feature in your code, helping a colleague do some difficult calculations or something else that could pass as ‘I am working!’.

If there is something that I can suggest here, it is mainly in the area of working on new ideas. I often had bursts of ideas that I wanted to work on, but didn’t necessarily have to do with what i was supposed to be doing at that moment. To solve this issue, one simple strategy is to have a small ‘bucket list’ where you write ideas that you come up with. Then you need to let these ideas rest for a week and re-evaluate them. If you think that these ideas worth exploring, then include them in your short/long-term plan. If you are not so excited about them any more, it means that you shouldn’t have worked on them in the first place. And therefore you Win!

This practice has the double benefit of first of all re-evaluating your ideas over time and decreasing the risk of over-excitement. But it also a good practice to write down your ideas and go through them every now and then. Cause ideas can only help generate better ideas.

To conclude…

Procrastination is a very dangerous trap that many of us fall and keep on falling. It can deteriorate your productivity, your image to your colleagues and probably increase your stress levels (as you will end up working overnight again to catch up with your tasks). Therefore we must be aware and try to reduce it. However, procrastination does not only have negative effects as it can also help relax our mind, socialise, exchange ideas with colleagues and maybe, when we focus back to work we have enlightenments and great inspiration.

Therefore, try to control it, but if things don’t seem to work, don’t worry: take a walk, check your e-mail, talk to a friend and enjoy procrastinating.

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