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Why PhD Students Procrastinate and What We Can Do About It

PhD students are notoriously famous for procrastinating. To understand why, let’s take a look at an equation Nick Winter presented in his book The Motivation Hacker, as I’ve written about here;

The biggest problems PhD students face are impulsiveness and delay. Most of the time, these two go hand-in-hand. Graduation dates (or thesis deadlines) are so far off into the horizon {delay} that this one hour spent going down the IYS (Infinite Youtube Spiral) {impulsiveness} seems insignificant. Since both impulsiveness and delay are high for PhD students, Motivation levels tend to dip, and so we procrastinate….

a lot…

by watching videos on procrastination like Tim Urban’s famous TED talk.

Recently, I’ve had to fight procrastination because it was a luxury I couldn’t afford between finishing my thesis and other writing-related side projects. So here are a few tips that worked for me, which I hope works for you;

– Fill your plate and take on more responsibility. I asked one of my friends who’s a working mother how she managed it all; job, home and having a social life. She said, she had to because she couldn’t afford not to. At first the statement was cryptic. I only understood what she meant when I started to get serious about my writing-related side projects (blog/book) in addition to my thesis…all of a sudden, I became more efficient. The attitude became, ‘Do it now or it’ll never get done.’

It seems quite counter-intuitive to add more responsibility when you’re busy, but try it out for some time and see if it helps you be more efficient. When an opportunity presents itself, don’t say no because you don’t have time for it (unless you really, really, really don’t have time for it), but if there’s some time that gets funnelled into facebook and the IYS (the infinite youtube spiral), then say, ‘Yes,’ and learn to adapt.

– Use external motivators. For me, that was beeminder and I wrote about it here. The idea behind beeminder is that it provides short-term pain for slipping on a long-term goal by taking away money from your credit card until you reach the pledge cap(basically, varying the Delay parameter on your Procrastination equation). I was skeptical about beeminder until I tried it and it worked for me. So I’ve been using it to stay on track for big projects — though my pledge cap is low, to be honest — but I’m happy to report the website is yet to take anything from me. Because my thesis was supposed to be a 150–200 page manuscript, I started around 4 months before the first draft’s deadline. This transformed me from the amateur that I was to the professional that I am. I had to consistently add to my manuscript 5 days a week for 4 months straight.

– Know your process. I can’t emphasize this enough. Whether you’re a lab scientist or a writer or a knowledge worker or a student…study your process with the enthusiasm of a microbiologist eyeing bacteria under the microscope. Know all the tiny details of your process, and questions to aid you are;

1.Make a time-log for how long certain activities take. It usually takes 2–4 weeks of logging to understand your habits, but after that, you’ll be able to fine-tune your daily plans.

2.Know the conditions under which you enter a state of flow. State of flow is a state of hyperfocus while working on an activity. Some things about it from the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, author of Flow;

  • It’s an inner state of intense focus
  • It leads to a sense of clarity where you know exactly what you want to do from one moment to the other.
  • You know that what you need to do is possible to do, even though difficult
  • Sense of time disappears and you forget yourself. to give you an example, let me tell you something that happened while writing this exact section of this exact post; I was in such a state of flow, I ended up dropping my coffee because I wasn’t paying attention and ended up placing it at the corner of the table, where it plunged to the floor.

So know the conditions under which you enter a state of flow; Do you prefer silence or white noise? Can you work on your bed or do you need to be seated at your desk? Can you work in a coffee shop? Are you always distracted by your colleagues in the office? Do you have to get headphones to stop them from disturbing you?

3. Know how much time do you spend on shallow work and how much time you spend on deep work? If you want to distinguish between the two, Cal Newport gives a clear distinction between the two in his book Deep Work;

Shallow work: noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.

Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.

In the context of office work, forwarding emails would fall under shallow work while deep work would probably be something creative like putting together a presentation for a client.

Once you know how much time gets wasted in shallow work, you can adjust your routine so you spend more time on Deep Work and less on shallow work. For instance, my phone is perpetually on silent mode, and I remove the notification from everything. Even work-related emails don’t come to me automatically. I have to fetch them, and I keep Outlook closed for most of the day.

– Visual reminders. One trick I learnt to keep on top of my to-do list is to screenshot it and keep it as the lock screen wallpaper on my phone. That way the to-do list is always on my face. I usually update it every 3–5 days so sometimes I’ll have an item that was on that I had already done.

Even though I’ve mainly discussed my tricks for beating procrastination, I have to admit the most important thing when it comes to beating procrastination is actually the numerator;

Expectancy x Value

But I’ll talk about in another post.

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What are your thoughts on the topic? Tweet me @ahechoes to let me know.

Also, check out my fiction short story collection, “All Bleeding Stops and Other Short Stories from the Kenyan Coast” and subscribe to the newsletter here; 
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Published inCareerEducationPersonal Development