One of the challenges of doing a PhD is that you have very few deadlines--except the ones you set yourself. No one is going to make sure you’re studying for quals, writing your dissertation, or working on your seminar papers. Here are our best tips to stop procrastinating and get to work.
The first thing to do it take note of your procrastination habits. Notice when you procrastinate the most. Are there any patterns or common triggers? What type of work do you put off? Are there certain times of day when you are more easily distracted? Examining how and when you procrastinate will help you figure out how big a problem it is and help you develop a strategy to combat these tendencies.
The next step is to be real with yourself. It’s easy to say you’ll put something off until you feel like it, but in reality, you will probably never feel like doing this work. It doesn’t matter if it’s tomorrow, or the next day, or the next. The best thing to do is just start now and get it done.
Breaking a big project into smaller steps can make it seem less daunting and more achievable. When you have small, specific tasks on your to-do list it’s easier to “just get started.” This method also forces you to think through the entire project before you start. Once you break a task up into its steps, you can better predict what steps you might need help with or where you might get stuck. By thinking through potential challenges ahead of time you’re less likely to lose your motivation when something takes longer than expected.
As you work through the steps of a project, focus only on the small part of the task you are doing right now. Resist the urge to think too far ahead to the next step. That’s when you’re likely to get overwhelmed and procrastinating again. Focusing only on this step of the project also means not multitasking. Turn your phone off, or better yet, hide it. If you are someone who really struggles with distractions online, you might have to take more drastic measures like turning your router off or using browser extensions which limit your time on certain websites. You can also take a low tech approach and ask a (very trusted) friend change your social media passwords so you can’t log on until you finish your work.
Another way to stop procrastinating is by finding yourselfan accountability buddy. In academia, you are often working by yourself on a project with self-set deadlines. It’s easy to keep putting things off day after day until a week goes by and you haven’t made any progress on the project. Find a friend working towards a similar goal and agree to keep each other on track. Set weekly meetings to talk about what you’ve accomplished since last week and what you plan to do next week. Your buddy can also suggest resources if you’re feeling stuck or offer motivation if you’re uninspired.
When you finally finish your project take a moment to reflect and focus on the sense of accomplishment you get from finishing. Use this feeling to motivate you when you want to procrastinate. Many people also find it helpful to give themselves some sort of reward for finishing, like watching a movie or reading a book for pleasure--something they usually do to procrastinate.
If these strategies fail, at least make sure your procrastination is productive. You could build your online presence by creating a professional social media account or update your CV. Other productive forms of procrastination include reading the latest news in your field, career advice articles, and pop science articles. These activities, while likely not related to the task you are putting off, are still a productive use of your time and will help advance your career.
Breaking the procrastination habit takes work and won’t happen overnight. But if you are patient, you will eventually develop better habits.