By Kathryn Machray |

Procrastination is a relatively fundamental component of academic life – at least it is for me. Dithering about and delaying starting something that has a deadline attached is an irritating habit that has followed me throughout my academic career. Many an evening was spent during my undergrad years lamenting to my fellow students about the work I had due, before going home and doing nothing in particular but definitely not doing the work that was required. The all too common results were desperation driven, anxiety fuelled, all-night writing sessions…

I suspect that anecdote is familiar to most students and I believe everyone will procrastinate to differing levels. However, a couple of months ago I acknowledged my tendency to procrastinate was problematic. Do I just have truly terrible executive functioning? Possibly. However, having successfully balanced a full-time Masters with two part-time jobs, I know I can manage my time if I need to. I suspect something else is more to blame. A discussion in the pub (isn’t that where all the best ideas come from?) lead to me acknowledging something I’ve known for a while but steadfastly ignored:

Honesty klaxon: my procrastination comes from a massive fear of failure.

So, now that dirty secret is aired, I should probably explain. I know it’s counter-intuitive – why would you delay working if you don’t want to fail – well, it turns out procrastination acts as a rather good protection mechanism. I find it much easier to take criticism or negative feedback when I don’t feel overly invested in the work. Being able to tell myself “Well, I did it in 3 days” serves to protect me from any forthcoming criticism. However, such a tactic is doing yourself, and those who take the time to comment on your work, a disservice. Never really providing your best is selling yourself short before you’ve started.

So, if you find yourself on a similar hamster wheel of not getting stuff done, leading to restless nights and foodless days, whilst you hurriedly produce something to hand in then I’d say it’s worth considering what’s really going on. While I’m aware that large aspects of my tendency to procrastinate come from a not very flattering place, I believe that procrastination can be a useful tool in guiding you. But only if you identify where it’s coming from correctly.

Sometimes procrastinating is a sign you know you are genuinely not ready to start a task. It may be that you need some clarification – I’m guilty of leaving a supervision invigorated only to realise a day or so later, even after reviewing the minutes, I’m not certain of how to proceed. It may be that you need to do more reading or need to talk through your ideas with someone. Procrastination can be a sign that you need to be outside, doing a hobby you enjoy, cooking yourself something tasty, so that you’re in the right headspace to sit down and tackle a task.

As I said earlier, I’m confident everyone procrastinates to some extent, and not just in academia. It’s only really problematic if it becomes detrimental to you or your work output. Based on my own experiences, I’ve given some thought to some strategies which have helped me:

1) #remoteretreat – I’ve found this really useful for when I have a goal for the day. It runs on Twitter and its aim is to provide a space for focused blocks of writing. At the start of the day you set what you want to achieve. Handily, there is a blueprint you can follow (search for @yclepit) where you can set smaller goals for different sections of the day. At set times you check in with one another on Twitter but the rest of the time it’s a no internet/no phone space. I find the structure, support, and accountability useful.

2) My second strategy came from accidentally forgetting my phone when I went abroad for 4 days. I found not having it, the lack of notifications and pointless scrolling, was remarkably relaxing. When I came back I deleted Facebook, and it stayed deleted for a good few months, which was great for minimising distractions. However, I missed the support and information from some hobby and PhD related groups I’m part of, so I got it back. My solution has been to disable the app on my phone and to employ web browser extensions, for example StayFocusd, to limit the sites you can look at. I find it a useful method for the days I can’t snap myself out of looking at nonsense using willpower alone. It’s hardly relevatory to suggest deleting/minimising access to apps but for me it really helps with clearing my head.

3) I live with someone who will call me out on my nonsense. Once I’ve mentioned to my boyfriend a deadline or a piece of work I’m wanting to work on that day he has an aptitude for derailing my procrastination: I’ve never asked him to do this, he just knows I’m my own worst enemy at times. If you have someone you live with or work near perhaps you could recruit them to give you a nudge?

4) Move. Sometimes I just need a change of scenery to reset my focus. It can be worth losing half an hour to move for the productivity I can gain from being in a new space. If a space isn’t working for you, try changing it. Whether it’s by physically moving somewhere else, or decluttering where you are. Yes, decluttering can be viewed as delaying doing work, however I find I can create space mentally when I physically create space. I think it’s important to realise that procrastination is fairly inevitable, but doing it to the point it is essentially self-sabotage definitely isn’t.

There are lots of reasons for procrastination and I’ve found identifying (and admitting honestly) why you’re doing it is helpful in identifying strategies to reduce it; the above things work for me, but I’d be interested to know what works for other people!

Kathryn is in her second year of a PhD at the MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit. Her research is exploring men’s experiences of food insecurity in Scotland. You can find her on twitter.

Images: Pixabay & Flickr.