Turning procrastination into productivity

I am procrastinating. About writing. Again. I do this a lot, and I don’t really know why. I actually like writing. I like feeling the stretching in my brain as I make connections and think through my ideas and revise and rewrite and fiddle. This, for me, is mostly something I really enjoy doing. But, right now, I just can’t seem to make myself do it. So, I procrastinate and I muck about with other, related, things like finding new papers to download that I may or may not make time to read, or writing lists of ideas I have for papers I want to write (but am plainly not writing). This makes me feel productive, but only to a point and then I start to feel stuck, impotent and un-able. This was a frequent feature of my life during the PhD too. So, I am currently wondering how to jump-start my writing engine, and turn all this (very vaguely) productive procrastination into proper productive writing and thinking. How, indeed?

One of the things I am battling with is time. I know, right? Time. There is never enough of it, and yet there is actually always some time if you make it. I got so mad during my PhD with someone who said ‘If you really wanted to do it, you would make time for it’. How smug and annoying I thought they were. ‘I am doing it, I do really want to do it, but I have a full-time job and kids and a husband and LIFE – I just don’t have time to make!’ (This was my furiously uttered retort, in my head). However, on reflection, I think there was a tough kernel of truth in what that person was saying. We all, everyday, make choices about what we do with our time. We sometimes make these choices rather unconsciously, going along with the tide of the day and following the ‘to dos’ on our lists; sometimes we are a lot more conscious about what we choose to do, when and why. However, either way, choices are made. Right now I am writing this blog, when I should be writing a comprehensive report that was due last week. I could write this post tonight, but I am doing it now. This is a conscious, productive procrastination move for me. I am not on Facebook tracking down a random ex-friend from high school, so I’m not procrastinating on nonsense (so I do feel a bit virtuous). But I am putting off the writing which I really ought to and need to be doing. Why?

This is the big question, isn’t it? Why do we do this? Why am I not writing this paper, when I have plotted it out, I have the data, the literature, the conclusions – all the pieces I need? Why did I take so long to write my chapters, especially the earlier ones, when I had most of what I needed to get started? Why is it so much easier to be writing this post than writing that report or the paper(s)? For me, it’s two things. The first is the level of cognitive demand. Writing this post is way easier than writing that report, because in order to write the blogpost I just need to be a little bit inspired with an idea and then have fun with it. I can’t (and hopefully won’t) write complete nonsense, but I don’t have to be so rigorous and cautious in my writing. The report is a different kettle of fish. Several thousand words longer and far more detailed and demanding, as I have to do some reading and will probably have to write a few drafts. [By the end of the day ideally (it’s 11.09am now).] I think the same was true when I was writing the PhD chapters. The cognitive demand was so much greater for those chapters than for the many other smaller tasks and pieces of writing I had to do in my job that I almost always chose to procrastinate, albeit quite productively, by doing everything other than getting to my thesis writing.

The other thing is something I have written about before: headspace. I find that I actually can make the physical time to read and write – and I’m doing okay with the reading this week so far – but I am struggling to clear space in my head to do the reading and thinking proper justice, so that I can turn this into writing in the form of these papers that are percolating away inside my head. By doing other useful things, though, I find that I am really limiting my potential productive writing time because I am filling up that headspace. So here, procrastination really stops being so productive and becomes a stumbling block for me instead. I think this is where that tough kernel of truth comes back to haunt me. I can make lots of excuses, especially when there is a job and a family and LIFE to account for, about why I  cannot be as productive as I know I need to be to make progress with my writing. We can all do this. But, the hard truth is that until I can be tough with myself, say no to these other things that may need to be done but may well be able to wait (like this post which I could have written tonight), I am not going to turn all of this procrastination into something more productive in terms of my writing. For me, it comes down to reorganising the ‘to do’ list with those red and green pens, saying something firm yet encouraging to my tired brain, and facing up to the challenge of the cognitive and headspace demands by just getting stuck in. I’m going to use these words to spur me on:

Image from mkalty.org
Image from mkalty.org


  1. Search for Neal Barratt’s PhD on Procrastinating Behaviour.. From Rhodes. 2010. Downloadable. And an interesting read. Plus it’s so long it will help you put things off your to-to list very efficiently!

  2. “Participants’ accounts
    suggest they are concerned the results of intellectual tasks they undertake
    will be seen as equivalent to their quality of being-as-an-individual: poor work
    results will be interpreted by important-others as evidence of participants’
    poor quality of self – which is to be avoided. This study suggests that
    procrastination is a ploy used by individuals to avoid criticism, by deflecting
    assessment of their capacity to complete a task well, to instead, what they are
    capable of when only a limited time is available. Conclusions drawn by the
    important-others of participants’ true ability are thereby confounded”

    Another perhaps hard kernel to chew on☺

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