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

PhD guilt and shame

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about making time to write. This week I had a conversation with a friend and fellow PhD traveler that inspired me to write a follow-on post about what to do when you feel you can’t make time to write. What do you do when you have neither physical hours or headspace enough to read, think and write? How do you deal with the almost inevitable feelings of shame, guilt and panic that threaten to derail you?

My fellow PhD travelers are part-time students with full-time lives. Many have children and partners, all have jobs that demand a lot of their headspace and time. The field I am in, higher education studies, sees many PhD students coming into their studies part-time while working full-time as lecturers or managers. If you are lecturing, you are teaching, marking scripts, attending meetings, supervising students, planning curricula, evaluating your courses, plodding away at endless admin related to all of this, and you’re probably doing other bits and pieces that are part and parcel of university life. If you’re in management I would imagine that there are many meetings, many policies and documents to engage with and read and discuss, and probably also people to manage and more endless, plodding admin work. So, chances are, if you are this kind of PhD student – the kind with a pretty busy job and life outside of work, that PhD time is already limited, and feelings of panic, despair, guilt and shame are probably just below the surface most of the time. This was certainly true for me.

These feelings, while they may well be a very real part of many PhD students’ journey, are dangerous though, because getting swallowed by them can really paralyse you and your progress towards your completed thesis. But how to avoid these feelings? I’m not sure you can. If your PhD is not the only thing you have on your plate (and whose reality is this, really?), chances you you will feel one or more of these feelings at one or more points during your PhD. So, perhaps the question is how to manage these feelings so that you don’t become paralysed and derailed.

Putting in place and drawing on your support systems is an obvious answer, I think. For some this may be a doctoral writing group with people in your university, or in your department. These kinds of groups can offer a space for support, and also for feelings of struggle, shame and paralysis to be shared and not swept under the proverbial rug. Sharing these feelings with colleagues who may be going through something similar often helps. At the very least, you are assured that it is not just you; at the most they may have helpful advice for you. If you have a supportive supervisor, as I was fortunate enough to have, sharing some of your present struggle with them may help too. Even if your supervisor is not as supportive as your peers and colleagues are, letting them know what’s going on with you in a way that makes you feel less exposed and more likely to get support (and you will have to work this way out for yourself) is a good idea. Keeping the person (or people) tasked with guiding you through your PhD in the dark is probably not a great strategy, and their requests for progress reports and writing in the absence of understanding that you’re in a difficult place can make you feel more guilty and desperate.

Another strategy I tried when I just could not make or find time for my PhD, which was sometimes for a few weeks at a time, was to keep scribbling in my personal research journal, even if it was just to take 5 minutes to write ‘awful week – hectic at work, so many deadlines. Just not getting anything done. Feel desperate’. Acknowledging my feelings and struggles, even to myself, made them less overwhelming somehow. It wasn’t all just in my head – by writing it down I could just accept that this was my reality at that time, and put my head down and try to get the other hectic things done so I could try and make time to work on my PhD. I think there is a lot to be said for verbalising (even in writing) a feeling or issue, and getting it out of your head, even to yourself. Journalling can be a very helpful tool during your PhD.

I think my last piece of advice to my struggling friend and to all PhD students in this place right now is to stop saying mean things to yourself about how little progress you are making and how unlikely it is that you will finish on time and how terrible a PhD student you are being right now. This will only feed those negative emotions and will probably also make you feel resentful of your PhD and the demands it will make on your time until it is finished. If you resent it, you are then less likely to want to go back and immerse yourself in it. So, STOP. Get a piece of paper or your own research journal and a pen out. Write: ‘Dear (your name), I know you are having a rough time right now, and time for writing is scarce. I know your head is full of other things. BUT, you can do this. You are a productive person. You work hard. You will finish me. Just take a deep breath, put your head down and get these other things done, and then make that time to get back to me again. All will be well. Love, your PhD’. Write something kind and encouraging. Then make a realistic list of the other things you have to do. With a red pen, list the things that are urgent, like exams that have to be marked or a report that must be in on a certain date. With a green pen, list the things that could be delegated (yes, delegated) or could wait until later on. Then, make that time for your PhD. It is there, although it seems buried deep beneath these other demands. Perhaps part of letting go of guilt and shame is also just letting go of having to be the one who does it all, and embracing being the one who can and does say no to things that can be done later or by someone else.

Work plans: making them work for you

In my final year of my PhD, 2013, I had  a LOT to do, and not a lot of time, so I made a work plan. I’m not very good at these – I always think I am way more capable than I am and I seem to also think there are about 35 hours in every day and that I can go without 8 hours of sleep every night. It was a very detailed thing, with 4 columns, broken down by month and by task. I even had a column for possible stumbling blocks and things that would hold me up or prevent me from reaching my deadlines. It is actually still stuck up on the back of my office door. I had one at home too – and I highlighted things in different colours as I went – green for something I did, and blue for something that was postponed because of unexpected changes to my timeline. To be honest, the highlighting didn’t really help at all, but it made the work plan look like it was happening which was a good psychological trick :).

It did all happen in the end, because I did finish, but I learned a few things about making workable work plans that may be helpful to those of you who are at the beginning trying to get started, or in the middle or near the end trying to get it finished and submitted.

1. Work out deadlines and move backwards to now. When do you have to hand in your thesis? (Perhaps also make sure your supervisor is on board with your proposed submission date before you start bullying yourself into sticking to it). That’s the big deadline. It’s a good starting place. Then work out how much time you have between now and then in terms of months (weeks can be a bit too narrow, I found – they go by so fast and a month at a time feels like a less alarming way of working). I worked mine out from January to December, so 12 months in 12 blocks on the spreadsheet. 

2. Start with non-PhD commitments (especially for students who work full-time and are parents/carers of others). Work out your other deadlines and commitments that you can’t ignore – what is happening with your family? If you have kids, what are the big things going on in their lives that you need to be part of, like camps or sports tours or concerts etc? This is especially important if you have to help them prepare or be involved in an integral way as opposed to just being there in the audience or on the sidelines. What’s happening at work? What are the big things you have to get done in the time frames you are looking at? Do you have to travel? Does your partner have to travel? Put in all those things and dates. These can go in column 4, if you like, under ‘things that could slow me down this month’.

3. The next thing would be to work out exactly where you are right now. How much have you already written or done in terms of chapter writing/reading/data gathering/analysis etc? Make a note of all of this. Your work plan needs to be realistic, and starting with what you have already done is also a good way of motivating yourself and feeling good about what you have accomplished so far.

4. Then start working out what needs to be done. For example, I had already completed chapter 2’s draft and had as complete a version as I could have. I had set up my case study sites, and I had a bit of the methods chapter. I needed to gather, transcribe and organise all my data in the first semester. Then I needed to reorganise and analyse it, and write the two analysis chapters, revise the theory chapter, finish the methods chapter and write the introduction and conclusion. (I know – I should have had a workplan in 2012!). It was a lot and I felt totally overwhelmed by the sheer breadth and depth and height of it all. But working it all out and breaking it down into smaller bits and into months did help to make it seem more manageable.

5. Finally, put it all into a neat table. I had, for example, column one for the month in which I was working, column two for the objectives I needed to achieve (eg., gather data in two case study sites), column three for the activities I was going to need to do to achieve the objectives (e.g., set up interview dates; write fieldnotes in all lectures etc), and column for for ‘things that might slow me down or get in my way’ so that I could go a bit easier on myself if things fell a part a bit. Here’s mine:


6. Stick it up or keep it in a place where you can refer to it weekly and keep track. Revise as you need to. If you can’t get the interview dates you planned for, you will need to rejig things – flexibility is key, I have found, to workable work plans and to feeling like you are moving forward without having to bully yourself, ask others to bully you or be mean to yourself when things don’t go according to plan. But you also need to be strict if you are going to get to the deadlines in one piece. I procrastinated way too much about the transcription of my video and interview and fieldnote data and I ended up spending some of my study leave doing this, when I should have been doing hard analysis and writing from the get go. This lack of strictness in sticking to my own pretty reasonable workplan meant I had to keep writing the draft when I went back to work and this was very stressful and difficult and I still worry even though I am finished that I rushed my analysis in the end because I cut into that time with tedious things like transcription which should have been finished much earlier in the year.

Plan time off too – work breaks into your workplan where you take a weekend or week off and focus on other parts of your life. You need time every now and then to recharge and rest. As my husband kept saying to me throughout my final year: ‘It’s a marathon, not a sprint!’