Ten Steps to Conquer Procrastination

in Articles from our Newsletter

Procrastination:  The bane of graduate school existence. 

And it doesn’t end in graduate school.  I am frequently contacted by professors who have not written enough, and are worried about whether they will get tenure.

Here are three of the many reasons why academics procrastinate.  Each reason is followed by some action steps that you can take to avoid procrastinating yourself.

Over-preparing for teaching

It’s always easier to force yourself to write when there is someone demanding a “product.”  Not too many people show up in front of a lecture hall and tell their students that they have nothing to say.

Most new professors put way too much effort and energy into class preparation.  Robert Boice found that those professors who procrastinated the most in their writing were those who overprepared for their teaching.  They worked too long on each lecture and packed in too much information, making it harder for their students to participate and learn.  Ironically, those who didn’t try as hard were better teachers and also better writers.

Action Steps:

  1. Decide on a time limit for how long you will spend on class preparation, and stick to it. 
  2. Read Advice for New Faculty Members: Nihil Nimus by Robert Boice
  3. Read this article, and then this article for some quick tips on organizing your classes in a way that students learn more, with less prep for you.

Overwhelm from feeling too busy

You’re busy, and you start to feel overwhelmed.  Being overwhelmed makes you feel frazzled and confused.  It’s hard to think, it’s hard to concentrate, and it’s hard to decide on your true priorities and to stick to working consistently on high priority items.

The more overwhelmed you are, the more you get in the mode of putting out the little fires that spring up around you.  Your house might be on fire behind you, but you’re too busy stomping out little fires to notice.

The more you spend your time putting out little fires, the more you feel overwhelmed.  This leaves you feeling … how should I say it — yukky.

Indeed, Robert Boice* found from his studies following professors and questioning them about their work habits that:

“…the individual who constantly feels pressured about the noncompletion of an important task will describe himself or herself as busy. That is, he or she is indeed too busy (i.e. involved) getting ‘caught up’ on essential activities.”   The interesting fact was that these professors were not in fact any busier than the other professors.  They just felt they were.

In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey urges us to realize the difference between tasks that are urgent (usually those with deadline pressure) and those that are important (those that matter most to our lives in the long run).  He points out that most busy people attend mostly to urgent tasks.  However it is the truly important tasks, such as completing your dissertation or writing up an article, that are set aside in the service of doing the urgent tasks.

If you can convince yourself that the important but not urgent tasks are worth doing for a reasonably short period of time on a daily basis, and you set aside a small amount of time daily to work on them, you will find that you will somehow get the urgent tasks done.   And you will feel less overwhelmed and less busy as you do them!

Action Steps:

  1. Write the answer to this question:  At the end of this year, what writing goal do you hope to have accomplished? (e.g. “Finish 3 chapters of my dissertation,” or “Publish 2 articles.”
  2. Write down what you could do for 15 to 30 minutes every day to move you towards this goal.  (e.g. “Close my office door and write for 20 minutes.” or “Write when I first wake up.”
  3. Enter this daily time in your schedule and treat it as sacrosanct.  Decide that you and your future are important enough to merit giving this time to yourself
  4. Do the “urgent” tasks (the little fires) after you complete this “important” goal each day.

Lack of openness to change/ unwillingness to get help

Some people are amazingly resistant to change or to trying something new.  Despite the evidence from research studies, and despite advice from the experts, they insist that their way is the best way.  If only they could chastise themselves a little more, plan longer and more grueling writing sessions, and try a little harder, they would write effortlessly for many hours a day, for months and years on end.

For example, “Stuart,” a member of a dissertation group who had written nothing for months, insisted that 30 minutes a day was not a long enough writing time.  He would aim for 2 hours a day. As a result, for a month he wrote exactly nothing.  Finally, he admitted defeat.  Almost against his will, he aimed for 30 minutes a day of writing.  Of course, he ultimately wrote more on some days, but finally saw that he had to be satisfied with himself if he did 30 minutes.  Eight months later, he successfully defended his dissertation, an accomplishment that his advisor was not sure would ever happen.

Boice* found that professors who were open to allowing social support to motivate them and prod them into action (via the experimenters themselves), were the ones who successfully reduced the amount of time they spent procrastinating.  Those who insisted on continuing to do things their way, without help, showed no change in their procrastinatory habits.

Action Steps:

  1. Decide on one new writing or teaching tip that you will try.  It might be something you read in this newsletter or on my web site, or maybe an idea you’ve gotten from a friend.  (e.g. “Use a timer when I write.”)
  2. Put a reminder to try the new tip, in a place where you will see it (like a sticky note on your computer screen).
  3. Sign up for the Writing Club.  (I’ll bet you didn’t see that coming.) You will learn a whole bunch of new habits and get lots of help with your procrastinatory tendencies!


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