How to Conquer Academic Paralysis

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dissertation-writerMost academics have experienced the pain of academic paralysis. It might strike suddenly, or it might dawn on you slowly. Either way, you come to realize that you’re not able to do the work that you should be doing.

Usually the paralysis shows up in your writing, particularly the writing that does not have a deadline associated with it. It’s remarkable how a completely blocked writer is able to complete the meeting summary that the chair requested, or the assignment due for a class. It is the rare professor that shows up at the midterm exam and says, “No test today; I just couldn’t prepare it.”

That article you really should write, that book chapter, and especially that dissertation – all are so easy to postpone until tomorrow. Unfortunately, what starts out as a benign act of procrastination can become the much more painful paralysis.

What causes academic paralysis? Academic paralysis can strike at any point in your career. I have worked with tenured professors who are able to write their first book (usually in order to get tenure), but are unable to tackle the second. Much more common is the new dissertator who spends months or even years selecting the dissertation topic, reading all the literature, and not putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Similarly, the new professor, overwhelmed with the demands of teaching, committee meetings, presentations, and adjusting to a new life role can let his or her writing drop completely.

Am I the Only One?

Many who have become paralyzed writers are ashamed of their state. They believe that they are the only academics who have ever suffered this fate. Or they think that only very disturbed individuals could ever be unable to work on their most important writing projects. Nothing could be farther from the truth, however.

In fact, it’s incredibly common to be a stalled-out writer. There are countless websites dedicated to helping those with writer’s block. And you’re not weird if you’re suffering from it. There are paralyzed academics all around. You know that colleague or fellow student that seems constantly busy chairing meetings, teaching, or picking up the professor giving the next colloquium at the airport? Perhaps he or she has found numerous ways to keep “too busy” so as not to have to face that manuscript that is molding away in his Word files or filing cabinet.

How Do You Conquer Academic Paralysis?

Luckily, you can do something about this state. There are three areas that you should concentrate on:

  • Don’t expect too much of yourself at first.

  • Realize that you are probably very anxious.  Note the symptoms of anxiety, such as an unpleasant feeling in the body (your stomach turning upside down, for example) when you contemplate sitting down to write.

  • Prepare ahead of time for your writing sessions.

Here are some more specific action steps:

  • If you haven’t been writing for some time, you must start up slowly. Make a writing schedule, and write it into your calendar. Make sure it is realistic and doable. See the next two bullets.

  • Try to work first thing in the day if you can. That way your anxiety doesn’t build up, and you’ll be less likely to find things to do to avoid working.

  • Take 3 deep, very slow breaths before you start.  Make sure your exhales are as long as your inhales.

  • Post positive, encouraging statements where you can see them, such as “I can get something accomplished in 15 minutes,”  “I’ve written before, and I can do it again, ” or “It doesn’t have to be perfect this time.”  If you have signed up for the Academic Ladder newsletter (see upper left hand corner of this page), you’ve received 4 pages of positive statements that you can use for this purpose.  Make sure you’re a subscriber so you can get other goodies like this!

  • Start with very short work sessions. If you feel your anxiety is very high, try just 5 minutes.

  • The day before you start, make a small list of specific things to do to get started. This could include items like “reread the last two pages that I wrote and make notes on what I should do next.”  If, as you sit down to write, you feel you don’t know where to get started, then you have not been specific enough.

  • Continue to remind yourself of reassuring thoughts, such as “I can stand anything for 5 minutes” in order to allow yourself to continue and not get distracted.

  • Promise yourself a reward, like 30 minutes of email reading, if you achieve your minimum goal.  Some people are helped by rewarding themselves with starts in their own private chart.  Members of our Writing Clubs tell us that the checkmark they receive for posting their progress is very reinforcing, and helps them get started.

  • Watch out for negative thoughts as you begin writing. Note them down and take actions to counteract them.

What is the best way to conquer academic paralysis? Prevent it! And how do you prevent it, you might ask? Work on the two precursors to paralysis; namely perfectionism and procrastination. Keep your eye out for announcements of a teleworkshop on this subject in the future.


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