Probably the biggest question to start with is why do we procrastinate? For me, I procrastinate when I have to write. The barrier of the empty white page is not for the faint of heart. I’m not sure exactly how to introduce my topic of choice, so rather than just “start”, I think of something else to do. I know I’m not alone – Spongebob had the same problem. He sharpened his pencil, talked to Patrick, got something to eat, cleaned his kitchen, etc before eventually leaving himself 5 minutes to write an 800-word essay. My “something else” is more research. This is ideal because I can justify my procrastinating by the feeling that I am doing something worthwhile. I did say I was an expert, right? Of course, particularly now in the age of the internet, one can always find more material and research indefinitely. Besides promoting putting off the need to actually write your paper, thesis, or grant, the other downside of perpetual research is that sometimes too much knowledge is overwhelming and can cause “analysis paralysis” (another area where I excel, but I’ll save this topic for another day).
Another reason I procrastinate is size of the task. Writing a grant, including the research, plus all the associated paperwork, is a big task – especially to the DOD (those guys love paperwork). The size of the task induces fear at some level, and then we procrastinate. One way to reduce that fear is to break the task into chunks, aptly called “chunking”. You might feel paralyzed about writing your thesis, but you can write an introduction, or get your figures together and write up figure legends. Breaking a bit task into smaller chunks decreases the fear and makes things much more manageable. While this sounds obvious, many people don’t implement this idea. The other benefits of chunking are: (1) you feel better because you’re making progress even if only a little every day, and (2) you keep your head in the game by working more consistently. Of course, if you are one of those folks that likes being anxious, then procrastinate away! According to psychologist Kelly McGonigal, a little stress can be helpful, but this is highly dependent on your mindset, so be careful.
A final reason I procrastinate is concern about the outcome. Given the challenges of maintaining grant funding, the pressure to write the best grant possible is high. However, if you focus on the difficulties of funding and worry about writing the “best grant ever”, not surprisingly this creates fear rather than confidence, leading to block and more procrastination. The same concept applies to getting an A on a paper or passing your thesis. Focusing on getting the intro done, explaining a method, making a figure, etc rather than on what you hope to achieve with your project will decrease the fear and help you move forward. For more on this topic, I highly recommend a book called “The Practicing Mind”, by Thomas Sterner.
In summary, (1) write something, anything - first drafts are always crap anyway, (2) break your task into smaller parts, and (3) focus more on the process and less on the outcome.
Hey, aren’t you supposed to be writing? Short breaks are good for you, but now it’s back to work!
For more info see:
The Practicing Mind, by Thomas Sterner
"Procrastination" - Spongebob Squarepants, Season 2, Episode 35
Kelly McGonigal: How to Make Stress your Friend (Ted Talk)