Tomorrow is NOT another day: Tips to overcome procrastination
After the holidays – those crazy, lazy, sugar-hazy vacation days that we will all miss terribly – it could be hard to get back into the swing of things. Getting up with an alarm, for one, could be the day’s first and greatest challenge. It might be tempting, now more than ever, to hit snooze, to be slow and sluggish, to want to eat and nap at random points during the day, and to procrastinate.
Procrastination is a word I actually became familiar with during my grad studies. It seemed to be a common problem for many, and that is why the term made it to my ears so frequently. But it’s not only an issue that a certain unlucky few are faced with, nor is it just a problem reserved just for grad students; we all do it, at least to some extent, even if we don’t all admit to it!
When you think about it, it’s completely natural for us clever human beings to try to avoid what causes us stress, what puts us in a state of disequilibrium or anxiety, or what feels mentally difficult for us.
Putting things off to another day is not always a bad thing, if you think about it in terms of prioritizing or being realistic about what you can accomplish in one day, or even in terms of needing to call it a day and just relax. But it is when we start putting off things which are in fact a priority and when we start wasting time with things that are absolutely not urgent that procrastination officially becomes a nasty habit that we must try to chase away. ASAP.
After reading fellow blogger Valerie’s recent post about procrastination (or much needed relaxation?!) during the holiday season, I tried to think of some personal tips that have worked for me or for colleagues and friends to help overcome those strong urges of putting things off. Please feel free to share your own advice and strategies, as sharing this kind of information always helps others more than you might think!
- Break the tasks up into manageable bits.
Ever notice that it’s the longest or hardest tasks that get put off from one week’s to-do list to another? Think of the task in terms of several concrete steps and it will be easier to tackle. If the task doesn’t seem so daunting or time-consuming, chances are you won’t keep putting it off.
- Rationalize away the dread or fear.
There is usually a reason why we are procrastinating — figure it out and work on it. Is it something about the task at hand? Is it something about you or your environment? How could you limit these feelings, so that they don’t hinder your work?
- Make sure you are feeling good.
Breathe deeply, be conscious of your posture, sleep enough, eat a balanced diet, relax your body and mind frequently. In short, keep your stress and anxiety in check. If you feel good about your life and yourself, you’ll feel good about your work and you won’t feel the need to procrastinate. If you are feeling burnt out, procrastination is likely a sign of being saturated and needing a break!
- Find an environment where you feel motivated and energized.
Determine the space where you work best and just stay there until you’re satisfied with your progress. You might also find a person who keeps you working hard when he/she is working next to you. This could be someone as close to your work as a lab-mate/officemate, or as far from your field as a friend or your partner. Some people procrastinate far less and feel more motivated when they are not working alone.
- Schedule your time.
This seems really rigid, but it’s a tip that honestly works for many. Work in scheduled chunks of time where your mind is likely to keep focused to get a substantial amount of work done (e.g. 50 minutes) and schedule in breaks where you could waste time to your heart’s content.
- Eliminate distracters.
Do everything you can to make ignoring useless distracters much easier. This does not apply for parents who have an infant or toddler at home, of course, but for other interruptions of your work! For example, block Facebook, have everything you need at your desk, including snacks, so you don’t make an excuse to get up to fetch them, etc.
- Keep at it!
Even with the hardest stuff. If you keep working on it, you’ll finally get it, and the worst will suddenly be behind you. But if you give up within 1.3 minutes of beginning to look into something, it will only seem even more daunting the next time you try and tackle it. Keep at it, a little bit everyday (especially in the case of writing – every little bit is crucial) and it will unlock – promised.
- Set yourself deadlines and hold yourself accountable.
Set realistic but firm deadlines, even for small tasks, and give yourself no choice but to meet them. If you don’t allow yourself to keep pushing the deadline back, then you will automatically train yourself to stop wasting time.
- Don’t think of the whole big overwhelming picture while you work.
When you sit down for your 50 minute chunk of work, train yourself not to think of anything else but the work in front of you. If your mind starts wandering and listing all the many things that are on your plate, or all the things about life that bother you, this will cause you to lose focus and might even make you feel anxious and restless. You might start surfing the net, or want to suddenly crash and take a nap to escape the stress. Stay focused on the task at hand, and limit how much wandering (and panicking) your mind is allowed to do.
- Train yourself to DO IT NOW.
This is a key frame of mind to get yourself into. Don’t put something off unless there’s a really good reason for putting it off (e.g. you need a library book, or you need feedback). And even then, chances are, most times you will be able to do at least a small part of it NOW, just to get into the flow of it, even if you’ll need to finish it at another point once you have what you need.
- Stay organized.
Do whatever you need to do to keep on top of your work, to avoid wasting time. Keep a to-do list or use an online calendar or organization tool like Nirvana. This could help reduce feelings of overwhelmedness and also makes your tasks clear and concrete for you to tackle them.
- Talk to others.
It’s a fact that many of your fellow grad students currently feel (or have felt, at some point) that their own procrastination is their worst enemy. Consult other resources like books, blogs, or other online sources to find a handful of tips that might work best FOR YOU. You might also find a workshop on procrastination helpful, like those frequently offered through Skillsets. In short, know that you are definitely not alone, and this will pass if you become aware of your reasons for doing it, and work on breaking this habit!
So, there you have it. Now get to work! The holidays are over!