Work Skills Talk: Overcoming Procrastination

My post last week about impostor syndrome got me thinking. It’s not just impostor syndrome academics who tend to struggle with putting limits around info gathering. It’s common among all academics. And so that made me think about other work skills that us academics all need to work on a bit. These are some habits that we academics – yes, even me! – pick up through grad school and beyond. Note that I’m not labeling these habits as good or bad – they can serve us well, but they can also be our worst enemies at times. But let’s be real: there are some academic habits that I have needed to adjust, work around, or just plain kick to the curb over the years. These rear their heads most prominently when you first start working or when you transition into a whole new career, so if you’re new to your job, listen up. (But that doesn’t mean we can’t all use a refresher.) Let’s start with a REALLY common one: procrastination.

We all know we need to stop procrastinating. WAY easier said than done, though, so we all need to continuously work on this one, unfortunately. I truly think this can be a lifelong struggle. (Sorry, don’t mean to be a downer!). Procrastination can take many forms.

Like stalling, telling yourself that you can’t focus when you’re at your desk and since XYZ task requires deep thinking, you’ll just do it after hours or at home. Or convincing yourself that you need to be in a certain mindset, time of day, or location for certain types of work (writing, revising, email, etc.). Common forms include: “But I can’t even hear myself think because there’s all this dust here! I better go dust MY ENTIRE HOUSE.” Or “I need 2 hours to prepare for that presentation, and I only have 90 minutes before my next meeting, so I’d better find something else to do. Oh, look! A LinkedIn invitation!” Or even paralysis: I have so much to do I don’t even know where or how to begin. (So I won’t.)

In fact, take it from a master:

Why is procrastination so common?

When you’re in grad school or working as a postdoc, practitioner in your field, or faculty, you often have the freedom and autonomy to structure your work time as you wish. Since your only “real” deadlines are to produce a singular end-of-semester paper for a course or meet an abstract submission deadline for a conference or journal, you tend to kick down the road the actual writing of the *article* or the next semester’s lectures you need to revise.

Well, in work, I hate to tell you this, but as soon as you finish a project, there’s another right behind it, so all you’re doing is jeopardizing whether your future self will have enough time for the next thing that comes across your desk. I see you, academic: you want your work products to be of high quality, accurate, and polished. So reducing procrastination is important. You don’t want the time allotted to your current task to eat up the time you will need for your next project to become something you can be proud of.

This requires some challenging re-thinking. What has worked for me? Not habit breaking per se, but instead building associations and different habits that replace the master procrastinator’s habits. (After all, tiny habits add up to big changes). Here are some of my examples.

  • Try doing something you associate with [the coffee shop, your couch, your home office, the library], but do it at your office, at your desk. Sounds silly, but seriously, those associations can be real and real deep. Yes, maybe you write better when you’re on your couch, but you need to start being able to write *at work*. And even if what you crank out at your desk isn’t the finest, KEEP AT THIS. Keep trying to make headway on that thing that you usually do elsewhere by working on it at your desk. Your brain and body will start to make more positive associations with your increasing productivity at your desk and making way for you to dedicate your couch time to what matters: Netflix.
  • Set time limits. Since you’ve tried sitting at your desk and getting a dreaded task started, let’s add on. I wish I could remember the author who I heard on a podcast one time, but I can’t. Regardless, she said something along the lines of “My editor says that I need to sit at my desk for 2 hours. It doesn’t matter WHAT I do, but I CANNOT get up during those 2 hours. So I might as well write. And so most days, I do.” Now obviously, it kinda does matter what you do, because you can’t just sit there googling the likelihood of whether Gawker is every going to be revived for 2 hours. And if 2 hours seems like an. eternity? Then start smaller. 15 minutes, even. You’d be surprised what awful things you can cross off your nagging to-do list in just 15 minutes. Work your way up in time increments, just like adding a few minutes to your treadmill workout every week.
  • Keep the end goal in mind. It is important to me that my end product accurately reflects my abilities and effort, that it is of sufficient quality for me to be proud of it. Knowing that each project will encounter unexpected hiccups and unforseen challenges that will inevitably delay or hinder my work means that I know I need not delay its start. It’ll run into its own delays, so there’s no need for me to pile on. I want to start it as soon as possible so that I can still meet my own deadline, at least a few days before the actual deadline for my boss or stakeholders. When they see the final product, I want it to be good. And while I still have to battle myself that it need not be perfect, starting on time means that I stand a fighting chance of it being at least good enough for me.
  • Try methods like planning your day backwards. Barking Up the Wrong Tree had a great post that included this a few years ago and it is oh so true. Set your daily deadline. This is 4:00 for me, when my thinky brain folds in on itself so I can preserve my physical vessel to get my kids fed, bathed, and in bed. I have a running to-do list in OneNote. And I look it over first thing every morning to categorize items as those that MUST be done  today. And I focus only on what must be done today. Should those not take until 4:00, I look back at my list. (Other things on my list get categorized as: by Friday, by the end of the month, by the end of the fiscal year, or “someday.”)
  • That list I just mentioned? Try keeping a list.  I don’t mean a mental checklist, I mean an actual physical (or digital) list. OneNote, Evernote, Word, a notebook and pen, the tool doesn’t matter at all (as long as it’s a tool that you’ll use). It’s so easy to get off track on your MUST do today list when something else flies into your field of view – an email, an instant message, a nagging feeling that you need to remember to do XYZ. Whenever that happens, add it to that list and move back to what you were doing. Writing it down somewhere means youv’e captured it and don’t have to expend mental energy remembering what or where it was. But it doesn’t mean you need to immediately switch gears and do that thing (necessarily). Getting into the habit of using your to-do list means you know where to look for it when you can turn your attention to it. In other words, using a list helps you build your attention span and focus.

Got other tips? I’d love to hear them.

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