If you’re writing a thesis right now, and struggling to find the focus to get it done, the ideal way forward is to change at a fundamental level how you think and feel about the whole thing. If you could wake up in the morning raring to go, and could set about work with passion and excitement, wouldn’t that be something?
“Hey, are you working on your thesis today?”
“Try to stop me!”
I talk a lot about procrastination and state of mind because it’s a stumbling block which costs huge numbers of people huge amounts of time. Worse; it can leave people demoralised and depressed, which in turn makes it harder to write. Believe me, I’ve been there!
Procrastination happens when there’s no immediate consequence, positive or negative, associated with a task. If it makes no difference whether you do it now or later, the brain actively looks for things that are more urgent and finds justification for all kinds of things you might never normally think of doing.
You can procrastinate by slouching in front of the TV, or by deciding it’s urgent to vacuum behind the sofa for the first time in 3 years- different outcomes, but the cause is the same.
Most of our behaviour has a good reason behind it. Procrastination is a modern manifestation of a survival instinct. When you have to hunt your own food, and it’s a case of get it done or die, you’ll be intensely focussed on finding your next meal. Once that need is met however, our our creative imagination kicks in; our ability to let our minds wander and seek out ways to fulfil other needs.
Procrastination isn’t a deeply rooted problem, but rather a consequence of misdirected ability. It’s the ability to seek out stimulation and meaning from new sources which is the seed of creativity and progress. It needs to be harnessed and directed towards a positive outcome.
If you suddenly “find yourself” doing something you didn’t plan to do, it’s because part of your brain was looking for it, and that’s why stupid, pointless things can feel compelling.
How to beat procrastination, and how not to!
In the film Fight Club (to my shame, I haven’t yet read the book), Tyler Durden takes a gun to the head of a clerk working the night shift in a store. Searching his wallet, he finds an expired college card…
“What did you want to be, Raymond K. Hessel? (no answer) The question, Raymond, is what did you want to be?”
“Animals! That means you’ve got to get more schooling.”
“Too much school.”
“Would you rather be dead?”
“I’m keeping your license. I’m gonna check in on you. I know where you live. If you’re not on your way to becoming a veterinarian in six weeks, you’re going to be dead.”
Tyler Durden is tapping into the survival instinct and providing an immediate negative consequence to motivate Raymond into achieving his dream. Arming all PhD supervisors though is probably a bit extreme for most people.
So how can we encourage our brains to naturally latch onto the work we need to do without that kind of threat?
I’ve heard some people advise working in short bursts and then using the internet as a reward, but seeing the internet as a reward just reinforces the idea that work is something you don’t want to do. It’s the equivalent of giving cigarettes as a reward to someone trying to quit smoking. Instead, we want to make work rewarding in itself.
Take a piece of paper and a pen, but don’t write anything yet. Switch off everything. Turn off the computer monitor. Turn off the light, close the curtains and shut the door. Set a timer on your phone to go off in 5 minutes (make sure it’s running), stand in the middle of the room, close your eyes and do absolutely nothing. Don’t move a muscle. You will be irresistibly tempted to open your eyes and to do anything apart from just standing there, but persevere.
As soon as the timer goes off, write down something you need to work on. Make it a simple, well defined task, like “highlight 5 key points in review article X”. Do it immediately, and see it through to completion. The brain craves stimulation, so by denying it access to any external stimulus whatsoever, you can use thesis writing as a positive reward when you give it that one focussed thing to work on. Seriously!
It’s also a form of training to cope with internal distractions. They are inevitable, so you need to train yourself to deal with them effectively and cultivate a sense of control. While you’re standing there in the dark, thinking about what to write on that piece of paper, you’ll reject a huge number of options you’d prefer not to do right now, effectively using a form of positive procrastination by delaying them for later, but also making a conscious decision about what it is you’re going to focus your energy on.
Break the pattern
It sounds ridiculous, and it’s supposed to be. In part it’s all about breaking your normal patterns, but trying something which sounds ridiculous also a way to prove to yourself your commitment to being your most effective self. Sitting there feeling bad about not getting work done while checking your friends’ facebook status is a route to misery. The only way to beat procrastination is to take action and fight back.
Ultimately, if you’re a serial procrastinator, lasting change depends upon rewiring the way you view the whole task, but understanding the cause and knowing when and how you can break the pattern can get you back on track when you need to. Whenever you find yourself stuck in a procrastination loop, you need to disrupt the pattern. Switch off, do nothing, and reset.