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5 tips to fight procrastination in grad school

“You and I only have one non-renewable resource in life – and that is time,” says Carleton University professor Tim Pychyl.

By TARA SIEBARTH | SEP 25 2018

You sit down to start the next chapter in your thesis. You don’t want to do this. Maybe you feel tired. Maybe the last round of feedback from your supervisor makes the prospect of even typing a single word seem like an insurmountable task. “I’ll just check my phone real quick to make sure I haven’t missed an important email,” you say to yourself. “It will only take a minute.” The next thing you know, two hours have gone by and you’re watching the new Captain Marvel movie trailer for the fourth time in a row.

How do you get out of this situation? You know you have a task to do – you just don’t want to do it. Tim Pychyl, associate professor of psychology at Carleton University, has five tips to help get you started.

1. Focus on the next action

Dr. Pychyl, who has studied procrastination for over 20 years, explains that procrastination is frequently misunderstood as a time-management problem, when in fact it is an emotion-focused coping strategy. We avoid the task in front of us because we think we will feel better. But we don’t, he says. He likens it to a misregulation of emotion. We need to develop more awareness of our emotions and recognize that feeling uncertain is part of learning – you don’t need to run away from it. However, we can’t pretend our feelings aren’t real, he says. So, instead, he suggests putting the attention on action.

“Ask yourself the question: What’s the next action I could take on this if I was going to do it.” He says this action could be as small as opening your laptop and pulling up the relevant document.

“When you keep the threshold low – and now your focus is on action – you’re more likely to take that action. And that really primes the pump. Of course, you have to do that a few times. In fact, you might have to do that throughout the whole day. But, the fact is, you are moving your attention off of how you are feeling and onto the next action.”

2. Bring your future self into the picture

Another technique to deal with procrastination is to think about how your present actions will affect your future self. Dr. Pychyl describes research done by Hal Hershfield, a psychology professor at UCLA, who has studied the concept of future self extensively.

In one study, Dr. Hershfield did fMRI scans on people’s brains. He looked at what part of the brain is active when you think about your present self. Then he looked at what part of the brain is active when you think about a stranger, followed by when you think about yourself in the future. The results were that the same part of the brain was active when we thought about strangers, as well as ourselves in the future. We are disconnected to our future self – it doesn’t seem real – therefore we don’t think about the consequences our current actions have on our future self. This was further proven by research done in 2017 by one of Dr. Pychyl’s graduate students, Eve-Marie Blouin-Hudon, who asked students to do meditation on either their present self or future self. “She found that people who did the guided meditation for future self, develop more empathy for future self. And that empathy was related to greater changes in procrastination.”

Dr. Pychyl says that when it comes to procrastination, present self always wins. “Present self says ‘Oh great, I don’t have to do that!’ But future self hates present self. So the more we can bring future self to the forefront, the less likely we are to make these [procrastination] choices.”

What about undergrads?

While most of the advice in this article can be also be applied to undergrads, Dr. Pychyl does point out that they are in a unique position. “Their biggest problem is that they don’t really realize that they have work in September. But graduate students, by now, should know that. But, by October, undergrads are behind the 8-ball, because they have left so much late that their stress is real. I would argue that a lot of the mental health problems on campus have to do with procrastination. Because when you have left stuff, it really is true that you are in a bad place.”

3. Think about things concretely

Dr. Pychyl cites other research that shows when we think about things concretely, they seem to belong to the present and have a sense of urgency to them. But when we think about things abstractly, they belong to the future. The more concrete you can get, the more likely you are going to do something.

“If I run into one of my graduate students and say: ‘What are you working on,’ and they say: ‘my thesis.’ I say: ‘So you’re not doing anything at all.’ Because that answer is too abstract. But if they say: ‘you know that section that you gave me comments on, I’m struggling with a transition sentence to fit.’ Now I’m thinking: you’re actually doing something.”

4. Develop an implementation intention

Peter Gollwitzer, a psychology professor from New York University brings another element into the thinking around procrastination. He coined the term “implementation intention.” Dr. Pychyl explains that we can all have goal intentions, like “write my article,” but an implementation intention is: what behavior am I going to perform when? He gives an example from his own life: he wasn’t flossing his teeth. The implementation intention he came up with was: when he picks up his toothbrush and toothpaste, he’ll put the floss on the counter.

“That was it. When I put down my toothbrush, I’ll pick up the floss. So students need to say: ‘when I leave the lecture, then I will go out to the lab and review X.’ The power of this is that now we have the situation signaling a new behaviour. It is a powerful cognitive technique to help us get past old habits.”

5. Forgiveness

In 2010 Dr. Pychyl did a study with one of his colleagues, Michael Wohl, where they looked at students who procrastinated in their preparation for an exam and did poorly. One group was then asked to forgive themselves and the other wasn’t. Dr. Pychyl found that those who forgave themselves procrastinated less in the preparation for the second exam. “With procrastination, the transgression is against the self, so until you forgive yourself, the motivation is avoidance.”

Dr. Pychyl says the message for graduate students is: they are going to screw up. “They are going to have some days they blow off, or there’s going to be times where they don’t do what they said they were going to do. But if they don’t forgive themselves, now they are just creating one more emotionally laden thing. Now they’re freaking out. If they don’t forgive themselves, they are less likely to try again.”

At the end of the day, Dr. Pychyl says procrastination is a deeply existential issue.

“When I work with younger people, undergrads and graduate students, lots of times it comes down to a notion of agency. Do you understand that this is your life, this is your thesis? I remain interested in the topic because you and I only have one non-renewable resource in life – and that is time. And we don’t know how much time we have. So we don’t want to waste it.”

No such thing as active procrastination

To those that say there is such a thing as “active” procrastination (i.e. “I’m going to leave this to do until the last minute because I work better under pressure”), Dr. Pychyl cites the research of one of his former graduate students, Mohsen Haghbin, who developed a typology for delays and found there were six types:

 

  • Inevitable delays, which happen when you are interrupted by another obligation or need;
  • Arousal delays, which occur when a person decides they’d be more motivated to do something at the last minute;
  • Hedonistic delays, which happen when a person chooses to do something else because of the instant gratification factor;
  • Delays due to psychological problems, such as grief or a mental health condition;
  • Purposeful delays, commonly required when a person needs to, say, think about an issue or creative work before getting down to the act of writing or producing something; and
  • Irrational delays, which are inexplicable to the procrastinator and often fueled by fear of failure and anxiety.

 

“We use delay all of the time, and it is part of our lives. And there are all sorts of benefits to reasoned action, planfullness and delay. But there is no upside to procrastination, because by definition it’s a voluntary delay of an intended act, despite the awareness of ‘I am probably going to be worse off,’” says Dr. Pychyl.

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