An academic environment can be unforgiving for the casual procrastinator. On the one hand, work to be done abounds while on the other hand, the lack of direct oversight and clear deadlines may lead even the more diligent of us down the wormhole of procrastination.
It can be difficult to admit to yourself, not to mention to others, how much you procrastinate and this dynamic can easily lead to a familiar but false (!) perception that everyone but you is on top of their work. I’ve found that opening up about my own bad habits often elicits a relieved sigh from my conversation partner, followed by an eager enumeration of all the bad habits they wish that they could change. The apparent high prevalence of procrastination does not, of course, validate it as acceptable. However, this initial confession of sins can be cathartic. It can relieve one of feeling like an unusually weak-willed, lazy or unmotivated individual – a damning mindset which, like a self-fulfilling prophecy, can transform anyone into exactly that.
In addition to making one feel alone in their problems, concealing bad habits engenders reluctance and embarrassment towards implementing anti-procrastination tools and techniques. If willpower is enough to keep everyone else on the right track, why can’t I pull myself together and do the same? Admitting that you need certain rules and limitations can feel like admitting defeat.
There is no use in entertaining the illusion that one would (and should) be able to overcome bad habits with determination alone. While it may seem infantilizing at first, employing a few simple rules and techniques to keep your irrational compulsions in check is a much more mature approach than ignoring the problem altogether. Here are a few techniques that I have employed at various times, as well as others that have been recommended to me by friends and colleagues.
1. Block your guilty-pleasure websites at work
There are numerous browser extensions and applications designed to combat the temptation of distraction by the plethora of clickable delights on the web. The basic principle of these tools is to block your access to certain pre-specified websites or subdomains, with many of them offering more personalized configuration options. Check out any of these free tools – StayFocusd, LeechBlock, Self-Control, Strict Workflow – to find the right one for your operating system or browser.
In addition to blocking select websites for a specified time (say, your working hours), you can set a daily allowance for a website, for example allowing yourself to spend 30 minutes on your social media platform of choice, after which the website will be blocked for the rest of the day. This option is useful for websites that you use for work but have a tendency to get distracted on – for example, to avoid those Wikipedia ‘research’ binges.
Some tools allow you to set up different groups of websites to be blocked at different times of the day and for different durations, so that you can curate your web access for different needs across the day.
The tools also vary in the degree of autonomy that they allow the user. If you present with a serious case of procrastination, you might choose to lock yourself out of the app or extension for the duration of your working hours to prevent yourself from disabling it. Some of them are even resistant to deleting the app!
Alternatively, if you would prefer a less lock-them-up-and-throw-away-the-key-type of solution, you might consider a browser extension like Delayed Gratification which simply adds a 15-second loading screen to time-consuming webpages. This is usually enough to catch the involuntary out-of-habit visits and give you plenty of time to reconsider.
2. Log your work
Time-tracking applications are great for identifying problems in your work habits and measuring whether certain productivity techniques are actually delivering on their promise. If your work is primarily computer-based, an app that automatically monitors your browsing behaviour and time spent on different applications should suffice. If a significant amount of your work is off the computer, you might prefer a mobile app that allows you to log what you are doing manually. Check out Toggl and RescueTime for some popular and free options (with paid upgrades).
3. Getting started
Even with distractions kept to a minimum (not the least with the above-mentioned tools), it is hard to overcome the inertia of inactivity. This is especially true if the tasks at hand have no clear short-term deadlines, yet high long-term impact, as tends to be the case in science. Two main techniques that have helped me deal with the challenge of getting started are planning out my day and the Pomodoro technique.
Breaking a larger project into bite-sized pieces in the form of to-do lists is not novel advice. However, the key is finding a format that works for you. Some people organize their lists based on importance or urgency, others chronologically (e.g. dividing the tasks between ‘morning’, ‘afternoon’ and ‘evening’). Some people prefer manual lists over digital ones. If making it look nice helps you stick with it, go ahead! The internet is filled with beautiful planner templates. And if you get bored with your existing system, switch!
In addition to explicitly breaking your work into manageable tasks, a useful approach to getting started with work is to shift your focus from the goal of the task to the process of working on the task. The enormity of a task and the potential challenges to completing it can have a paralyzing effect, in particular when combined with perfectionist tendencies.
The oddly-named Pomodoro Technique (which derives its name from the tomato-shaped kitchen timer used by its inventor Francesco Cirillo) helps one focus on the process of working in the here and now, rather than worry about the distant goal. It is the slow chipping away at work that will eventually lead to achieving the goal. Work is broken down into 25-minute intervals, interspersed with 5-minute breaks. During those 25 minutes, one should work on a task without any distraction, nor any concern for what is getting ‘done’. Even for someone struggling with poor work habits, deciding to simply work on an analysis for 25 minutes is mentally manageable and will eventually bring that analysis to completion.
Just as technology provides us with an endless supply of food for procrastination, it is also a wonderful source of tools and resources for combating our bad work habits. There is no shame in admitting that you need certain tricks to keep yourself on your chosen path – it is the latter that you should judge yourself on. So do your research and find the apps and methods that work for you. And try to avoid the all-too-common trap of procrastinating by reading about procrastination!
Johanna Salu graduated from the Neural and Behavioural Sciences master’s program at the Graduate Training Centre of Neuroscience in 2016.