“The scholar’s greatest weakness: calling procrastination research.”
After about 9 months as a postgrad — well, technically 5, since I spent the first 4 months severely procrastinating — I finally finished writing the first three chapters of my thesis a few weeks ago, which roughly total up to 180 pages.
It does feel somewhat surreal to go through all those pages, especially when I think back on those moments when I didn’t feel like putting in the work, either because I was too exhausted, ridden with self-doubt, or just feeling plain lazy.
Nevertheless, I’ve gained a sense of appreciation for the slow and tedious process that thesis-writing inherently involves. It’s definitely a marathon, rather than a sprint — which the lot of us may be used to as undergrads when it comes to finishing assignments.
I especially commend the moms and dads who are doing the same thing, despite already having their hands full with other responsibilities.
So here are the lessons I learned in beating the urge to procrastinate, and sticking my ass to my seat in getting my thesis written.
1. Have Fun. We procrastinate on things that seem boring and difficult. We don’t normally put off things that we love doing. But it’s just part of life that we sometimes have to do things that we don’t like to do. So, it always comes down to how you can make the process enjoyable. It could mean having your favorite songs playing on repeat while you work, or working in a cozy library, or having a cup of coffee by your side.
It’s also worth considering this — sometimes, we don’t have to do the things we don’t like to do. In my case, I got on a rough start. Classes were unavailable until 4 months after I registered in my program, and in that time, I was mostly left alone to my thesis, learning whatever I needed about research on my own. Every time I doubted on whether I wanted to continue, I told myself that it’s totally fine to quit, and no one is forcing me to stay in grad school.
Yet, I remembered that I was never driven by getting the degree itself. Rather, I signed up because I really just wanted to have fun and enjoy the thrill of learning new things. Approaching my studies with this rediscovered mindset tempered my urge to procrastinate. It gave me the staying power to slowly learn one thing after another, and get the thesis written. More often than not, I’d realize that whatever was overwhelming me wasn’t that hard after all.
2. A Little Bit Every Day is A Lot. When you have a giant task in front of you, the hardest thing is losing momentum. Because in that state, it takes much more psychological effort to start on your task, and the easier it is to procrastinate. The antidote to this is to set a ridiculously small bar for how much work you should be doing every day.
Every day, I would set a goal of writing just one line. Most days, I’d end up writing pages. But on horrible days, I literally do write just a line. But the wisdom of approaching your task every day, no matter how small your step may be, is that you don’t lose your momentum. You may slow down at times, and that’s alright. And surely that’s a lot better than burning out and crashing.
3. Bad Starts Are Better than Nothing. Ernest Hemingway’s saying “The first draft of anything is shit” holds true. Especially when it comes to writing, it’s not unusual for you to get caught up on putting your ideas into words in the best ways possible — that you end up not even writing anything. So, whatever you have in the moment, just write it down. You can always come back and fine-tune it later on, and that’s what rewriting and editing are for. But if you don’t give yourself that permission to write shit, then you will likely never get started.
4. Be Specific. You’re more likely to procrastinate when you tell yourself you need to work on the thesis, or the article, or whatever you have in front of you that’s huge and daunting. Rather, if you break it into bite-sized and specific tasks, you’d have less friction in moving forward. Instead of “writing the thesis”, then, your tasks could be broken into “complete write-up for sub-section 2.1.1” or “find data on projected inflation rate”.
5. Have Self-Compassion. Ultimately, though, remember that you’re only human for procrastinating. Everybody procrastinates on some level, even with the best tips and tricks around. So whenever you procrastinate, be kind and forgiving to yourself. It does you no good to fixate on the time that you’ve lost. The only constructive thing you can do is to make better use of the time that you do have now.