As a 2nd year student in graduate school I felt like a fraud in a conference room filled with PhDs from academia and industry.
My thesis supervisor had just agreed to present our research to our collaborators in industry to demonstrate how we had used their funding.
I would be doing a 20 minute presentation on my thesis work and show how to use our experimental setup to make their drug development process more efficient.
The problem was that I hadn’t started analyzing my data, or even organizing it in a spreadsheet to start the analysis.
How could I present my work to industry experts (some of them with over 10 years of experience) and expect them to believe that I was actually doing novel research?
I had a month to prepare the presentation, but for weeks I couldn’t force myself to organize my data in a spreadsheet, much less analyze it.
Every time I sat down at the computer I would start checking my email or do an errand that seemed important at the time.
I knew I would be in trouble if I didn’t have my slides ready in time.
After 2 weeks of just sitting around in my office pretending to work without getting anything done, I decided to take a walk.
It was mid-February in New England, and there were patches of ice all over the cement on campus.
I headed to the library instead – I needed a change in scenery from my office even if it was just a few hundred feet away.
As I sat in the faded blue armchair across from the circulation desk, I started to rehearse my presentation inside my head.
I remembered that my professors in graduate school taught me to always open my presentations by summarizing what I was going to talk about.
I then realized that I didn’t have a take-home message.
In fact, I didn’t believe in my research or have confidence in my data.
And then the reason for procrastination hit me:
“If I didn’t have confidence in my own research, how could I expect anyone else to believe it was interesting?”
No wonder I had been procrastinating for 2 weeks.
I was afraid that my supervisor and collaborators would discover how lame my research was – the data wasn’t reproducible, and I couldn’t draw any interesting conclusions from it.
I avoided looking at my data so I wouldn’t have to face the mess I was in.
In this moment of clarity, my guilt slowly turned into compassion for myself.
I had been trying to work on my slides for two weeks, but there was something inside of me that was holding me back.
My procrastination was a sign that something was not right.
If my data were reproducible and had interesting conclusions I would have been motivated to work on it.
I had only 2 weeks until my presentation and I didn’t have enough time to generate new data.
But, I could re-frame my experimental setup and the data that I did have into a presentation that was interesting.
This tiny shift in my mindset, to observe why I was procrastinating instead of beating myself over it, fueled me to improve my work habits and research, and eventually finish my thesis on time.
Procrastination Is a Sign That You Need to Pay Attention To
The root cause of procrastination is usually fear, such as:
- fear of failure,
- fear of imperfection,
- fear that the project is too big,
- fear of what others will think, and even
- fear of success (How will I handle the next step if I am successful at this?)
While almost everyone procrastinates to some extent, procrastinating your thesis in graduate school can really weigh down on you.
When you know you should be doing something but you are not doing it, you may feel really guilty and beat yourself up.
The irony is that the more you beat yourself, the lower your self-esteem will be, and the less motivated you will feel.
Sometimes weeks, months, or even years can go by without any progress because you have labeled yourself a “chronic procrastinator.”
It is time to toss that label and accept that procrastination is part of human nature, but it doesn’t have to stop you from finishing your thesis.
In fact, your biggest breakthroughs will occur just when you think you are at your lowest point and don’t see a way out of the mess you created.
This low point (when you are most likely to procrastinate) is actually your biggest opportunity for growth and learning.
This is the point when you have to change your game plan to avoid a very painful consequence: embarrassment in front of supervisor or thesis committee, missing a graduation deadline, or having to leave graduate school.
Procrastination is not a disease, but a natural side-effect of moving outside of your comfort zone.
Graduate school (and any other environment where you are learning) is meant to push the limits of your comfort zone, otherwise there would be nothing new for you to learn.
When you start feeling guilty about procrastinating a project, resist the urge to beat yourself up.
Instead, ask yourself compassionate questions such as:
- “What is holding me back?”
- “What do I need to learn to move forward?”
- “Where can I start?”
- “What needs to happen for this project to be complete?”
- “Who can help me?”
Once you learn to reinterpret procrastination as a sign that you are growing, learning, and moving outside of your comfort zone, you can take the necessary actions to get your project back on track and finish graduate school.
5 Ways to Turn Procrastination into Progress
Procrastination is a sign that an underlying fear is holding you back from making progress and moving forward in graduate school.
Your job is to figure out what your fear is, so you can change the way you approach your project.
But, you can only do this by taking action and observing why you feel stuck.
During the weeks that I was procrastinating my presentation for our industry collaborators I assumed that one day I will somehow get motivated and then I would start taking action.
Unfortunately, motivation never “hits” you – motivation comes when you take action.
The toughest part of any major project, especially in an unstructured environment such as graduate school, is the first step.
Once you get started, your motivation will build up, and the more more motivated you are the more progress you will make.
But how do you take that first step if you don’t even know where to get started?
1) Start small
It is very difficult to get started on a project that you have been putting off and expect yourself to work on it all day.
It would be like trying to run a marathon without training for it.
Start with just a few minutes a day.
Begin by setting your timer to fifteen minutes, or maybe even just five minutes to focus on the task, and make sure there are no interruptions.
During this time, observe your thoughts: what has been holding you back
If the task seems too overwhelming, it probably is – you need to simplify it or your supervisor and committee will be confused as well.
When you are afraid of imperfection (one of the most common reasons for procrastination in graduate school), get some distance from your work.
Sometimes letting your manuscript rest for a day will give you a new perspective on it, and help you define what you need to do.
If you still fear imperfection, clarify the requirements for your thesis/manuscript/study with your thesis supervisor.
Believe it or not, most students in graduate school get stuck because they are trying to do too much – not because they are lazy.
2) Pick the low-hanging fruit
Shift your thinking from “This is too big” to “Where can I begin?”
Start with the task that is the easiest.
Once you get momentum, it will be easier to keep going.
At one of my live workshops, I asked students what the biggest challenge was in trying to complete their thesis.
Almost unanimously, they said the “literature search,” which is usually in the beginning of the thesis.
When I asked whether they had worked on other parts of their thesis, I got confused looks.
How could they move on to later chapters if they hadn’t finished their literature review in the introduction?
No wonder they had writer’s block – they were trying to write the most challenging part of their thesis first.
“Why not start with an easier part, such as the Materials and Methods section, to get you momentum in writing?” I asked.
I could hear a big sigh of relief going through the room, as students realized that there was no rule that you had to write your thesis chapters in order.
Remember that the toughest part of any project is the beginning.
Get your momentum going by starting with the task that is the easiest for you.
3) Set up deadlines
Nothing will motivate your more than a deadline, especially an external one like submitting an abstract to a conference or preparing a presentation for your committee meeting.
Many students lack structure in graduate school, which can make it difficult to organize your time efficiently.
If you don’t have any hard deadlines, you can set them up informally to provide you with accountability.
Schedule weekly or biweekly meeting with your thesis supervisor and commit to the progress that you will make by the next meeting.
Volunteer to present at the next group meeting.
I know this sounds scary, but it may be the push you need to get your thesis work going.
In my case, it was the deadline for the industry presentation that motivated me to redesign my thesis project so that it would be more relevant for my field of research.
You can also find an accountability buddy and set up deadlines to read each other’s work or listen to each other’s presentation.
Note: Don’t get discouraged if you don’t meet all your deadlines.
You are aiming for progress not perfection.
As long as these deadlines motivate you to keep taking action, you are on the right track.
4) Take action daily, no matter how small
To keep your creative juices flowing, you have to take action daily.
The good news is that you don’t have to devote multiple hours every day to achieving your goal.
Commit to spending at least 15 minutes a day on your project.
Fifteen minutes may not sound like much, but even this short amount of time will help you to keep making progress.
Surprisingly, a lot of the work that you need to do for your thesis does not occur while you are sitting at your desk.
On the contrary, your brain keeps working on the problems when you are walking, exercising, or doing chores around the house.
But, to keep your project “cooking on the backburner in your mind” you need to make some progress every day.
When you are short on time, use the 15 minutes to write a paragraph or two, skim a journal article, or edit what you have written.
On the long run, the 15 minutes a day will not be enough to finish your thesis.
You will need longer stretches of time to create a high quality manuscript, but use the 15-20 buckets of time throughout the day to get a head start.
People are creatures of habit, and when you make a daily commitment to your project, you are more likely to stick to it.
5) Write down all your current commitments
Sometimes just getting all the thoughts out of your head can feel incredibly liberating.
I remember that one of my clients wrote to me that she had “procrastinated” her thesis the previous week and felt incredibly guilty about it.
However, when we talked about her week, it turned out that she had completed her taxes, applied for several jobs, and she still made some progress on her thesis.
Once she realized how much she had actually completed, she felt relieved and was ready to continue working on her thesis.
Attending to high priority items (taxes, job applications, family events or emergencies) does not mean that you are procrastinating your thesis.
But, if you label yourself as a “procrastinator” during these busy times, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Your guilt will lead to lowered self-esteem and motivation, which in turn lead to procrastination.
Most of us have more commitments than we realize, and you may pulled in so many different directions that your thesis could end up on the bottom of your priority list (unless you set deadlines as mentioned above).
When you write down all your commitments for the next week or month, you will achieve two things.
First, you will gain clarity on where your time is going, and this will give you an opportunity to eliminate commitments that are not supporting your personal or professional goals.
Second, you will realize that you are not a procrastinator.
Like all human beings, you have a lot going on, but you are in control of your schedule.
When you rearrange your schedule and commitments so that they are in line with your priorities, you will gain the momentum you need to finish your thesis.
To learn more tips to be more productive in graduate school, click here to receive a free copy of Dora’s guide “Finish Your Thesis Faster”