A copy in every pair of jeans

Many doctoral students suffer from procrastination, chronically delaying their work. There is something you can do about it.
Ian Keefe via Unsplash

For twelve years, academics with the “Procrastination ambulance” at the University of Münster have been working to research and treat chronic procrastination. They have found that such procrastination can lead to clinical levels of distress for some students. “Frequently, sufferers face extremely high levels of internal pressure or sleep disorders; they have anxiety, depression, and are self-deprecating,” says psychologist Julia Haferkamp. “Many of them do not have any other mental illnesses that could explain these symptoms.” Because of this, she believes procrastination should be given the status of a separate diagnosis. Haferkamp’s team has already developed the diagnostic criteria. You can find out whether you fulfil them here.

Of course, not everyone who procrastinates on their work now and then has a truly clinical problem. Procrastination is a popular pastime, after all. Julia Haferkamp says her studies show only two per cent of those surveyed say they always complete everything they need to do in a timely fashion. People tend to procrastinate on monotonous tasks especially, such as filing their taxes, or on difficult and complex tasks—which is certainly the case for a dissertation.

Wiebke is 29 and completing her PhD in German Studies. She says: “Looking back, it was dumb to have so many part-time jobs at the start of my PhD. By continuously doing these smaller tasks, many times for other people, I distracted myself from the dissertation.” Today, she is working on her dissertation more continuously, but still gets distracted. “I always feel bad about myself because I know I could be doing more.”

Thirty-year-old doctoral student Moritz has had a similar experience: “I look at Facebook every five minutes. I know it breaks my concentration, but I keep doing it.” What they are both describing—Moritz tells us about it while playing on his phone—is a key characteristic of procrastination. Procrastination is not defined as doing nothing, but as getting distracted and doing something more pleasurable, like looking at new posts on Facebook, or doing something easier where success is guaranteed—like a part-time job.

“First of all, procrastination is a very logical way to avoid unpleasant feelings and thoughts and occupy yourself in a more comfortable way,” says psychologist Julia Haferkamp. However, if we procrastinate too much, it can cause serious problems. You might have conflicts with your partner or friends, your performance can falter, and you might give up on important goals or have financial troubles.

But you can do something about it.

  • What’s the first step? Take stock of your life. What tasks am I procrastinating on? When do I procrastinate, and for how long? What is my goal? The self-help book “Heute fange ich wirklich an” (Really, I’m getting started on it today) by Anna Höcker, Margarita Engberding, and Fred Rist offers many questions like this to help you analyse your own situation. Part of the process is being aware of your feelings and your behaviours. You might suffer from a fear of failure, for instance (“I’ll never make it”). Or excessive perfectionism (“My work has to be brilliant”). Or you might be telling yourself the truth sometimes, and other times just making excuses (“I’m way too tired to concentrate”). All of these can cause procrastination—and they all need to be investigated and qualified. If you think you will never finish your dissertation, for instance, you can counter this thought by saying: “That is an exaggeration. I might feel like I will never finish right now, but if I keep going step by step, I will eventually reach my goal.” Haferkamp recommends writing down these kinds of thoughts and keeping them on a card in your pocket.
  • Second, it is important to understand the learning processes that go along with procrastination, and make sure you keep these going. It might be more comfortable not to address difficult research questions in the short term, but in the long term this can cause problems. To address the issue deliberately, it is a good idea to write down the positive and negative consequences of an action in both the short and long term on a big piece of paper.
  • If you stopped by Julia Haferkamp’s office hours, your second step after analysing your problem would be to create a working plan to address it. “It is very important to set realistic goals. Often, we take on too much. Having a 50 per cent rule is a good idea: complete 50 per cent of what you originally planned,” Haferkamp recommends. It is important to keep your steps small so you can complete them and get a boost of motivation from your success. PhD student Wiebke utilises the motivating effect of small successes. She has a to-do list for every day filled with tasks of varying difficulty. “If I can’t get anything done, I complete something easy. That gets me started again.”
  • Restricting your work time is an exciting approach, and is recommended by the Münster research team. With this method, you are only allowed to work a limited number of hours per day. Only once you are using at least 50 per cent of this time to work can you expand your work time step by step. “This helps us change the script around motivation—from ‘I have to do something’ to ‘I get to do it,’” Haferkamp explains.
  • She has another rule that sounds counter-intuitive at first, but is actually very important: Don’t punish yourself. Not even if you are unsatisfied with your work. “Self-deprecation doesn’t motivate you; it drags you down. For some people, it can even be the root cause of their procrastination,” the psychologist says.

Haferkamp also adds the following tips:

  • Have a specific intention (with a fixed time, fixed location, and clear task);
  • Eliminate any other potential activities (for instance by deactivating your WiFi, switching off your phone, finding a place where you can work undisturbed, and telling everyone not to contact you during certain hours);
  • Write down a motivational sentence (“If I can do this now, I’ll feel great later on!”);
  • Plan rewards and breaks.

Although the tip to just take breaks might sound banal, people don’t follow it. “People often come to me and say: I’m doing my dissertation. I don’t have time to do anything else,” says Helke Hillebrand, Director of the Graduate Academy at the University of Heidelberg. Hillebrand has served as an initial point of contact for doctoral students to address all kinds of difficulties—she is “the heart and soul of the academy,” as one PhD student says. The biologist has served as Director of the Graduate Academy for a year. Before taking over this position, she advised PhD students at the European Molecular Biological Laboratory, a world-renowned research institution in Heidelberg, as the Dean of Graduate Studies for nine years.

She believes that PhD students procrastinate due to the difficulty of the tasks they are expected to complete each day, as well as to the phase of life they are in. “In secondary school and at university, it is easier to focus because the work is broken down into smaller segments you can do one after another. But the older you get, the harder it is to do one task after another. Instead, you have to balance out the different areas of your life.” Three years is a long time; a lot can happen. You might break up with a partner, for instance, or your parents might become ill.

When you start your dissertation, you may not have any idea about how to approach it. “You are setting out on a professional path for the first time, but the transition from university studies is a fluid one, and it is not always easy. First, you have to learn how to budget your time, how much to spend on play—and how much on work.”

When is reading an article beneficial, and when is it just distracting me from my dissertation? Moritz and Wiebke are always asking themselves questions like this. Hillebrand admits there are no easy answers. It is also difficult to formulate general rules. “The dissertation is an individual experience.”

However, the biologist also suspects some doctoral students suffer from another problem: they may not want to finish. They may want to remain academics, but see little chance of getting a postdoc position. In such cases, it is important to learn about opportunities outside of the university, instead of just grieving over never being able to fulfil your dream to become a scientist or academic.

Another reason many students may stay in the PhD grey zone is because they believe the decisions they make are final. “University is an extended phase of development, and the PhD is another such phase. The pressure can be high, because you are making a decision much later than the rest of your cohort.” However, your decisions do not have to be permanent. Hillebrand herself is a great example—she returned to the university after spending several years working for industry companies.

Hillebrand also offers practical recommendations for students who come to her having problems with procrastination.

  • Divide your work into packages that will take two to four weeks to complete, and set deadlines for each of them. Write the deadlines down. Copy the sheet ten times, stick one copy in every pair of jeans you own, and constantly remind yourself to stick to your deadlines.
  • Talk about your plans. Do not let a molehill turn into a mountain. In Hillebrand’s opinion, students overestimate how much of a burden they are to their advisers. “If you have specific questions, your advisers do not mind if you come ask them from time to time.” You can also get in touch with other contacts, such as graduate school coordinators.
  • Attend courses. Many universities offer workshops on how to combat procrastination or on time management. You might even meet a colleague with similar problems at one of these workshops; then you can work to motivate one another.

Procrastination is not a trivial matter. People who suffer from procrastination can do something about it. The Münster work group that researched the issue believes that procrastination is a learned behaviour, and anything learned can be unlearned, too. Or, to put it another way: If you can make a mountain out of a molehill, you can also turn it back.