Matters to a Degree

I've been thinking about writing a column on procrastination for several years, and I'm finally getting around to it. I'm a procrastinator, and there's a good chance that you are, too. Most graduate students have felt the pull of television, the Internet or even the desire to clean their apartments when they should be working on course readings or writing a paper. And the dissertation, that long-term project with few set deadlines, is ripe with procrastination potential. If Facebook had been around when I was in school, I might never have finished my degree.

Sometimes, delaying work on a project can be functional. Called "strategic delay" (Klingsieck, 2013), it allows you to wait for new information or let an idea develop before working on it. Procrastination, in contrast, is unnecessary delay that can have negative consequences, such as anxiety or worry about not completing the project. Researchers have found that procrastination is correlated with increased stress, more illness and fewer healthy behaviors (Sirois, Melia-Gordon, & Pychyl, 2003).

So what are some tips for graduate students who are procrastinating? Here are some strategies to help you get to work:

Identify clear, obtainable goals

If you're working on your dissertation, it's easier to delay with a vague goal, such as "work on my dissertation." A more effective goal might be "write the participant part of my method section by Thursday." With a big project such as a thesis or dissertation, you may need to "chunk it," or break down the project into a series of smaller steps that are easier for you to complete in a reasonable amount of time.

Engage social support

Commit to your goals with your friends. This is where Facebook can be your ally instead of your stalling tactic: Write a post where you state your goal and your deadline. Your friends can help keep you accountable and may be able to help you in your task.

Schedule your time

Plan a time to work toward your goal. Initially, it does not need to be a long period, even just 15 minutes at first can be helpful. But make sure that you protect the time you plan to work from other intrusions. It's fine to keep working after your allotted period is completed (in fact, that's ideal!), but at the beginning, keep your work time small. You can always increase the amount of time you schedule once you've established the habit of working consistently.

Reward yourself

After you've done your task, give yourself a small reward. The reward should be proportional to the work you've done, so working for 15 minutes may not mean you get to watch "Iron Man 3" — a five-minute YouTube video might be a more appropriate reward. And you might earn that "Iron Man 3" ticket after finishing the results section that you've been avoiding for a month.

Block your distractions

If you can identify your delay tactics, then you can start to limit their interference in your work. I know TV causes me to delay work, so my strategy is to start working before I turn the TV on. If Facebook is your delay tactic, then don't open Facebook while you are working on the computer.

Cognitive restructuring

Every student thinks his or her dissertation has to be perfect. But the reality is that the best dissertation is a complete dissertation. Your words don't need to be perfect the first time you write them on the screen; you can always go back and revise. Changing those thought patterns about perfection, while not easy, can help you finish a first draft, which you can then edit into its final form.

Forgive yourself

In one study, students who forgave themselves for past procrastination engaged in less procrastination the next time (Wohl, Pychyl, & Bennett, 2010). So, forgive yourself this time, and give yourself a new chance the next time.

For tech savvy folks, a number of apps and software programs can help you implement these tips. You can use your phone's calendar to schedule your time. Goalkeeper is an app that can help you manage projects and task lists, with different deadlines for each task. The Finish app helps you beat procrastination by setting tasks with short-, mid- and long-term deadlines and prompts you to finish them. Software programs such as Focus Me or SelfControl can be used on your computer to block your access to distracting websites such as Facebook or YouTube.

Share your tips for beating procrastination by posting them on the APAGS Facebook page. I look forward to hearing your suggestions.