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I just finished all of my coursework for my PhD program, and am entering the research phase of my degree with a topic already in mind. I've already started the research, but I'm already finding that I end up procrastinating a lot of my time away. When I was taking courses, I felt like i didn't have time to procrastinate because of the pace of the classes and I felt like I had to always keep up with the pace. But now that I have no specific constraints, I feel like its harder to pace myself.

Of course, I know it's a bad habit to procrastinate and I should probably devote most of my waking hours to my research. Sometimes, (especially when I get stuck) I find it's so easy to get distracted on the computer (websites, youtube, text messages, etc.).

What are some effective strategies to avoid procrastination during this research phase? How do you stay on task, especially when you get stuck?

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you are not alone :). –  Suresh Dec 16 '12 at 4:45
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I think that taking micro brakes of 2-3 minutes can actually be beneficial and sort of restart your mind. But sometime I impulsively check the same site over and over again in a day just because I want to evade. I think it would be much better just to stand up and walk around. That helps me still think, you don't have to sit all the time. –  user4050 Dec 16 '12 at 9:25
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All PhDs procrastinate, just read PhD comics ;) –  Paul Hiemstra Dec 16 '12 at 13:50
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One simple solution I do is to get the hard copy of some papers + my notebook for sketches and go to a coffee shop without my laptop . Also, sometimes I reward myself by staying home and not going to school. Surprisingly, the latter can sometimes be very effective. –  seteropere Dec 16 '12 at 15:32
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"I should probably devote most of my waking hours to my research" with this attitude there's no wonder you end up procrastinating. It can be more productive to instead limit your time spent each day doing research. Remember that doing research requires large amounts of focus; you simply will not be able to put out the required focus throughout a whole day. –  user3224 Dec 16 '12 at 19:12
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16 Answers

up vote 20 down vote accepted

I write both weekly and daily 'to do' lists if I'm stuck in a procrastination routine. The weekly lists are more general, the daily ones as detailed as possible, with essentially everything I should do that day, however small it seems. It feels good to tick things off - it shows me that I made progress and gives me incentive to go on. Usually there's one or two things on the list that I really should not postpone for tomorrow, and many less important ones. I sometimes do the big stuff first, sometimes last, it really depends on my mood that day. I also allow myself to push the smaller things to the next day if I don't feel like doing them. That way I feel that I have some wiggle room, but it's constrained to the stuff that doesn't matter much anyway.

I also noticed that I tend to be more efficient when I have something planned at the end of the day, i.e. I know have to leave the office at five and stop working until tomorrow. This gives me a feeling of a small deadline, and deadlines are good at eliminating procrastination.

Finally, as someone mentioned already, nothing beats working with people. Having weekly meetings with my supervisor, where a decision is made on what I will achieve until the next meeting, tops it all.

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+1 for to-do lists. For further reference I can recommend GTD-compliant personal planning software (I personally use Nirvana 2). –  posdef Jan 22 '13 at 6:50
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Excelent answer. I couldn't agree more. The same when you have kids and have to leave and pick them at daycare at fixed hours, leaving you with short working days. –  Cinco Sauces Jun 8 '13 at 11:08
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I have found (and continue to find) two kinds of strategies that have some success in preventing me from procrastinating.

Silly, but scarily effective:

  • As silly as this might sound, implement a blocker like Leechblock or Chrome Nanny and block sites that you waste time on. I used to scoff at such things, but once I installed them, I found myself being forced to spend more time working.
  • Along the same lines, disable email alerts. Once I did this, I found that I could spend many hours working without getting distracted by random emails.

Less silly, and also less effective

Much of the procrastination when starting research in grad school comes from the lack of clear structure (as you indicate). So the trick is to create structure. For example, if you're working on one problem, and you've spent a little time generating a few ideas, write them down, and methodically start working through each of them one by one, going as deep as you need to go in order to test out an idea. When you're doing so, try to forget about the larger problem, the context, your Ph.D, your future career, and all other "big picture" matters.

More likely than not, the idea won't pan out (most don't!). In that case, move on to the next one.

The problem with early-stage research is that it doesn't look like you're making any progress, so it's easy to slow down and waste time. But if you can measure progress not in terms of "papers published", but in terms of "ideas tried", you'll get some sense of the amount of effort you've put in, and that can help motivate you to try more ideas, and so on. All these failed ideas are teaching you valuable things about your project, and they will eventually be useful because of what you've learnt.

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+1 for "ideas tried"! –  JeffE Dec 16 '12 at 6:05
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one way of creating structure is by creating your own mini-deadlines. You'll be required to go through certain stages through certain points in time and you'll know when to rest and when to catch up. –  Lie Ryan Dec 16 '12 at 10:44
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I was going to write this awesome answer (+1), but was grading final exams instead of reading SE Academia. –  Fuhrmanator Dec 16 '12 at 21:37
    
@Fuhrmanator touché !! –  Suresh Dec 16 '12 at 22:05
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Nanny for Google Chrome is excellent. Mine is configured to redirect to my todo list. This is easily one of the best answers I have read here. In fact, it's such a good answer that I am adding academia.stackexchange.com to Nanny for Google Chrome. –  Anon Mar 27 '13 at 16:49
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IMHO to keep the pace, the most important thing is not to work alone.

First, when I talk about my project on daily basis (which, sadly, it's not the case now), it naturally makes me working (as I don't want to make others wait, and it would be kind of awkward to say "I did nothing, because I was reading blogs").

Second, often getting stuck happens for a reason - and just 'working harder' does not help. Then it's important to have some other "seed", or a broader perspective, or just to learn that "it is not me who is stupid - this problem is hard for everyone".

But in case you cannot yourself from procrastinating (sometimes I know that it is not a day when I am good at thinking), try do some "white procrastination" - i.e. procrastinate from your duties, but in a way, which is constructive (e.g. learning a new programming language, reading papers in a different discipline, mastering your skills in something else, etc).

EDIT: In a longer run, it turned out that some of "white procrastinations" were more valuable than my "standard stuff". Remember, that not always you know in advance what will be fruitful in the future.

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+1 "not work alone" - I did most of my best and most efficient late in the evening while my wife played World of Warcraft beside me. –  Ben Norris Dec 16 '12 at 23:17
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I got a big boost in finishing my final projects for classes when my wife (then fiancee) sat next me and was available to talk about what I was doing. (She had some field experience with the issues that the project was about, which also helped.) –  LarsH Dec 17 '12 at 15:37
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+1 for the "white procastination" –  domj33 Apr 19 '13 at 10:33
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A strategy to try is to create/set a "work" environment in a specific location.

  • Remove as many distractions as possible from this location (e.g., if you can get away with no internet connection, do that, don't put any decorations or distracting electronics in the area unless they're specifically work related, etc.)

  • If you're going to put anything in that location, make it motivational to work. One of my officemates put a background on his work desktop that said, "Don't be stupid. Do your work."

  • Create a "work schedule" now that you don't have classes. Set a time when you're due at "work" and a time you get to go home. During your work hours, you go to your work environment/office/lab and you stay there until your work hours are over.

Having this separate location will put you in the mindset of working while you're at that location. Setting a schedule for going to that location will force you to sit somewhere where it's hard to distract yourself and where you'll start to form a habit of being productive.

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A work schedule is very important. +1 –  Suresh Dec 16 '12 at 6:52
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I mostly function by "work location" principle - I try really hard to do my work in my lab/office, and not do anything at home (in the room I relax and the room I sleep). Just having officemates helps as well, and I can control my procrastination to 3 times a day -- 10-15mins in the morning, after lunch, and around the afternoon break. –  penelope Dec 17 '12 at 12:10
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In addition to the other excellent answers, spending most of your waking hours on anything is not good in my opinion. The amount of hours you can really concentrate on research is probably around 8 (maybe even less). I think working 12 hours or more per day (6 days a week) on your research is not really effective. Working these kinds of hours is going to lead to procrastination.

To be more effective (and less procrastinating) you could focus less time on research, but try and impose more structure and be more effective in those hours. This will make you feel more effective, and preserve a better balance between research and your private life. Especially with hard problems, you'll find that you don't need to spend more time researching, but some time runnng/reading/etc to clear your mind.

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That's an excellent point. Because in principle you could be doing research all the time, it makes it harder in practice to focus. Designating "research time" and "non research time" makes it easier to do both. –  Suresh Dec 16 '12 at 18:58
    
I think people can do 12+ hours if their research has a lot of statistical programming. The first 8 hours can be intellectually intensive stuff (model building, maths, writing, reading literature, etc) and the last 4 hours can be statistical programming which doesn't require a well rested brain to do properly (assuming expertise in the language). –  Jase Dec 17 '12 at 2:31
    
If the programming is really simple, I would agree. However, if the scripts become more complex, programming does really require a well rested brain. –  Paul Hiemstra Dec 17 '12 at 6:17
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I am in the same situation as you are and tried several things to improve my situation in my PhD. I am sharing few ideas that work for me:

  • Time Slots: I use the concept of time slot or chunk of time (say 1 hour each) for a task where I will only focus or do that task or work. Single-entry-single-exit, no distractions allowed. I know, it's not easy not to get distracted, but I convince myself by reminding that I have other slots for other activities. Large slot of focused work helps me more than small chunks.

  • Most valuable task first: Doing the most valuable and productive task early in the day makes a lot of difference and it feels great. I observed that as the day progress, I also do better at other tasks.

  • Leverage on self: I have found few ways to make me act. Some of my favorite ways are: letting the person I hate most (and who would be most happy in my failures) know about my state; being an example of such habits to my most loved ones (say kids) etc

  • Change physiology and tone : I found the way I sit (posture) and the tone of voice with which I speak to myself has lot to do with procrastination. Changing the posture or position, and tone of my internal voice makes a difference. I just emulate a posture and tone when I had been most productive in my life.

  • Divide and conquer : I divide large task to manageable small tasks (of 1 hr or less). When I brainstorm, I list them in reverse order (with the goal/final result in mind). To get results, only taking actions will matter.

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I dont quite understand the concept of "leverage on self"... Could you elaborate more? –  Paul Dec 26 '12 at 5:08
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To the many excellent answers, I will add:

  • "Just get started," which is a prerequisite to "Just do it." When a task seems too difficult at first, if you start trying to solve it, you often find it's a lot easier than you imagined.
  • Not all procrastination is bad. It can sometimes be good to delay important decisions until you have enough information. It can be good to work on the more pressing things, and put off the things that are less important.
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+1 for just get started. Someone said something about chunks of time, often if you set this chunk to as little as 2 minutes it leads to hours of good work. Getting started is the hardest part. –  MHH Apr 17 at 2:47
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Oh, you think you're in trouble now? JUST WAIT TILL YOU ARE WRITING IT! Or worse, doing revision #523...

My strategy was switching time zones. I went to bed at 8pm, woke up at 2 or 3am, got a ton done while it was dark and everyone else was asleep. You may think it hard to go to bed at 8pm - but that is just because you didn't wake up at 2am. :)

There are a ton of other motivational hacks; like starting the day with an easy task (warm start) you could have done the night before. And yes, email/internet off.

Take explicit time wasting breaks. Try http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pomodoro_Technique or whatever. Mostly, be clear about when you are working and when you are having a break.

Mostly, though, I think you need to find your groove. If you are bored now, maybe you need to reconsider your topic and find something that lights you up.

This book is pretty awesome (also, the cover lies), but the main point is you need to get at least a solid 15 (actually +1 hour) of time working on your topic a day. The main idea is that consistent momentum gets you done - working on it one day a week will get you absolutely nowhere. http://www.amazon.ca/Writing-Your-Dissertation-Fifteen-Minutes/dp/080504891X

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Pomodoro rocks +1 –  petrichor Apr 18 '13 at 15:20
    
I don't know what "Pornodoro" is, but it hardly seems appropriate for this site. And it certainly doesn't sound like something to help with distraction. –  bobobobo Sep 10 '13 at 12:30
    
look at the link in my answer. it is one, of many, techniques to help focus. –  Tom Carchrae Sep 10 '13 at 12:45
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Here is one thing that helps me:

Block out work time and allocate relaxation time for each day (relaxation does not mean sleep). You cannot work 100% of the time, but you need to be vigilant about not engaging in leisure activity during a work time block.

Intersperse designated play time in between work times, but do not let the two types of time periods overlap and become blurred. If you find an interesting website during working hours, bookmark it and come back to it during the next play time period.

Basically work during the work time, play during play time, and maintain consistent waking/sleeping patterns (try to go to bed on time).

Another thing I forgot to add was don't squander your prime time hours, whether it's by self-distraction or by others distracting you.

So for example if you get your best work done in the morning before noon, schedule all appointments and meetings in the afternoon. Minimize breaks during your prime hours, since you probably don't need as many. If you're an evening type of guy, then take care of events and social activities earlier in the day whenever possible.

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I personally found this link to be really really useful.

The main point of procrastination is procrastination is easy, and hence, it is difficult to do not do it. But that automatically implies that avoiding procrastination is a high-energy thing, and it is then obvious that you cannot keep up that high energy forever, and hence, you end up minimizing procrastinating by consuming large amount of energy, and hence then you need a break or you end up actually increasing procrastination.

However, as the author of the link suggests, you can use procrastination to your advantage by using it do important things at relevant times. However, one problem with this is that you have to keep in mind thousands of to-dos and that is very exhausting. My solution to this is to use some very good calendar/to-do system and integrate it with your phone/laptop. This way, you can easily track your to-do list and suddenly, you will find that you have a lot of time to actually do stuff rather than thinking of what to do, which will help a lot in preventing getting distracted and avoid procrastination.

How this works is as follows. Everytime you have a deadline or work, make an entry of it in your calendar with an appropriate date and then reminders. Also, some calendar software allow you to put priorities on your to-dos. Kontact/KOrganizer also allows you to attach files to your to-do or events. So, you note everything you know at the time you get info. And then, whenever you open your to-do, you see a list of all the things you have to do.

Then, there is atleast some which interest you, pick the one with the highest priority and the most strict deadline, and do it. This way, you don't have to worry about keeping track of your deadlines since that task has been now transferred to your computer. Also, having all the options of to-dos available in front you always, make you more efficient.

Some people use the post-it notes in their office, but it is an inferior solution as compared to mobile/computer/cloud sync as you can access the latter anywhere, even when you are waiting for you doctor's appointment etc.

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I come with one special technique.

The procrastination may have many causes, but often it is from fear of failure, or because the task looks too long / too hard / too boring.

The special technique is to train for your performance like an athlete. Your mind can be trained into knowing for sure you will crack any such task like nothing.

One way of training is to face all your fears. What is the nastiest, most horrible, worst possible task you have been avoiding for ages? DO IT!

You won't believe how much easier the task is than you thought.

Now the hardcore part. Sign up to the most hardcore gym in your area, near your house, and start working out through the limits. Soon you become good at breaking physical limits which gives you a lot of fuel to break any psychical limits. You can try weight-lifting, running, boxing, military training (i.e. warrior classes in a top gym / club), and more.

This strengthens your body and your mind so much, that there will be nothing that makes you procrastinate. Procrastination is in other words "giving up".

Hard training is the best option. The best is one workout early in the morning and one after work.

EDIT: If you get stuck, go for a workout. It won't help you with the task, but at least you are building your physique and a tougher mind for this challenge to figure it out. (Otherwise, ask your advisor if you are really stuck)

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The tricky thing is that some research challenges like 'hand wave so much, so you can fly over a river' (e.g. a math problem that will remain open for the next 100 years). In physical stuff we can estimate limits (e.g. comparing to others, including olympic winners). In science we may be the first one to deal with that. And with procrastination, sometimes the main problem is that there is not indicator of progress (e.g. proving 5 lemmas can be fruitful, or leading nowhere)... –  Piotr Migdal Dec 17 '12 at 13:14
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I agree with most answers above. It IS important to create a working environment. I, for instance, simply can't work at my home computer without being distracted. Here are the simple techniques that worked for me:

  1. set up a 'home office.' For me it was the simple fact of getting-out-of-my-comfort-zone that kept me going.

  2. try working from a coffeeshop. Apparently, it was discovered that the ambient noise of 75 dc (approx. the pleasant buzz in a coffeeshop) is the best for productivity.

  3. schedule the breaks. Breaks are as important for your productivity as the intensive work, so I found it most helpful to actually set an alarm clock for a 10 min break every 1.5 hrs.

  4. keep a "success diary." Basically, it's a to-do list where you can tick the items you've completed. So, first, break down your workload into smaller tasks (for me it was smth like "write min 3000 word today," "finish that damn introduction already," and so on) and then tick them one by one. I guess, you can do it in an actual paper diary, but I used a task management app. It kept me on my toes.

Good luck!

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Read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. Read the whole thing. But pay particular attention to the discussion of gumption traps.

You will spend many hours reading the book. However, if you absorb its lessons, you will save many more hours in the future.

You must learn to understand your problem before you can hope to understand the solutions

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Some explanation of the topics in the said books would be welcome. Especially since most academics have little time to go through entire books. –  Naresh Dec 17 '12 at 4:22
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Yes. what's a "gumption trap" any way ? –  Suresh Dec 17 '12 at 18:27
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You should figure out the reason behind your procrastination and set up a time management to overcome it. You're an engineering student, you should engage yourself to an organization and create projects and portfolio, it'll would make you more productive and it'll help you gain network of friends and develop your skills. Find the motivation to do this and I’m sure it'll be easy for you to overcome procrastination.

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I use a tool to block certain applications (like Facebook and Twitter). Furthermore I set goals for myself and hold myself accountable (created a weekend project for that).

Monthly meetings with my supervisor help as well.

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If you are doing a PhD, I can recommend you to read the book "The clockwork muse". This book has good pieces of advice to progress in your writing and avoid procrastination.

It is true most of the things that other have written to you. It is not good thinking that you have to spend all your waking time studying because if you do not have time for yourself, you will find that your body will take it by itself.

So, work 6-8 hours per day (roughly 40 per week), it is good time. So, you can relax your body without feeling guilty.

I read all the comments and it is helping to me too. Thank you for writing about that.

Claudia

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