Academic Survival Kit Part 2: work habits, procrastination and the cycle of guilt

One of the most difficult things for me when starting the PhD, was to establish work habits that actually work for me. As a master student, you constantly have small and big deadlines. You’ve got to read certain text before the seminar, you’ve got to write a paper at the end of the course. The master thesis is the first large self-directed piece of writing that you do – but it usually has a specific and limited time-line as well, with regular benchmarks like drafts you discuss with your supervisor. For the PhD dissertation, this is completely different. When I started my project, I suddenly found my agenda completely empty, and it was up to me to fill this all time in a meaningful – and productive way. Am I seriously supposed to work on the dissertation 8 hours a day? How do I do that? I cannot really read for 8 hours straight, can anyone?

I’m very much an evening person, but while I could lock myself up and not have a social life for the 4 months of writing a master thesis, this strategy is not really effective for the 4 years of writing a PhD dissertation. So I also struggled a lot with getting up at a decent time in the morning, and getting to work/office. But I work at a place where everyone drops in at different times, and no one looks at you strange if you walk in at 10, 11 or even 12 o ‘clock. On the one hand, this is great. On the other hand, this lack of social control and unlimited freedom can be really hard to deal with. Am I a bad person if I do sports and grocery shopping in the morning? If waking up at 9 is early for me? Is this even a real problem, or am I just being lazy? Should I discipline myself more (since no-one else seems interested in doing it), or should I accept these givens and just do my work during non-conventional working hours (f.ex. 11:00-19:00)?

In the end, I got into a cycle where I constantly felt like I wasn’t working enough, was not living up to some ideal of the perfect productive PhD student. I felt guilty, because now I was actually getting paid for this, this was my job now.. A friend pointed out that whenever they asked me how my day had been, I always answered that I had been distracted and not working hard enough, but that otherwise it was okay. I was like a broken record, continuously blaming myself for not doing more. And because I felt that I was not working enough, or not working focused enough, I also felt like I didn’t really deserve any time off. Of course, this turned into a major cycle of guilt, which was not productive for my work and writing at all. So how do you break that cycle?

My tips for dealing with procrastination and guilt

  • Accept and recognize that academic work is a very specific type of work. Part of it is comparable to regular work, like administration and meetings. And part of it is creative, like writing and thinking. Not all of it you can track very concretely: let’s say I spent 3 hours figuring out my argument in chapter 4 today… Well, actually in that time I was also reading blogs, or venting to a friend over a long lunch about why the chapter does not work right now, and scrolling through facebook…. Was it work? Was it procrastination? Was it both? I think it is helpful to stop fixating on the hours you are supposed to be working and to try to stop feeling guilty when you feel like you don’t work enough. Let your supervisor tell you if you are not on schedule, instead of you telling yourself pre-emptively and beating yourself up about it.


  • In my experience, it is not possible to get rid of procrastination altogether. The Instant Gratification Monkey is not going away without a fight. Instead, we should work on finding ways to manage and channel procrastination. I think it is really easy to hold on to some myth about productive people who we admire as some kind of super-humans who never have problems with waking up on time and getting to work, who simply don’t have these problems. And then to contrast that to your failing self, who spent another day in her pyjamas watching Orange is the New Black instead of finishing the chapter… Well, I think it’s not that clear cut. Even the people who you might look up to as productive and disciplined probably struggle with these issues. I think really common to have days where you don’t manage to open that damn document that you are working on. It’s really common to get distracted and spend time on facebook instead of on your research. It does not mean that you are not doing good work, doesn’t mean that its worthless. It also doesn’t mean that you should simply accept that, but instead that you should continually be working to overcome that – without beating yourself up about it.
  • Make a workplan, even if you don’t keep it. I spent a lot of time in the beginning making work plans: for the PhD as a whole, for the section, for the month, for the week. I didn’t keep to them very well, because I was highly underestimating the time I would be spending on each section, and in the end, what I thought would be first two chapters of the thesis turned out the be the entire thesis. But making the plan was a good exercise in itself, giving structure to my project and my time. My supervisor always insisted on outlines for papers, and it became a habit for me to mind-map each chapter before setting out to write it. In the first half year of my PhD, I made a different mind-map every month. It was a fun way to track the progress of how I was thinking about my thesis and what were the central key words. A good workplan of course includes deadlines, and even if it is “just” a draft, that deadline is serious. I really need the regular meetings with my supervisor as deadlines to produce (parts of) texts. I know she is expecting to see something new, even if it is just an outline or a partial draft – and so I need to get writing. Other ways to do create serious deadlines is to present work in progress in a seminar with other PhD students, or to apply for conferences.
A really early mind-map - March 2013
A really early mind-map – March 2013
  • Try to create a routine to your workday, some structure to rely on. In the beginning of my PhD, that meant for me that I would do 2 hours of reading in the morning, before opening my computer and getting distracted by everything the internet has to offer (both work-related and non-work). Recently, I discovered a writing workshop by Alexis Shotwell, and became a huge fan. You can watch videos of the workshop on youtube – there are four different parts but especially part 2 is very useful in terms of offering tools for time-management. From her, I learned the technique of working in units. A unit is a 45 minute session of concentrated work. No facebook, no refreshing email, no chatting or even saying hi to your colleague who is passing by, no going to the bathroom or making a cup of tea. You set a timer, and in that 45 minutes, you really focus on the task at hand. And then when the timer goes off, you can do all those other things that popped in your mind during the unit. It works for me – to be honest, it works best when I do it with others, because we can hold each other accountable. If you actually focus, 45 minutes is a long time, and you can get a lot done! If I do 3 units of writing in a day, I am really proud of myself. It sounds a bit ridiculous, because that is 2 hours and 15 minutes of writing – a far cry from the 8 hours workday that I am supposed to clock. But actually setting the manageable goal of 3 units of writing a day, every day, is more productive for me that the abstract and unrealistic goal of 8 hours of “serious work”. I use the units mostly for writing, and it is good to be able to track over time how much I manage to get done over a larger period of time.
  • Take at least one day off in the weekend, even if you are so busy that you feel like you cannot afford to. Try to do something fun and active that is not related to your research, but gives you new energy and inputs. For me, it has been important to not only make it “going out for drinks” and the companion “spending your saturday/sunday hangover and watching Netflix” – although of course that can be a valuable way to spend your free time too. I find it most helpful to do things that give me new imputs that are unrelated to the academic work I do – so to go to a museum, shopping, for a walk in the forest. I need to take the weekend off – guilt-free – in order to recharge and actually be productive during the week. It’s not a luxury, it’s a necessity. And it’s not something that you have to “deserve” by being extra productive during the week.

anti-capitalist love notes

It feels a bit weird to be posting this right now, because I’ve just had a week that was particularly unproductive and I feel bad about it. I feel like I’m not in any position to give advice to others, because I haven’t figured out this stuff myself either… But actually, that is exactly the point I have been trying to make: this is always a work in progress, no-one is perfect, and there are no easy solutions. And now, to the chapter! I’m setting the unit-timer. 🙂