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We Can Dissertate If We Want To
August 26, 2013 3:57 PM   Subscribe

How do you force yourself to work hard when you just don't care? I'm looking for practical tips/tricks, cognitive/behavioral strategies, and MacGyver-ish life kludges for pervasive procrastination.

I'm in the final year of a PhD program, and I'm having a hard time getting work done. This has progressed far beyond your garden variety procrastination: it's more like a paralyzing inability to even think about thinking about writing anything. I get anxious opening Microsoft Word, and I can't focus on research articles. I'd estimate that I've worked less than 40 hours in the past two months. I don't want it to be this way (the busier I am, the better I feel), but I don't know how to force myself to work on my dissertation. I was a productive rockstar as an undergraduate, so this is new for me.

I think it's likely that people will suggest therapy, and bring up the likelihood of depression. However, this isn't a wholesale loss of desire to participate in all activities that I once enjoyed. I still have a ton of motivation for hobbies I enjoy, I go out and do things, and I generally feel that my life is great. The lack of motivation is specific to grad school. The soul-crushingness of the PhD program has taken all pleasure out of my topic, to the point where I'm not particularly interested in my projects, my area, and even science in general.

In retrospect, graduate school wasn't a great fit for me, personality wise. I'm quite extroverted, which means I find the presence of others to be energizing. Sitting in my apartment alone and writing really tires me out. I thrive in high pressure situations that are fast paced and people-oriented; I like hard deadlines, clear hierarchy, and daily routines. Grad school is not like this. Actually, it's kind of the opposite of the type of situation I do well in, and it has shown in my work.

I've tried going to coffee shops and working with friends, but it doesn't help much because I still have no motivation to open the word document and type things. I wish I wasn't in graduate school; however, considering I've only got one year left, and I'm not paying for any of this, dropping out isn't an option I'm interested in.

TL/DR: How can I beat this procrastination, write my dissertation, and get the hell out of grad school?
posted by therumsgone to Education (11 answers total) 73 users marked this as a favorite
I've given this advice to dozens of people over the years, because many many of us have been there:
1) Make a list of things that you need to do. Make the list as specific and the things as tiny as possible.
2) Do one of those things!
3) Celebrate that you did one of those things!
4) If you feel like it, do another one. If not, that's okay, because you'll do another one tomorrow.
5) If you have a day where you don't do one of the things, forgive yourself, and do one tomorrow.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:03 PM on August 26, 2013 [12 favorites]

Hang in there, you can do it! I should know, I just finished my thesis after an agonizing final year that sounds somewhat similar to what you are experiencing. What really worked for me was this:

1. Buy a journal and a giant package of stickers. I got multicolored stars, but get whatever floats your boat.
2. Every day after breakfast, sit down to work.
3. Set a timer for 50 minutes, and work for those 50 minutes. Close your browser, email, etc.
4. Under the day's heading in my journal, put a sticker and write a brief description of what I did in those 50 minutes.
5. Set a timer for 10 minutes and goof off. Goofing off includes any non-work-related email.
6. Repeat.

The first week or so was a little lacklustre, there were maybe 3-4 stars each day. But once I got into the rhythm, it was nice to see 7-8 stars every day. I could keep track of how much I was working, and having the visual reminder provided some positive reinforcement.

Is it embarrassing to use a kindergarten-teacher strategy for completing your PhD? Hell no. PhDone!!!
posted by number9dream at 4:34 PM on August 26, 2013 [11 favorites]

Don't work hard. Write for 15 minutes a day. Don't do it in Word. I like Written Kitten. When your 15 minutes are up, you can spend the rest of the day doing whatever you want, guilt-free.

After a week, up it to 30 minutes.

You can get a surprising amount done. 15 minutes is better than nothing!
posted by baby beluga at 4:36 PM on August 26, 2013 [3 favorites]

I like hard deadlines, clear hierarchy, and daily routines

I do too, and I am also working on my dissertation. I have found that setting my own goals and deadlines and a daily routine really, really helps. No one else is going to do those things for you, but that doesn't mean that grad school isn't like that - it means that you have to set up the structure yourself.

I use two productivity apps that I find really help me with both the goal-setting and the deadlines. OmniFocus is a really nice to-do list task manager that I find really amps up my productivity. It is Mac-only, but another similar to-do list program might work if you are on a PC. I also use RescueTime in an almost obsessive way: it tracks everything I do on my computer, and I use the "Goals" feature heavily to make sure I am, for example, getting at least 7 hours of pure productivity in a day (a goal I routinely surpass; I should probably make a new goal at this point). Start small - two or three hours - and work up from there.

I also find that the routine of going to campus, setting up at my desk in the doctoral student offices, and gluing my butt to my chair and just making myself work helps a lot. If I feel distracted, I just make myself work with low productivity. The more I have done this, the more ingrained the routine becomes.

I've tried timers, but they don't work for my work-style. I am one of these "all or nothing" people - I am either working my butt off or hanging out. Upping the amount of time that I force myself to think about work - gluing my butt to my chair - is key for me.

Another thing to consider is this: what is a project that you worked on, at some point in your career, that you did have motivation for? How did you work during that time? What worked for you? Did you learn anything about your work style that you can translate to this situation?

PhDone indeed - you can and will do it. It's about putting in the hours at this point. Think of it as the last hoop you must jump through to get that doctorate. You've probably done a lot of that already - what's one more?

Good luck!
posted by k8lin at 4:38 PM on August 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

I thrive in high pressure situations that are fast paced and people-oriented; I like hard deadlines, clear hierarchy, and daily routines.

Join Phinished and get on the Daily working board. It's another way of doing what number9dream suggested. There are good people over there, going through what you're going through, but working like (happy) dogs.
posted by Beardman at 4:53 PM on August 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm working on my getting that dissertation written off right now as well, here's things that help:

1. I've used the Pomodoro method, it helps on some days.

2. I take rest and just sleep on some days. I used to feel guilty about not working for long periods of time, sometimes days, but I am just more productive and focused when I am rested. Even if you are getting enough sleep and exercise and all that, you may just be burnt out toward the end, so just rest more than you think you need to and don't feel guilty about it.

3. I've stopped thinking I can write better if I read some more, know some more. Thinking that getting more reading done will make my writing better was the big reason I wasn't getting enough written and I think its just procrastination. Now I just write it up, without worrying about the prose etc., once its on paper, I can edit it later to make it passable and its less daunting that way. I know good quality work is important, but I've also realized that with the dissertation - it is good enough if its passable, and that is all there is to it (thanks to advice on metafilter!)

4. As to the specific sections, I've divided them up into tasks that require more thinking (discussion/significance background/introductions) and rote tasks (preparing figures, writing results, methods)... I found I worked better by working on all of them all at once depending on how focused I was - the point is to just get it DONE, any which way. That is all that matters when you're completing the PhD (others may differ, maybe, but I'm at the point where I am SICK of this dissertation, and the only way I am getting out of it is by getting it done!)

5. Any time is a good time for the dissertation - I don't sleep and wake or work on regular routines like everyone else - if I am up and alert at 2 am, I go at it, and if I am sleepy at 8 am, I go to sleep. Work with your body on this and don't resist your natural rhythms.

6. People say having an accountability partner helps, but it doesn't help me - makes me nervous so I just work on my own schedule.

7. You are the only one responsible to keep yourself motivated to finish that dissertation, so cultivate what you need - if you thrive under pressure - give yourself a hard deadline and treat the dissertation like a job where you get fired if its not done. If you need clear routine, give yourself a clear routine, I've used the google assistant thing to keep me on track and give me reminders throughout the day in 2-3 hour intervals to the effect of "you were supposed to finish this, how far along is it?" kind.

8. You will have to be very selfish with your time and energy when completing the dissertation. I'm paying the price of it now and if I could go back in time, I would make finishing my dissertation the absolute priority. Really. The longer it stretches out, the more painful and difficult it gets.

9. Wishing you were not in grad school - welcome to the party! : )
posted by greta_01 at 6:18 PM on August 26, 2013

I had this issue as well (still do to some extent), and the only thing that is helped is social pressure. Find 1-4 other similarly situated grad students (note: this won't be hard, grad students almost all feel this way at some point), and make a dedicated time each day to meet and write together (either in person or on a group chat online). If you don't personally know someone(s), email out to your grad student list serv seeking "writing partners."

Also, check out this website:
Your university may have an institutional membership - if so, it is a GREAT resource for this sort of thing.
posted by rainbowbrite at 8:01 PM on August 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Like others have said, don't write in your apartment (and if you are a science grad student, don't write in the lab, because your labmates will either ask questions, effectively derailing your thoughts, or you will distract yourself by thinking, I wonder what so and so is doing ... and wander off.) I also find this less helpful as a grad student, but in undergrad Write or Die was quite useful; these days I use Concentrate and the Pomodoro system.

The one most helpful thing I do for academic writing is telling a friend about it very informally in email or text-based chat for an hour. Your friend doesn't have to be in your field and they don't have to pay attention or even understand it (although I advise telling them this in advance). I do this with friends in different disciplines who don't know anything about my research except that it has something to do with mice.

You tell your friend about your work the way you would tell them about a date or some TV show you watched over the weekend, like: "ok, so I wanted to figure out X but I was worried about Y so I was like, idk idk whatever and I ran this assay but shit just wouldn't work so I ended up having to do Z". At the end of all this, you have an hour's worth of chatlog/email thread with a massive block of unpunctuated rambling about your research project ... but the important thing is that you've gotten a general overview down on the page and you're not staring blankly at your word processor, terrorized by how much progress you haven't made. I also find talking about it conversationally helps with the overall logic flow & structure in ways that might not be as obvious when you're thinking about how to neatly construct each sentence at a time.

... then you cut and paste the whole thing into a Word document and start editing to make it coherent. And then later you take your friend out to lunch for being great and listening to your grad school nonsense.
posted by angst at 8:11 PM on August 26, 2013 [5 favorites]

Read the book "The Now Habit." It's a classic for a reason—it's changed my life—and the author literally researched people procrastinating on their dissertations. He goes beyond the band-aid tactics and gets at the underlying emotional dynamics of why you're stuck.

The blog Study Hacks (and really, all of Cal Newport's books) might be useful to you in general, particularly Fixed-hours productivity, although I can't recall if he directly addresses procrastination.

But run, don't walk to Amazon and get The Now Habit. Best $10 you'll ever spend.
posted by squasher at 10:50 AM on August 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Thank you to everyone! I've marked a few answers as best, mostly because I have an inkling that these ideas will work particularly well for me. All of the answers are fantastic, though, and it's reassuring to know that I'm not the only one who has ever gone through this.
posted by therumsgone at 12:02 PM on August 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

Another approach is to work obliquely. Do the things that need to be done, but are peripheral to the actual writing. Like tables, and figures and references. I've found that if I do these low mental input things, it gets me going and soon I can turn my attention on the actual writing. If you use Scrivener, start filling in the sections, and no matter how incomplete, the very structure of the document will add a bit of incentive. Hang in there!
posted by dhruva at 11:49 AM on August 30, 2013

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