How to *not* write a paper the day before it's due?
January 19, 2019 6:21 AM   Subscribe

I'm a grad student (course based) and a pretty bad procrastinator who has finally come to the realization that, perhaps, it is not wise to begin writing my papers a handful of days before they are due. It adds so much unnecessary stress to my life! I have no idea how to write a paper over the course of a few weeks and not stress about it the night before it's due. How... do people do this?

I have a pretty busy semester this year (my final one, woohoo!) and I don't think I can afford to keep the same "writing style" I've had in previous semesters throughout my academic career. I tend to procrastinate and put things off until I can't avoid it anymore. I get good grades on the papers I write (which I usually begin maybe 4-3 days before they are due and finish the night before), but I am tired of the stress that comes along with leaving assignments this late.

I understand the process of writing a paper: research, planning/outlines, writing a rough draft, then editing and revising, etc. However, I just can't imagine doing this over a period of weeks. For example, I have a research paper due in 3 weeks, which seems so far in the future to me. How do plan out and write a paper over this amount of time and NOT have to write it all a few days before it's due? The idea of doing this seems so foreign to me that I have no idea where to begin. How do I reform my ways?
posted by VirginiaPlain to Writing & Language (37 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
 
Write it today! Then read what you wrote in a week and revise it.
posted by oceanjesse at 6:31 AM on January 19 [7 favorites]


A research paper is a pretty big thing to do in a couple days. For the one I did last term we were assigned steps - pulling together bibliography, doing a zero draft - telegraphic fleshed out notes, first draft - edit that mercilessly, come back, annotated bibliography etc. Far easier to edit something carefully if you didn't just write it I find. A little distance makes you actually read it and realize where there are holes. I'm not a procrastinator on this stuff because it's so painful and it's hard to do well at the last minute for any extended writing. I think a lot is building new habits to do over time. Helpful also to have a writing partner so you can critique each other's work.
posted by leslies at 6:35 AM on January 19 [1 favorite]


Would it help to make a schedule of steps?
posted by maurreen at 6:42 AM on January 19 [2 favorites]


Would it help to make a schedule of steps?

I think it would, but I just don't know what type of schedule would be reasonable over several weeks?

I did a bit more thinking about this, and I think because I've made writing research papers very stressful in my mind (due to leaving them for mere days before they are due) I am used to putting *so much* energy into them in such a short amount of time. As a result, I can't imagine the amount of energy I'll need to exert over 3 weeks to create that same paper? I don't know if that makes sense, but I think... part of me doesn't know how to/or can't imagine starting a paper early because I think I'll have that same amount of stress over 3 weeks instead of a few days. I don't know if that makes any sense, but I guess I just don't know what writing over a few weeks looks like vs a few days.
posted by VirginiaPlain at 6:52 AM on January 19 [6 favorites]


For writing academic papers in the humanities, what worked for me was getting a bunch of large index cards and a file box. You can do the equivalent with software but I've found that futzing around with the program early on just adds to the anxiety.

I start this the minute I have defined a topic and keep it up while writing and researching. Whenever you find a piece of information or think of an idea, it gets an index card. As your ideas take shape, you can change the order around and eventually start typing them into your text file.

If the material on one card card needs a bunch of references or background material to go with it, I create a separate file and write the name of that file on the card. Also, if it bothers you not to have backups, you can input each card into a program like scrivener, or just into text files, as you create it. But again, don't do that if it becomes a hangup. You may end up not needing a lot of it.
posted by BibiRose at 7:05 AM on January 19 [6 favorites]


You could make a plan to have a friend review your draft, and maybe vice versa. Then you'll still produce the first draft in the same 2-3 day period, but it'll be a few weeks out from the deadline (because they'll need time to read it and you'll need time to make revisions). Plus, you'll get an outside perspective on what's working and what isn't. This is basically how every professional job I've done since grad school has been. It's also far less stressful because if you need an extra 24 hours, you can ask your friend if you can give it to them tomorrow instead. The calendar has some built-in slack like that.
posted by salvia at 7:11 AM on January 19 [4 favorites]


None of this may apply to you, but it might help someone, so here you go.

I got hit with severe procrastination in my Master's program, and it took me nine years to get my PhD (four of those were spent working). I have been professionally diagnosed with ADHD and (screw it) my therapist says I act like someone with mild autism. I have not published anything significant for the last fourteen years. This fills me with self-loathing and shame. Reading back over this, it would appear that I am grossly unqualified to give anyone advice, and that is probably correct, but I have still been thinking about it a lot, so here is my most recent advice:

a) You have to develop sustainable writing habits or the procrastination can just get worse over time

1) Robert Boice came out with research about writing every single day, in his article "Habits of Productive Scholarly Writers." The thing is, there is a ton of other good advice in there about good cognitive and writing habits, so don't dismiss him out of hand

2)To a certain degree, Boice's daily writing mantra has been disproven by Helen Sword in her book "Air and Light and Time and Space" which shows that productive writers have all sorts of different habits, including just writing one day a week. PM me if you want a chapter.

3) See a therapist, if you can.

4) Find something you dislike more than writing research papers and use procrastinating that to work on your paper early. Say you are supposed to re-shingle your roof or perform a self-root canal and write a paper. Suddenly getting started on that paper is a lot easier, because it means putting off that root canal.

5) Give yourself a false deadline for the paper, and write a crappy draft in four days. Then let it percolate for a week, and go back and revise that draft and you'll still be done earlier, with less stress.

6) I'm reading Deep Work has some good ideas. I don't like the underlying assumption that we all have to become brilliant, creative, hyper-efficient machines or we'll be consumed by the late capitalist machine, but he may not be wrong.

7) Find a coach. I've been teaching writing for fifteen years, and the fact is, the only time I've had students turn in work early is when I've structured the course in a way that they received points for doing preliminary writing and rough drafts, and made them turn it in.

8) I have three types of students: The pre-med, hyperfocused students who have to have an A and do the work early for feedback, the average student, and the kids who are chronic procrastinators and are bored who probably have ADHD and come from non-college backgrounds and aren't motivated to play the game. I don't know how you shift from one category to another. I would guess that you are better off getting external help, which would be a more viable strategy.


When I was writing my dissertation, the thing that really changed for me was a) a hard deadline--I could lose my job, and b) I switched from a procrastinating, critical, aloof adviser to someone who said, "Just turn in something crappy now, and we'll revise it later." He was kind and patient while I burst into (manly) tears at a conference, and assured me that the department liked me, wanted me to finish, and that he would help. And those crappy chapters? We never did revise them that much. (although one of them was really good). I may be a failure as an academic writer, but I've been able to feed my family for the last seventeen years and perform other types of meaningful work.

So hang in there, and get all the help you deserve. You can do this, but you'll need help, and that's ok.
posted by mecran01 at 7:12 AM on January 19 [39 favorites]


not to always be like DRUGS ARE THE ANSWER but have you ever been evaluated for adhd? problems with executive dysfunction in the area of goal oriented skills (time management, planning & organization of tasks, etc) are often a sign, especially if it's been a long term problem or if it affects other areas of your life.
posted by poffin boffin at 7:15 AM on January 19 [6 favorites]


Just sit down and write. Steps/goals can help, but I've found the best way to tackle writing is just to block off chunks of time for it. This is my writing time today, 3 hours, whatever I get done today is fine, and it's fine if it's not great because I can go back and fix it later.

I have found this the most helpful approach because a) I know I don't have to spend all day doing it, expanding more energy than I have, and b) it lessens writing anxiety because I can't fail: it doesn't have to be great AND I don't have to do any particular amount. I just have to write. It also feels much less overwhelming to think "I have to write for 3 hours today" vs "I have to write a term paper due tomorrow!" Another bonus is that the writing dread lessens when I'm actually chipping away at whatever I'm writing.

So for your term paper, you could try choosing a few days in a week for writing time. As others have noted, trying to set an earlier deadline is also great. This allows time for feedback but will also make you feel less pressured if a writing block doesn't go as well as you'd hoped.

Good luck on your paper!
posted by DTMFA at 7:23 AM on January 19 [2 favorites]


I understand the process of writing a paper: research, planning/outlines, writing a rough draft, then editing and revising, etc. However, I just can't imagine doing this over a period of weeks.

Are you imagining that if you start early, you also have to do other good-student stuff like writing an outline and organizing your time? Because, uh, this is honestly terrible advice, but here goes: until I started work on my dissertation I never really outlined anything, and I give you permission not to outline anything either. You can, in fact, just start writing the way you would if you were doing it at the absolute frantic last minute. The difference is, if you do that a week early, you have time to catch your breath, look at what you wrote, make revisions, dig up supporting evidence, etc.

In fact, you don't have to make revisions either. Often I didn't. What I did instead was write something at top speed, read it over, notice things that were wrong with it, throw it away (well, set it aside), and then, having learned from those mistakes, start over writing from scratch at top speed. Starting early just meant I had time for the "start over" step.

I'm definitely not saying these are the best way to work. The point is, you don't have to work in the absolute best way right now. You're allowed to make baby steps. You don't have to jump straight from where you are to the mysterious world of outlines, revisions, bullet journaling, three-by-five cards, and longhand notes with six different pen colors. You can just shift your schedule a few weeks earlier and leave everything else about your godawful seat-of-the-pants process unchanged, and then gradually adopt other best-practices when you're ready.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:41 AM on January 19 [16 favorites]


I had this issue and what helped me was setting time-based daily goals for myself in the weeks before the paper was due. I schedule say, 30 minutes a day, that I have to work on the paper beginning two or three weeks before the deadline. Those 30 minutes could be internet research, drafting a page, whatever. I DON’T pressure myself to have a crystal clear plan for the paper in the early stages, I just try to hit my daily time goal.

3-4 days before the deadline is still go-time and I do whatever it takes to wrap the project up at that stage, but if I’ve put in a little time every day for weeks, those final 3-4 days are so much less stressful and time consuming than when I was starting a project from scratch in that time frame.
posted by horizons at 7:41 AM on January 19 [5 favorites]


I was like you! A major procrastinator in undergrad (I wrote all my papers during all-nighters right before they were due), and then things got way better in grad school. My strategy was to give myself short-ish (1-2 hours max) chunks of writing time, spread out over the weeks before a big assignment was due, and then use those shorter writing/researching chunks of time to work through the steps of the assignment. It helped if those writing chunks were sandwiched between other things I had to do, so I couldn’t sit around all day and put my writing time off. So if I had a 4 page research paper due, I’d schedule 2 hours of research and bibliography time before I had to go to work, then a few days later I’d spend an hour writing my intro and outlining the paper, then the next week I’d give myself 2 hours to write the body of the paper. Sometimes I didn’t quite finish the draft but I always factored in extra time before the due date to finish up some sections and review/edit, and at least I would have a good amount of the work done by then. The key for me was really only giving myself 1-2 hours at a time and telling myself I had to get done whatever I could in that time (it also helped that I was really busy and didn’t have a lot of extra time to spare). Also, I started scheduling my social/relaxation time as part of my overall schedule. I have adhd so being incredibly meticulous about my schedule is actually the thing that saved me from my own distractable brain while also reassuring me that I would get to do fun things too.
posted by sleepingwithcats at 7:45 AM on January 19 [5 favorites]


When I went back to finish my degree, I was in an accelerated program, so all the papers were assigned a week or two before they were due. So if you’re getting good grades and writing good papers, then your system ain’t necessarily broke. The issue is in managing your time and in feeling like you’re giving yourself enough time to produce a quality paper.

So I would:

1. Calculate about how long it takes to write a paper and multiply it by 150%, so that you have plenty of time

2. Block off your time so that you’re finishing each step on a different day, then make sure that you’re formalizing your work time (preparing your workspace, no other distractions, have water or coffee or snacks nearby, set a timer)

3. Let your last step (reading over final draft and checking for errors) be a few days before your deadline, so that when you submit the paper, you still have a couple days to address any shenanigans that come up (email doesn’t send, server is down, whatever) without suddenly running into “late” territory

If you basically break up your paper into smaller sprints, you’ll still get some productive urgency out of it, but also help eliminate the stress of “OMG I have to finish this paper in a week!” No, you only have to finish your research today, and you have X hours to do it and it probably won’t take nearly that long.

There’s also a benefit to stepping away and coming back to your work with fresh eyes. I don’t know about you, but I tend to noodle on things in the background even if I’m not actively working on them. By the time I’m ready to sit down and work, often I’ve thought of a few solutions to try.

Budgeting your time, and building free time into the budget, should help alleviate the stress of producing the paper by the deadline, without making you feel like you have to cram the entire process. It takes practice, but you already know you produce good work, so your methods are pretty sound. The only part you really need to fix is your scheduling.
posted by Autumnheart at 7:46 AM on January 19 [4 favorites]


I used to be this person.

You need to make the decision to start working in the paper before you feel like you "have" to. I do this by budgeting time to work on the paper. I put it in my planner. I make working on the paper a daily task.

Early on, when the deadline is far away, I find it's less stressful to think about getting a particular paper-related task done and instead think about "I'm going to spend two hours on this and make some progress, whatever that is." As the deadline approaches, I might need to become more task-oriented, but ideally, since I've already been working on it regularly over a period of time, I'm still not crushed.

Just start. Don't overthink it. Do what you need to do to get started.

Another option is to join a writing group on your campus, or form one with other students, so you have an actual obligation to sit down and write at a particular time.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 7:57 AM on January 19 [4 favorites]


How I would divide that time up for graduate-level work. This is flexible depending on the paper and the timing:

* 50% mark: Your thesis statement and a summary of prior work. This forces you to understand the prior work in enough detail to be able to articulate exactly what your argument is going to be, and hopefully a new direction for your analysis.

* 75% mark: your "background" sections. At this point you need to ask yourself a critical question, "Is my thesis statement still good given the evidence I've collected?"

* One week before delivery: Rough draft. This gives you time to sleep on it, get feedback, and prep presentation materials if that's a part of the assignment.

It often helps to make specific appointments on your calendar a week in advance for specific sub-tasks. Something like "7:00 pm - 9:00 pm: Read Able (2005), Baker (2012), and Charlie (2016)." Alternately, set up a routine and block out that time on your calendar.

If you're having issues with Interweb management, schedule times to work unplugged. Pop the ethernet dongle, turn off wifi, and set a timer.

Depending on your field, eventually you'll start working on marathon projects where you need to do your lit reviews and thesis statements months in advance in order to get approval from funding, IRB, and your advisors, gallery space, etc., so it's good practice to get into now.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 8:02 AM on January 19 [8 favorites]


I also have ADHD, and I totally agree that I work best when breaking things out into chunks of 1-2 hours. I still use that method for projects at work and at home, and it really makes me so much more productive.

And yeah, during the first draft or two, I had a general idea of what I wanted to say, and I’d just put it down, even if it was just a few sentences. “This is the section where I talk about each software package and how I would implement it. The first one is for on-site installation, the second is for cloud installation, the third is for hybrid. Ultimately I decide on hybrid and say why.” Obviously not polished, but it serves as a placeholder and summary for what that section should contain. Once you get all your sections roughed out, you have an overall skeleton of what your paper will be about, and then you’ll add the flesh.

Just getting something on paper like “My subject will be about this and then I provide sources that back it up” will help organize your thoughts and give you some traction.
posted by Autumnheart at 8:02 AM on January 19 [4 favorites]


Drugs: Weyland makes a product called Focus that has organic caffeine (Guarava) combined with L-theanine. It's basically caffeine without the jitters and a smoother come down. Amazon has it.
posted by mecran01 at 8:09 AM on January 19


I teach master's students and their big assignment is a 15-20 page term paper. This is what I suggest in my syllabus:

Typical timeline
Take time throughout the semester to work on this paper. Last-minute term papers are stressful. They also typically don’t yield the best results.

Week 3
You should have a sense of what topic you are interested in. Begin exploring that topic via literature searches through library databases. Keep a list of relevant citations in Zotero or in a spreadsheet.

Week 6
You should have firmed up your topic selection at this point. You will have collected at least 6-10 empirical articles at this point. Read Webster & Watson (2002) for instructions on organizing literature for a review. (Note - this article is really useful for all disciplines and the techniques transfer to other types of writing fairly easily.)

Week 8
The majority of your references are read, and you’ve made a concept matrix or a concept map of the themes in the articles.

Week 10
Start drafting your paper, using the concept matrix to outline your argument. Fill in any gaps that arise by reading other literature, if necessary.

Week 13
Draft of paper finished. Revise this week and next. You may want to pair up with someone from class to trade drafts.

Week 15
Final paper finished.

It's also well-established in pedagogy research that writing a term paper is a process that necessarily includes fits and starts, with lots of undoing and redoing as you learn. So giving yourself time throughout the semester helps you learn better. For whatever reason, thinking about it that way has helped me personally to focus on pacing my own writing.
posted by k8lin at 8:10 AM on January 19 [17 favorites]


I was a huge procrastinator until my senior year of college. I got past it by learning to partialize my goals. Rather than divide my time into blocks—during which I would also just procrastinate, even if I said I would be writing from 5-6 pm or whatever—I made myself write two pages a day or so, no matter how long that took. One page and I could give myself a reward, like texting my BFF or reading an article. Two pages and I could order Pad Thai or something.
posted by Yoko Ono's Advice Column at 8:12 AM on January 19 [2 favorites]


A few things that might be helpful from me as a fellow procrastinator who managed to get a couple of master’s degrees:

The writing process isn’t linear. You don’t have to follow steps in any particular order. You might try starting with pre-writing: open up your doc, and write about your ideas for your paper, and maybe sketch out some research questions and arguments. Pre-writing can be really useful and take the pressure off.

Start your research now to give yourself time to get sources through inter library loan if your library doesn’t have them.

I realized a lot of my procrastination was perfectionism. If I did it at the last minute, I gave myself permission for it not to be perfect. Is that an issue for you?
posted by bluedaisy at 8:15 AM on January 19 [3 favorites]


I used to write rough drafts by hand during class while my mind was focused on the topics and while related ideas are circulating aroubd me.
posted by Buddy_Boy at 8:16 AM on January 19 [8 favorites]


The key for me is to break down the process of getting started into the smallest possible pieces.

Day 1: open Microsoft Word and make a file name

Day 2: open the document and type some words or ideas that relate to the topic

Day 3: maybe type a phrase I’ve thought of that could work in an opening paragraph

Day 4: write three topics I want to address

Day 5: make a lazy incomplete outline with thesis, topics, subtopics

Etc.

This works for me for a couple of reasons: 1. The pieces are so easy and low stakes that I’m not afraid of disappointing myself. 2. These little steps jog my brain into thinking more about what I want to say, and it just keeps humming away in the background as I go about the rest of my day. Usually by the time I get to day 4 I end up a little ahead of schedule because words begin flowing more easily.
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 8:21 AM on January 19 [19 favorites]


The only thing I have ever found that helps at all for things like this is to set myself specific, early deadlines (several of them, if the project is to be broken into steps like "identify sources > perform research > draft intro & summary > draft body text > generate bibliography > first revision > second revision > final proofreading") and then decide on small rewards for meeting them. It can also be helpful to create consequences for missing them, but the rewards are the most important—reinforcement works better than punishment, although if the result of missing a deadline is just "nothing happens," it can be easy to let myself skate.

The hardest part is then sticking to my prescribed system of rewards and punishments, but I'm better at that than I am at just doing things through sheer willpower alone.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 8:22 AM on January 19


1. Set a fake deadline for yourself ten days or so before the paper is due. Then behave exactly as if that's the REAL deadline. Using the new deadline with your current methods of organizing and writing, start a bit earlier than you normally would if feeling rushed bothers you. But you must absolutely adhere to the fake deadline.

2. When the fake deadline comes, you'll have your paper. Then relax for a couple of days and let the paper just sit. Then go back to it, and you'll have the pleasure of editing, polishing, and making it so much better.
posted by MelissaSimon at 9:09 AM on January 19 [1 favorite]


If you're in an academic setting, you almost certainly have access to some form of coaching via a student writing center, study center, library, etc. Take advantage of that - you're paying for it, and it's super valuable.

One dumb little tip that helped me: as soon as I had the syllabus, I created blank, empty files for all the writing assignments. They'd just have the title and below, I'd cut and paste the criteria for the assignment right from the syllabus. Then I had a folder with all the assignments for the semester already set up. Whenever I had a thought about what to add to that paper, I'd just open the file and jot it down. When it came time to sit down and do some writing, there was something really powerful about not starting with a blank page, and not having the thought "I haven't done anything AT ALL yet." I had at least noted the criteria and set up the doc. It helped get over that "must start, don't want to" moment.
posted by Miko at 9:24 AM on January 19 [4 favorites]


Just a thought -- ignore if it doesn't apply -- look into whether you may have an undiagnosed anxiety disorder. Anxious perfectionism may be preventing you from starting your papers until forced to. If so, a tiny daily pill may revolutionize your work experience.
posted by JimN2TAW at 9:50 AM on January 19 [3 favorites]


This was my method, as someone who definitely has a lot of anxiety but tends not to be a procrastinator when it comes to schoolwork. Not to toot my own horn but one of my essays won an academic award, so I think this method can lead to success. My overall time budget is two to three hours per page for papers longer than 10 pages.

Step 1: As soon as the paper is assigned, begin doing a little brainstorming in the back of my mind about topics.

Step 2: Five week to one month before the paper is due, begin to schedule time for reading. For me, that means like 3 hour chunks of time two to three times per week. Your mileage may vary. As I read, I tend to use tape flags to mark pages with relevant or important quotations. I am a fast reader but not a super focused one, so if I need to read for an extended period of time, I go to the quiet section of the library.

Step 3: Schedule a meeting with the professor. Tell them what you've read and your thoughts so far. Ask for any additional recommendations about what to read.

Step 4: About three to four weeks before the paper is due, begin writing. For me the first step is writing is just transcribing all of the important quotes and putting them into some kind of order. Over the course of doing this I am starting to think about my thesis and using that to help me pick and choose more quotes to cite. I am also trying to structure things into an outline.

Step 5: Write my introductory paragraph with thesis statement. This is the hardest thing to do, it takes a long time, maybe hours. But if you do it well, the rest of the paper almost writes itself.

Step 6: Fill in the rest of your argument, using the quotes you have cited for evidence. My rule of thumb here is that I can write about a page per hour. Again, your mileage may vary. Get a complete draft done.

Step 7: Walk away for a bit. Watch TV, go for a walk, clear your head.

Step 8: Print your paper out on paper. Read the whole thing again from start to finish and mark revisions and edits. I am not someone who does a ton of editing. This step usually only takes me an hour. This can also be an opportunity to get someone else's feedback if you feel like you want to do significant revisions.

Step 9: Final draft. Again, I am not a huge revision person, so this is a quick step for me, but your mileage may vary.
posted by mai at 10:09 AM on January 19 [2 favorites]


Another way to look at it, if your paper lends itself to this, is "what can I get out of the way now?" Look at it as doing a favor for your last-three-day self. Format the bibliography, write the boring historical background section, whatever.
posted by salvia at 10:33 AM on January 19 [2 favorites]


Backward scheduling, beginning at the due date, calculating some reasonable time for last revisions, and then rolling back the whole work process in fairly clearly defined chunks and steps until you end up TODAY. I guarantee that (more or less no matter your timeframe and assignment) you'll have to work hard not to pee your pants. No need for fake deadlines.

The only reason people don't get nervous about their projects in due time is because they never actually fill them with content. Do that for yourself. Results will follow.
posted by Namlit at 10:35 AM on January 19 [2 favorites]


I've been a last-minute big-project procrastinator for most of my life--and then I got promoted to a role at work that requires significant project management, of projects that can last weeks, months, and even quarters. I had to develop new habits fast before they realized what a mistake they'd made. :)

The thing that helps me most is what I call storyboarding, and what an English teacher would call writing an outline. As soon as I have a project, I pull up a document and write down everything I know about it so far: What's the goal/deliverable? When is it due? What are the success criteria? What are the risks? Who else do I need to talk to or involve? What resources do I already have at my disposal? What resources am I going to need to find?

Once I have that, I give myself a few days at most to let everything percolate in the back of my mind, then I start an outline, either by putting together a barebones skeleton of a presentation deck or literally writing down an outline in the format I learned in 8th grade English. Intro, thesis, supporting details, more supporting details, conclusion. Then I'll fill in with what I know. (At this point I'll usually run it by someone else at work, someone I'm accountable to or whose opinions on the subject I trust, but this step isn't always relevant for academic work.)

I try to get this out of the way in the first week, because then if old habits creep back in, or unexpected things take priority for awhile, I am so much better prepared to do that last-minute sprint. But honestly, while this was the norm when I first started this, I found it so useful (it feels weirdly good to be prepared and productive!) that I found I actually wanted to keep working on the smaller in-between tasks, spreading them out over weeks rather than waiting until the last few days. Blocking time off to do it, and adhering to that, helped a lot: two hours tomorrow to go find those missing resources. Two hours next Friday to read them, take notes, think about how they fit in. An hour on Mon, Weds, & Fri the following week to start writing.

No matter how you structure your work, blocking off time for it and then taking that time really helps. Even if it feels like you're not ready, like you don't know what you'll actually do during that time, even if all you can promise yourself is that you'll sit and stare at the assignment on your laptop screen for an hour.

Good luck!
posted by rhiannonstone at 10:48 AM on January 19 [5 favorites]


I heartily recommend to you the MOOC Learning How to Learn, which I saw recommended on Ask a while ago and thoroughly enjoyed - and learned a lot from. It deals a lot with procrastination (and the course itself is in short-bitesized pieces, so doing it doesn't have to become a reason to procrastinate in itself). It's also the world's most popular MOOC, so you don't have to just take my word for it.

One of their tips is to concentrate on the process, not the outcome.

Right now, it sounds like you really don't know how long it takes to do any of the steps properly, in a situation where you've got heaps of time. So maybe, right now, you allocate 1 hour a day, 5 days a week, to this essay. At 1 hour, you stop. No matter how far you've got, how much you think you're on a roll (if that happens, make a quick note of what you're about to do next and tomorrow you will have a much easier start). And keep a log of how long it takes to do each step. If it turns out to take longer than you think and you run out of hour slots, worst case scenario is that you still rush at the end, but you're ahead of where you'd usually be, and you have useful data for next time. Keep refining it with each essay - start sooner, allocate more daily time, whatever.

And reward yourself at the end of your hour, even if you feel like you've achieved very little. You worked for an hour, and that was your goal, and you've done it. I also very much recommend this excellent Liz Gilbert Ted Talk for a little help with the concept that your job is simply to turn up and put in the required hours, not to sit there until you feel inspiration hit, and drive yourself crazy in the process. She's great on the idea that stress and craziness should not be a required part of creativity the way we so often think they are.
posted by penguin pie at 12:00 PM on January 19 [5 favorites]


This is from before the internet -
I won't go into coming up with a thesis, but:

Paper assigned - get over to the library and check out books to read in the first week. Read books. Bookmark interesting pages and keep a rough index of what's where.
After adequate quantities of books are read, say week three, start writing. On notebook paper. Just flesh out an idea on a couple pages of notebook paper longhand.
Try to do this daily. May be more or less pages per day, figure out how many days you have to work. Allow a week or so at the end for
Literally using scissors and tape to make a "scroll" of all those ideas, putting them in an order that makes sense.
Flesh out transitions as required.
Start typing.
posted by rudd135 at 1:50 PM on January 19 [1 favorite]


If I took 3 courses in a term, I wrote one paper each month.
And if you're TAing, the end of the term is hell if you put these off.
posted by k8t at 3:53 PM on January 19


Buy a microphone. Once you have your bibliography together in front of you as sources to quote, then you have to just speak into the microphone and keep talking until you have exhausted the word limit of the paper. Then, you transcribe and edit the paper. You may also have someone else edit your paper, I would think. Writing papers against a tight deadline comes down to management science. It takes building up a bibliography that you will be relying on but steadily improving your self-development as a practitioner.

The challenge of academic work is that it can open many doors. When you're in it, you wonder is this writing going to benefit me. It will, but you have to learn how to do it in such a short amount of time that it actually works against you to learn how to write in graduate school unless you absolutely plan to do a PhD. Instead, follow the rough outline of academic referencing as you talk out your papers. Give yourself enough time to have the notes electronically transcribed, which will not take much time. Then, edit them. In fact, it would be more advantageous for you to learn to edit than learn to write now. You can learn to write by speaking. It might be good to arrange an interview with your academic leader, where you interview him on tape about the syllabus and constructing research papers. You can listen to that whenever you want.
posted by parmanparman at 4:00 PM on January 19 [2 favorites]


I don't have this problem, but my friends who do have perfectionist tendencies. They seem to be
subconsciously terrified that if they actually started the work early, put real work into it over a longer course of time, they still might not get a perfect grade. If they cram and send in the paper a few minutes before (or after) the deadline, they think the professor will grade them on the paper they "could have written" if they had had more time and will be more lenient. It's a defense mechanism to prevent themselves from feeling as if they have ever been assessed based on the best work they could have possibly done. They also seem to have a poor sense of how long tasks take to be completed. If you have that problem too, talk to your professor or someone in student services about creating a reasonable timeline.

If you can write an essay in a few days and get a a good grade, that's great! The main difference with a busy schedule is that you need to give yourself your own deadlines so that if two papers are due the same day, you give yourself a personal deadline to finish one of them a day or two before you need to work on the second one. You are also allowed to turn in your papers early. You will not lose points for being early as long as you put in the same amount of work that you normally would have.
posted by Penguin48 at 8:50 AM on January 20 [1 favorite]


The Now Habit has a lot of useful strategies, like the Unschedule and working backwards from the deadline. It's a classic for a reason.

I think the most important thing is accepting that turning yourself into a person who schedules stuff and does things ahead of time is going to be a process. Do not expect to plan correctly all the time, just know that it is a skill and you get better at it with experience. Also, don't beat yourself up if you fall out of using a particular system or end up doing something that doesn't help that much. For me, I definitely needed to change my mindset from one of "I tried this one thing and it didn't work, guess I'm irretrievably broken, might as well give up" to "how can I extract some kind of information from this failure and use it to figure out what to do next?"

Another thing to keep in mind is that if you fail to stick to a plan one day, or if something comes up to throw you off, this is not actually a problem! This is in fact what usually happens when you make a plan. You just re-plan based on how much time is left. Planning is not something you just do once. This sounds so obvious but it literally took me years to grasp.

Finally, I have never had success with trying to change everything at once and I think I'm in the majority here. Instead I'd pick one extra planning technique you want to use, figure out a way to make it as simple as possible, and just practice that for a few weeks.
posted by en forme de poire at 10:49 AM on January 24


Also seconding Cal Newport. I would actually check out his books about college because they are written for people who don't want to spend a lot of time planning and whose responsibilities are mostly coursework. Deep Work is good too but it's more about very long term projects, like research papers that you might spend multiple years on.
posted by en forme de poire at 10:52 AM on January 24


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