Guest post: Dr Andrea Darling, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, School of Biosciences and Medicine, University of Surrey
These are a combination of personal experience and things I have picked up from seminars etc:
- Turn on your computer before you intend to start work with the file you want to work on already open. For example, I get up in the morning, turn on the computer and open the file, have breakfast and wash etc, then sit down at the computer to work. This sounds odd but I find this helps as it breaks down barriers to working in that everything is ready to go.
- If you can’t think what to write then just start by just reading what you already have. This will be easier for your brain to deal with than writing and when you start reading you will then naturally start to think of things to write.
- When you finish for the day leave a paragraph unfinished (e.g. with a comment balloon to say what you want to say so you don’t forget). The next day it is much easier to start writing again for this unfinished paragraph and this will get you back into the flow of writing again.
- Break down confusing things into steps and write them down. For example if receiving a huge number of comments on a manuscript write down a list of the order you will deal with them (e.g. 1. Sort out formatting on tables, 2 sort out missing reference on page 11). This will help you clarify things in your mind so you feel less panicky and less averse to starting to do the job now.
- Promise yourself a reward. For example, if I finish x number of words by lunchtime then I can have a treat (e.g. walk, nap, bath, watch 1h of TV).
- (Don’t) Eat that Frog! : Byron Tracey in his book ‘Eat that Frog’ says that you should start the day by getting the hardest and most unpleasant task done first. This may work for some people but I find it doesn’t work for me. I find it easier to do the opposite, namely to start with the easiest tasks that don’t require the most thinking. Once I have done a few easy tasks then I feel ready to tackle the more difficult ones. This also fits with the idea that when you start working your brain is not in ‘gear’, you need to get it ‘in gear’ in order to tackle the harder tasks. Of course, don’t do so many easy tasks that then you get tired and then you will procrastinate over starting a hard task. There needs to be a balance.
- Schedule your writing carefully for the time of day: Try to write when you naturally are freshest in the mind, you are much more likely to procrastinate if you are tired.
- Do ten minute chunks. If you have a really unappealing /complicated task to do then just say you will do a 10 minute chunk of work. Work on it for 10 minutes (even if only reading it to start with, as point 2) then switch to something else. Switch back to the adverse task frequently throughout the day. At some point you may actually start to enjoy the adverse task as you realise it is not as bad to deal with as you thought. Chunking it down makes it less frightening and more manageable.
- Think in your mind how good you will feel when you finish it. Think back to when you have finished a hard task before (e.g. submitting a dissertation or other coursework) and how good you felt. Keep this in mind as it will motivate you to finish your current task.
- Focus on why you are doing it: Focus on the specific outcome of the work, your final goal (e.g. to get a PhD and the career you want). This will motivate you. This will stop short-term feelings of inconvenience/inertia stopping you from doing the work. In conjunction with point 9 this should increase your motivation.
- Make writing a mini-habit: Try to write at the same time every day if possible, for a set length of time. This will make it into a habit and it will be easier to overcome procrastination. Ideally set aside time when there will be no interruptions (or remove interruptions- switch off the noise that tells you about an email, put your mobile phone on silent, ban Facebook etc.).
- When you see a blank page just write down what comes to mind, don’t wait to get the perfect thought: Anything you write can be changed, and it is better to write something (even if you later delete it) than nothing. It won’t ever be perfect (as nothing is) so don’t let this stop you writing. Also, remember that a first draft doesn’t have to be good (and no-one will see it), it is just the skeleton which you will use to flesh out your work. I find it easier not to write in perfect English to start with, I just write down how it comes to mind. The language and formatting can be corrected later. Think of a sculptor. S/he starts with a lump of clay and it looks bad. S/he works on the lump of clay to make it right, and it takes hours of editing to get it to look really good.