Procrastination, Self-Sabotage, and Seven Tips to Finish On Time

Hebert Perez-Roses

Dr Hebert Perez-Roses

“You may delay, but time will not”
Benjamin Franklin

“Never put off till tomorrow what may be done the day after tomorrow just as well”
Mark Twain

If there is one thing that seems inevitable in all PhD programmes, like the law of gravity or the second law of thermodynamics, it is procrastination. The fresh PhD student always feels that there is plenty of time ahead: Three years, wow !! If we look at it from pure arithmetic, it is perfectly natural that at the age of twenty-four, a period of three years looks like an awful lot of time. After all it amounts to more than 12% of your life, and to about 16% of the life that you remember.

Besides, student life is so nice !. There are so many parties, so many sports events, so many causes worthy of our devotion !. And best of all, we’re at last free to enjoy all of that !. Your parents are far away, and you don’t have to suffer your dad asking about your grades and homework everyday.

It takes a lot of determination to get away from those temptations. If you’re doing a PhD by research, things may be even worse, because you don’t have any periodical exams that impose a work routine. It is then all up to you and your supervisor to establish that routine.

In the absence of periodic exams, some universities institute a confirmation exam at the end of the first year, which the student must pass in order to continue in the programme. This undoubtedly helps alleviate the problem, but does not solve it completely.

When I talk about procrastination, I cannot avoid thinking about my own personal experience. Like Sheldon Cooper, from the sitcom “The Big Bang Theory”, I have completed two PhD’s. The first one was carried out in very difficult conditions, with practically no Internet access (yes, you have read correctly), and with a one-year interlude overseas. Obviously, this PhD lasted much longer than expected: seven years in all.

By the second PhD I thought that I had learned enough, so as to avoid falling into the same pitfalls. Eventually I did manage to finish on time, but I had to rush in the end all the same, and I was left with the unpleasant sensation that my thesis could have been better, had I applied myself harder at the beginning.

Thus, I would like to share my experience with you, in order to help you deal with this universal problem, and help you meet the deadlines. Here are a few tips:

1. YOUR PhD, YOUR THESIS. Although it is undeniable that your supervisor has a crucial responsibility in your thesis, never forget that it is YOUR PhD. To begin with, make sure that your supervisor has clear goals and ideas about your thesis, and a clear work plan. Second, if you have some problem that is beyond the capabilities of your supervisor, seek timely help. Either if you are stuck with some statistical analysis, or you are struggling with English, there are people out there who can assist you (e.g. consultants, internet forums, etc.). Do not wait for your supervisor to give you directions: be pro-active !

2. ROUTINES. Establish a work routine from the beginning. This routine may vary according to your preferences and other occupations that you may have. Nevertheless, it is usually better to work during the day and sleep at night. Put off parties and beer for the weekend. At work, try to accomplish something everyday.

3. AVOID DISTRACTIONS. Never (and I mean, NEVER) start your day by answering your e-mail. Try to accomplish as much as possible in the first part of the day, and leave e-mail, as well as all other tasks requiring less concentration, for the second part of the day, when you’re more tired. Likewise, avoid other distractions, such as going out for coffee with your buddies when you are in the middle of a productive run. Very important: turn off that wassap !!

4. RELAX. Set aside some time to relax. If you don’t relax from time to time, stress could accumulate, and you might end up being less productive. You may see it as a reward for the work done right. Just remember not to turn relaxing into your main occupation.

5. DON’T TRY TO COVER THE WHOLE OF HUMAN KNOWLEDGE. I had a student once, whose main distraction was to gather as much information as possible for his thesis. He collected all the papers that could be remotely related to his topic. He was an ‘infomaniac’, so to say. It didn’t matter how much I told him that we already had enough information: for him it was not enough. Needless to say, he did not complete his thesis in time. In fact, he did not complete his thesis at all ! You must resist the temptation to produce a treatise comprising all human knowledge on a certain topic. Keep your thesis manageable; don’t be an infomaniac.

6. STAY FOCUSED. This advice is very related to the previous one, but it doesn’t hurt to state it explicitly. When you are in the middle of your research, you will be diverted by many side issues. Sometimes it is good to work on two different strands at the same time, because one of them might lead to a blind alley, and then you will have some ‘spare problems’ to keep working. However, do not diversify too much. Stay focused.

7. START WRITING AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. Writing is THE one task that is usually put off more frequently by PhD students. They mistakenly believe that there will always be time for that at the end, only to find that it takes much longer than they had expected. Include writing as part of your daily routine from the beginning, it pays off !

Following these tips is no guarantee that you will meet the deadlines, but not following them is a guarantee that you WILL NOT finish on time, or that you will not finish at all !!