Monday 12 September 2016

The procrastination problem

Andy discusses different types of procrastination and offers tips on how students can stay motivated and on task when studying

-Andy Rowe

It’s something that affects us all; we’ve got that box-set to watch, the bathroom to clean and those dishes to wash and it can come at the expense of being sat down; doing work. As people who are working towards a PhD, (or perhaps more generally, any form of qualification) procrastination is virtually a requirement of the journey – everyone, and I mean everyone, at some stage struggles with motivation and this is when procrastination can take hold. Historically, procrastination was actually viewed as a good thing. The leaders of the Greek and Roman Empires typically embraced procrastination and would sit around doing nothing unless they had to. But times change and societies evolve. 

There are different types of procrastination; both active and passive (Chu and Choi, 20051). Active procrastination means that you realise you are delaying doing something but you are doing something more valuable instead whereas passive procrastination is when you just sit around, watching TV, basically doing nothing. This is where it can become problematic to productivity. I’d like to think that this blog post is a form of active procrastination (although I may be kidding myself!) But it is passive procrastination which can have a detrimental impact on concentration and productivity. Trust me, we have all suffered from this type, some more than others and you have to accept that it will happen at some point during your student or PhD journey. 

I’ve been through numerous stages of this type of procrastination and it doesn’t help when you get yourself in a rut – you keep putting things off and it can be difficult to break this cycle. On the other hand I’ve had periods of where I am really on a roll doing work and become increasingly motivated and don’t want to take a break because of being afraid I’ll lose motivation. However, it’s important to understand that it is cyclical – you might find periods of time where you are really motivated and you may find other times when you struggle for motivation. This is normal. It’s impossible to be able to concentrate all of the time because of the complexity of the work and the amount of mental energy it takes.  

There are things that can be done to help when the cycle leads to decreasing motivation. Interestingly, an article by the Independent written in March 2016, explained how music can possibly be a way to help improve concentration levels. The study found that the style, volume and rhythm can also have an impact. It has been shown to relax the mind and release dopamine – associated with pleasure. I would say choose a style which you enjoy listening to and the added bonus is that wearing headphones, in particular, can reduce background noise which can be a distraction. Personally, I have a couple of what I call “chillout” playlists on my I pod and sometimes play them when I’m working, but I’m not always in the mood for music – you just have to judge your own mood. Importantly, music isn’t for everyone but it is worth a try to see if it suits you and your productivity levels. 

There are also other ways to help ease procrastination and one of the most beneficial is taking regular breaks. I find that after about 45 minutes or so (sometimes less!) my mind wanders, it is here that I know I need to take a break. The work that we do is incredibly taxing on the mind and is mentally exhausting so having a regular break is so important for our concentration levels. A break can literally consist of anything and I define it as something that gets you away from your computer or pad of paper for a bit. In the next blog post I’ll discuss what I do to keep myself sane and discuss the benefits of exercise for a healthy mind.    

1Chu, A, H and Choi, J, N (2005) ‘Rethinking procrastination: positive effects of “active” procrastination behavior on attitudes and performance,’ Journal of Social Psychology, 145, 3, pp. 245 – 264.  

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