How to stop papercrastinating

Welcome back to Happy Academic 2019!

laptop-3087585_1920Image by JESHOOTS-com on Pixabay

It’s amazing how many trivial bits of e-paper you can push around your computer when it’s time to write a manuscript (or thesis, or book chapter, or other bits of academic writing that don’t have an imminent deadline). Or how many times you can browse emails, check social media, watch Youtube (those talented cats/TED talks/tragic 90s music videos!), make cups of tea, or engage in some other mindless task.

Disseminating our research in writing is a core component of academic life, and yet it is one that many researchers struggle to find time for. And yet we typically manage to meet other key academic deadlines – funding and ethics applications and teaching-related tasks, for instance.

As well as the delayed progress on our work, putting off important tasks is not good for us in other ways. Evidence has shown that the habit of leaving things til the last minute can result in low quality work performance and reduced well-being.

Overcoming the tendency to papercrastinate requires firstly understanding why we do it. Why do we find it so hard to sit down and write? Here are some of the reasons I’ve come across:

  • Lack of time
  • Lack of uninterrupted time
  • Waiting for the ‘right’ time
  • Other tasks with deadlines take priority
  • Lack of motivation
  • Not in the right ‘mindset’
  • Overwhelm
  • Too hard to start
  • Anxiety, perfectionism, fear of failure (“My writing’s not good enough”)
  • Struggles with the writing process
  • Too many distractions
  • No inspiring/quiet place to write

Which of these do you relate to? Understanding the root causes can help us better address our own papercrastination.

How to beat papercrastination

If you relate to the first bunch of reasons above, some time-boosters like these might help.

1. Just show up. Plan (even short!) times you’ll write, book them into your calendar if you use one, and then turn up. As James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, writes, “A habit must be established before it can be improved. If you can’t learn the basic skill of showing up, then you have little hope of mastering the finer details. Master the art of showing up.”

2. Write for 5 minutes. Seriously. You’ll learn you don’t need a huge block of time to get some words down. And those few words/minutes often get the motivational mojo moving and become 10 minutes, or 20, or more.

If you find your writing barriers are motivational (like the middle bunch of reasons above), try these:

3. Remind yourself of the bigger picture. Why are you writing? And it’s more than because it’s a KPI/for your track record/publish or perish etc. Writing helps spread your research, knowledge and expertise to a broad audience so it can benefit others and the world. Reminding yourself of the contributions your written work can make can motivate you to start. And remembering the thrill you get when you receive that “your manuscript has been accepted” message doesn’t hurt either.

4. Have a writing system. Any system. If you don’t know what system works for you, try one. If it doesn’t work, try another. Stay curious and keep testing until you find the right system for you.

5. Get support – enlist a writing buddy, or join a Shut Up and Write group (or start your own!). Writing with others introduces a social element that can boost motivation by making the writing process less isolating and more fun.

6. To overcome overwhelm, break the writing into smaller steps. For example, plan to write the first two sentences of your Introduction. Or the Aims of a paper. Or a paragraph of the Methods section. See more on breaking down tasks here.

7. For perfectionists particularly: separate your writing from your editing. Getting words down is often the hardest step and “over-editing” your work at the same time you’re trying to write can undo any progress you make. Spend a session simply committing words to paper. Promise yourself you can come back and edit later, and then free yourself to write imperfectly for the sake of getting a first draft down.

8. If you struggle with the writing process, try saying out loud what you want to write – like you’re telling a friend. Then write down what you said.

 And if interruptions or lack of space (the last batch of reasons) are your nemesis:

9. If your usual work space isn’t conducive to writing (and if it’s feasible for you to work off-site sometimes), find a space that is. It could be at home, a library, or a café. J K Rowling famously wrote some of the Harry Potter series in a local café while her baby napped in a pram.

10. Minimise distractions – turn off email alerts, switch your phone to voicemail, put on headphones or put up a ‘please do not disturb/writing in progress’ sign on you chair/door. (My daughter ironically stuck a “Shh… genius at work” note on my study door once – which I admit I’ve not taken down)

But not all technology is your foe here and you can use it to your advantage. Try:

  • Procraster: prompts you to identify the source of your procrastination and then gives you advice about how to address it. It also helps you track your time use and manage tasks.
  • AppDetox: this app claims to help you ‘digital detox’ by setting your own rules for app use to reduce heavy usage and stop procrastinating.
  • Focus@Will claims to combine neuroscience and music to boost productivity and attention span by up to 400%. It is said to be ideal for those who find it difficult to focus while writing
  • Lanes is a task manager that includes daily and weekly planners to help you map out what you want to achieve, as well as a Pomodoro timer to break the tasks into 25 minute chunks.
  • If you’re brave, try The Most Dangerous Writing app. It pushes you to keep writing by quite brutally deleting all of your work if you stop typing for more than 5 seconds. I find this a bit scary but it may be effective for those who thrive under pressure!

Act Now

  • Book one writing time into your calendar now. Just one! And show up. At the end of the session, book another one. Repeat.
  • How do you beat papercrastination? I’d love to hear your strategies, in the comments below or on Twitter.

6 thoughts on “How to stop papercrastinating

  1. The Most Dangerous Writing App sounds terrifying!!!

    Timely article as I go procrastinate a travel grant due in a couple of days on top of a massive to do list! I think the main thing really is to just open your word doc and just start writing!

    Thanks for all the tips and resources!


  2. Pingback: Pandemic paralysis (and how to cope) | Happy Academic

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