“I’ll do it tomorrow” – procrastination in doctoral studies

“I’ll do it tomorrow” – procrastination in doctoral studies

While talking to doctoral students about self-leadership the other day, one student brought up the topic of procrastination. As this is an important topic, that many struggle with, especially during remote work, I thought a blog post would be in order.

What makes procrastination so prevalent in academia? The academic environment has been called ”procrastination friendly” due to the high prevalence of procrastination among both under-graduate and graduate students. Autonomy, long deadlines, lack of structure and lack of support are only some of the features of academia that increase the chances of procrastination.

“We argue that increased attention to such procrastination-friendly factors in academic environments is important and that relatively minor measures to reduce their detrimental effects may have substantial benefits for students, institutions, and society.”

Svartdal, Dahl, Gamst-Klaussen, Koppenborg & Klingsieck (2020)

What is procrastination?

First, let’s define procrastination. Everyone postpones their duties or chores at some point. But when does postponing turn into procrastination? The important distinction is that procrastination is an irrational delay of behavior. So, engaging in actions that will in no way help to fulfill your interests or goals. Procrastination also involves it being harmful for yourself and for others, and that you are aware of this, but still do it (Steel, 2007).

Procrastination can have serious consequences for your doctoral studies and for your wellbeing. Studies show that suffering from writing block, procrastination, and perfectionism is related to experiencing more stress, exhaustion, and anxiety. Consequently, these states are related to lower levels of experienced productivity. A vicious circle is very likely to happen if your procrastination causes you stress that then hinders your productivity, which in turn, causes more stress and anxiety, leading to even less productivity. It’s therefore of utmost importance to recognize the signs and behaviors of procrastination, and to seek help to stop the cycle.

Why do doctoral students procrastinate?

The reasons behind procrastination are manifold (Steel, 2007). Lack of clear goals and lack of motivation, but also fear of failing or an irrational fear of not being good enough are some of the reasons why doctoral students procrastinate. Some might even engage in self-handicapping behavior, i.e. placing obstacles in one’s way in order to have an external reason for not succeeding.

“I just watched TV, that’s why I didn’t do so well on my exam”

Svartdal and colleagues (2020) identified nine factors that facilitate procrastination for students in an academic setting, and these factors are also applicable to doctoral students:

  • large degree of freedom in the study situation – the degree of autonomy and lack of structure in doctoral studies require strong self-regulation skills,
  • long deadlines – rewards somewhere in the future are not that motivating,
  • task aversiveness – negative feelings about the task make it easier to delay doing it,
  • temptations and distractions – procrastinators are extra tuned to positive outcomes and are more prone to get distracted by activities they consider pleasant,
  • limited information for proper self-monitoring – the academic environment does not encourage self-reflection
  • low focus on study/work skills training – academic institutions should offer more training in basic study and work skills
  • lack of efficacy-building opportunities – doctoral studies often do not build self-efficacy (i.e. one’s belief in one’s ability to succeed)
  • ineffective group work – collaboration skills and interdependence on others might help alleviate procrastination
  • influence of peers – lack of social norms and social support increase the risk of procrastination

Procrastination is often not the only trait you have that hinders your work. Studies have shown that procrastination is often accompanied by lack of persistence, poor impulse control, lack of work discipline, lack of time management, and the inability to work methodically (Schouwenburg, 2004).

This means that, in order to overcome procrastination, you have to dig deep into your methods and your ways of working. There is no quick fix or one-size-fits-all solution to “cure” procrastination. It requires time and effort (and patience).

Understanding why you procrastinate, is vital for doing something about it.

What can be done about it?

On a university or departmental level:

  • Make sure doctoral students have clear goals and tasks, and regular support and contact with supervisor/advisor.
  • Implement more structure into the doctoral studies; for example orientation days in the beginning of the doctoral studies and a structured path for completing the thesis and the courses needed.
  • Offer support for learning self-regulatory skills such as time- and self-management (see here for intervention results).
  • Invest in fostering belongingness and integration of doctoral students into the academic community.

On an individual level:

  • Practice time-management techniques, such as prioritizing or chopping tasks.
  • Learn emotion and mind management; reflect on why you are afraid of failing and what it means to you, remember that you are not your thoughts or your emotions and that you can control your actions.
  • Seek peer support; organize thesis or writing workshops with other doctoral students and social activities in the research group.
  • Remember to rest and recover (as low energy might be one cause of procrastination according to this study), and practice self-compassion.

References:

Grunschel, C., Patrzek, J., Klingsieck, K. B. & Fries, S. (2018). “I’ll stop procrastinating now!” Fostering specific processes of self-regulated learning to reduce academic procrastination, Journal of Prevention & Intervention in the Community, 46(2), 143-157, DOI: 10.1080/10852352.2016.1198166

Lonka, K., Ketonen, E., Vekkaila, J., Lara, M. C., & Pyhältö, K. (2019). Doctoral students’ writing profiles and their relations to well-being and perceptions of the academic environment. Higher Education, 77(4), 587-602.

Schouwenburg, H. C. (2004). Procrastination in Academic Settings: General Introduction.

Steel, P. (2007). The nature of procrastination: a meta-analytic and theoretical review of quintessential self-regulatory failure. Psychological Bulletin, 133, 65–94. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.133.1.65

Svartdal F., Dahl T.I., Gamst-Klaussen T., Koppenborg M. & Klingsieck K.B. (2020). How study environments foster academic procrastination: Overview
and recommendations. Frontiers in Psychology, 11:540910. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.540910


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