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How to be positive, motivated and productive by self-aware procrastination?

Never put off till tomorrow what may be done day after tomorrow just as well.”

Mark Twain

I believe you have come across this provocative quote before…but have you ever reflected on it and thought what it means for you?

Procrastination is seen as a number one enemy of every researcher, regardless of whether you are a PhD student, research scientist, industrial researcher or academic. 

We usually learn the meaning of procrastination quite early in our research, especially when we find it difficult to motivate ourselves at work, feeling low or even feel depressed.  

When I was doing my PhD, I tended to be overthinking my approach to research and felt anxious because I always thought my progress was too slow. 

Halfway through my doctorate, I realised that such anxiety didn’t result from my laziness or inability to deliver. It came from my negative thoughts fuelled by social anxiety (I was in a foreign country) and separation anxiety (I was ALONE in a foreign country!). I also pushed myself too hard! 

As a result of this anxiety, I avoided doing some activities, such as networking, as I mentioned in our new ebook. You may know from your own experience that this is an excellent example that demonstrates the definition of procrastination. 

Once I realised that I was procrastinating, I felt terrible. I started searching for ways to stop procrastinating and to get motivated to improve my productivity and get on track with my PhD. This added additional negative feelings about my performance.

Looking at this challenge from the perspective of a couple of years I spent in academia, I wonder whether it is at all essential to overcome procrastination? 

Have you ever thought how such a never-ending pursuit after productivity and motivation influences your wellbeing in the long run? Let me share my view…

Balancing on a thin line between procrastination, motivation and burnout

Understanding what procrastination is, and why it matters, is a key to achieve sustainable motivation and productivity, while taking care of your wellbeing and mental health. 

Let me start with the issue of motivation.

You probably will agree that it be legendary if you were able to work with a high level of motivation and hit our goals at all times? Imagine you ALWAYS deliver all your phenomenal research with spectacular quality and come up with breakthroughs that solve global challenges. This would have literally been a life-changing experience. And I would be the first to sign up if this was possible!

Yet, we usually get blinded with such an idealistic picture of research and forget about a very thin line between being motivated and getting burnt out at work or at the university. 

Because of such imagination of research, we tend to set TOO ambitious goals for ourselves and high hopes for our project. This may happen especially at the very beginning of our research or when we launch a new project. 

At the early stage, we are usually positive and even enthusiastic about our project. But being blinded by the potential rewards of our project, we may underestimate our abilities to deliver or the project outcomes. I have been there myself. I recommend you read about the Dunning-Kruger effect if you are interested to learn more about the psychology behind such behaviour. 

As we start to notice that our progress does not go according to the plan we imagined, such a high-level of motivation supported on too ambitious goals may quickly turn into stress and anxiety. 

Therefore, if you push yourself too hard, like I did during my PhD, put a lot of effort without clear and achievable goals, you may be at the danger of putting your research in jeopardy. As a result, your interest in your project may plummet or, even worse, you will start to hate it. This is the definition of burnout – you want to stay as far from this negative feeling as possible! 

Procrastinating may help you to achieve sustainable productivity and stay motivated for long periods. Self-aware procrastination can prevent you from burn out

You see now that pushing yourself too hard does not bring more motivation, definitely reduces your productivity, and affects your wellbeing. And remember, it may be difficult to recover from burnout or, even depression.

All the above may get you to think that we should not undertake ambitious and challenging projects. I want to clarify that to push the boundaries of knowledge, we need to stretch ourselves and set ambitious goals. 

So how do we achieve ambitious goals and push the boundaries of knowledge, while taking care of our wellbeing and staying positive about our research? 

Finding the right balance to stay productive

I believe that one needs to WORK SMART and enjoy life to achieve sustainable productivity and motivation. 

Why?

I want you to understand that it is (almost) impossible to always be highly motivated and productive. Our motivation level keeps changing with time and is highly uncertain! 

After all, it is hard to get ourselves to do anything when we are tired. Our thinking and understanding of data may be hindered, leading to lower quality outputs. 

A realisation that I should take care of my work-life balance and wellbeing come well after my PhD. 

For example, I now understand that if I were not pushing myself so hard and had even more specific goals during my PhD, I wound not make so many mistakes. These mistakes wasted my time that I could have spent with my friends and family, travelling and enjoy life, while probably achieving the same outcomes of my PhD.

So what does procrastination has to do with achieving sustainable productivity and motivation? 

It is not possible to always be highly motivated as our motivation level changes with time. To avoid anxiety and burnout, you may want to allow yourself to procrastinate, rather than jumping into a search for ways on how to stop procrastinating

Well, we have all been told that procrastination is a bad habit and means you are lazy. We have been told that we must work hard to achieve our goals. Yet, putting too much pressure and working too hard may have a counter-intuitive or, even, catastrophic consequences. 

But…

…I believe that postponing some projects for later is OK, even if the deadline is looming. It should be OK if you are aware of doing this. Make sure you plan on how to deliver the work on time, though. And do not blame yourself for taking a break and prioritising your wellbeing!  

I found that allowing myself for procrastinating, improved my productivity and motivation, and I am happier with my life! I realised that putting more effort into a challenging task may be counter-intuitive. Taking a break to read a book or going for a walk with family and friends definitely helps me to regain energy. 

And on the plus side, remember that our brain can continue working subconsciously. I often find that when I come back to work, for example, after washing the dishes, I find it much easier to solve a problem I was working on beforehand. Magic! I guess these are the hidden benefits to procrastinating. 

Once you understand this and ALLOW YOURSELF for self-aware procrastination, you will reduce your stress and anxiety, start feeling more positive about your work and life overall. 

If you find it challenging to come back to work, you may want to keep some motivational quotes, pictures or even memes around your workspace. You may also play a motivational song or playlist in the background that will give you a positive affirmation that it was OK to procrastinate!  

A final word…

Procrastination, motivation and wellbeing are rarely treated equally. 

Working hard seems to be the main mantra we are taught early in our academic life. But we are rarely told about the consequences of putting too much effort and trying too hard. 

I believe that you have to WORK SMART. To take care of your wellbeing, avoid burnout and achieve a sustainable motivation, you need to allow yourself to procrastinate – and be OK with procrastination! 

What are your thoughts about procrastination? Do you allow yourself to procrastinate? Are you doing this in an aware manner? How else do you take care of your wellbeing during your research? Do you agree with this post?

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David

David

Academic Coach at Motivated Academic, senior lecturer at Cranfield University, UK.

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