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Ending the Procrastination Trap

Nicholas R.
DiscoverPhDs procrastination trap

Are you always finding yourself working on sections of your research tasks right up until your deadlines? Are you still finding yourself distracted the moment you step foot inside your lab? Are you deliberately finding a hundred and one reasons not to get on with your literature review?

Everyone faces procrastination to some level, but left uncontrolled, it can wreak havoc on your productivity. This post will look into the reasons we procrastinate, and what we can do to combat it.

Why People Procrastinate


The task you’re trying to tackle is too difficult, too large, or perhaps a combination of both. As a result, you dread starting or don’t know where to start.

Solution: Divide your task into smaller parts.

Instead of assigning yourself the task of “Work on my literature review”, instead, break it down into something like the following:

  1. Review your research question to determine the scope of your research.
  2. Search for literature based on your topic keywords
  3. Select publications and organise data through abstracts, citations and conclusions etc.
  4. Analyse the content concerning your research question
  5. Develop an outline for your literature review
  6. Produce 1st draft and get it reviewed
  7. Incorporate amendments and produced 2nd draft

While this is an oversimplification of how you would tackle the task, it’s more mentally comfortable to get started when you know your day’s goal is to “find and review three pieces of relevant literature” instead of “work on my literature review”.



Hard work isn’t fun, but unfortunately for us, it has to be done.

Solution: First, consider tackling your most difficult or least interesting task first. Once you get this out of the way, it becomes a lot easier to persuade yourself to carry on working as you’ll have removed one of your biggest obstacles. You’ll possibly even find working on the rest of your tasks more enjoyable, as they’ll seem much more pleasant in comparison.

For me, a great way of getting stuck into an unattractive task is setting up a small rewards program. You can do this alone, but I’ve found it to work much better when you set it up with one of your fellow researchers or lab colleagues. Whenever you and your colleague complete a task, reward yourselves with a tasty snack or something else you both enjoy. If one of you fails to complete the task, you both have to suffer together – there’s nothing like a bit of accountability to kick you into gear.


Setting Priorities

Does this sound familiar: you’re always busy with the least important tasks while the most important ones get delayed till tomorrow… again…

Solution: Identify your priorities. Look closely at your tasks to decide which will take the most time, which will be most valuable to your research and which you think you’ll likely end up avoiding for the longest.

When you next create your to-do list, compare it to the tasks you identified in the above and be honest with yourself about whether you’re intentionally focusing on the wrong things. If you are, scrap your to-do list and redo it.



You can’t jump into your research and until you’ve planned everything to a tee. This is a hard habit to kick for any researcher, and while it has its place, it doesn’t serve you well when it paralyses you from making real progress.

Solution: Ask yourself, “How perfect does your plan really need to be?” – besides, we all know it will end up changing again in a week’s time! You’ll definitely want to set high standards for yourself, but remember that it’s often far better to use your first draft to get down your ideas and core themes than it is to create a body of text that reads and flows well.



You find an interesting and relevant piece of literature that you can’t wait to read, but before you read it, you decide to quickly skim over the email you just received. And just like that, you can’t bear to bring yourself around to reading the literature you were just so keen about moments earlier. Even for a seasoned researcher, distractions can be one of the biggest culprits for sapping productivity.

Solution: The best way to counter distracts is to eliminate them altogether. Notifications are the number one distraction nowadays. Almost everyone has instant updates for social media and emails, not to mention ordinary text and phone calls. Suppose you decide you need to work on a particular task at a certain time; it’s crucial that you eliminate any of these potential distractions by either turning off your phone or disabling its notifications. There’s also a countless number of addons which can block access to certain websites for a specified amount of time.

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