On procrastinating in grad school

I’m back from blog hiatus! Firing it up again to tell a few stories and mull over what’s next.

Dissertation year (2013-2014) was hard. I spent a lot of time fighting with myself and needed help getting through it. It’s hard to remember to be gentle with yourself when setbacks feel like personal failures, or feel connected when your friends have moved away, or keep perspective when your job is a mix of “Spend every day realizing how much you don’t know” and “Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let it show.” I loved it best when colleagues put away their grant-writing, everything-is-awesome faces and we could all just admit we were learning on the fly together.

So alongside the research were the self-reckonings and the ways I learned to work with myself, which my mom (herself a Ph.D.) pointed out was perhaps the true value of the degree. I am very grateful to my advisor and Duke’s counseling center for the lessons on non-judgment and compassion for myself and others. (Insert plug for CAPS’s mindfulness courses. So, so glad they were there.)

Today’s topic: that most human of habits, kicking the can down the road. For me, the procrastination monster reared its head early and often. In fifth grade my mom got mad at me for spending the weekend sculpting a clay bird due next Friday while neglecting a report due Monday. In college, I relied on my knack for pulling off term papers hours before they were due. Same thing for grad school—I worked and re-worked grants until the absolute submission deadlines. I was never late, but man did I get things in under the wire.

Fear of failure and the accompanying perfectionism hovered nearby, and still do. The bioinformatics learning curve I (and others in biology) have been ascending is steep. Tasks like figuring out programming pipelines and working with massive amounts of data for the first time were daunting. I didn’t know where to start, felt bad asking for help all the time, didn’t yet have the vocab to Google my way around, and ended up putting off a crucial step for months out of sheer paralysis.

And, of course, the mental pile-ons included beating myself up in comparisons to friends who made steady progress, whereas all I had was a habit of thriving under pressure. It took therapy to accept that needing deadlines is just how I work. I also noticed that I was hard on others who procrastinated because I so disliked the trait in myself, yet I couldn’t stop succumbing to YouTube or Wikipedia when hitting an analysis or writing block.

In emotional terms, practicing mindfulness gave me that vital moment of awareness before clicking “New Tab” for a temporary distraction. In practical terms, what saved me were productivity tools for focus and writing. Here are the ones that worked for me — you can find lots more with Google searches (example here).

researchPaperI mean, this is what we’re up against. (credit) And I have no interest in implying that I have conquered procrastination. That is laughable, because there are ALWAYS more crosswords to solve.

1) Leechblock: I found this website-blocking program in January 2013, after my friend Jason posted “SOMEONE TAKE THIS INTERNET AWAY FROM ME SO I CAN WORK.” You list the websites you want to block and specify how long to block them. Alternatively, you can specify how long per hour you’re allowed to visit before you’re blocked. You can create separate lists with separate settings, and you can force yourself to type a password before the program gives you access to change settings.

Pros: This is SUCH an effective tool. I’m going to use it forever. It broke my pattern of automatically escaping to the Washington Post (my homepage) when I was facing a rough patch in the writing. My passwords have been either miserable sentences featuring my advisor’s name or questions on how I’d like to be spending my time. The act of typing them when I’m trying to access a site is often enough to wake me up. The program works because I set the permissions, but during my moments of weakness, like Odysseus yelling to be untied from his ship, it’s an external control saving me from the Internet sirens. Now that it’s been in place for two years, it’s trained me really well to recognize new distractions and to wait until my nightly window to read blocked sites.

Cons: You can game it, of course. There are lots of news sites carrying the same stories. And if you mess a lot with your settings, the power of your password gets diluted fast. I had to figure out a balance between lax and draconian measures so the program could do its job.

2) RescueTime: After I submitted my dissertation to the grad school in March 2014, my friend Mari told me about this plug-in, which monitors your computer use both online and off-. It categorizes each website/software from Very Distracting to Very Productive (tweak as needed) and gives you a productivity score at the end of the day. You can pause monitoring, receive a weekly summary newsletter, and track your scores on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis.


Pros: If you’re grade-oriented, as I am, you’ll find it useful. In the week between submitting the dissertation to the grad school and my committee, I was sailing on high scores from all the time I spent revising. Nowadays I average 50-60% productivity, which seems low but usually means I’m on track. The visuals are good at showing to your face when you’re the most (un)productive.

Cons: I had to manually configure Windows for it to start up with my computer by default, which is lame given its purpose. Also, multi-purpose websites are tricky to categorize. Where does email fall—neutral, productive or distracting? Probably neutral, but because I spend so much time per day on it writing professional emails, it adds less than it should to the productivity score at the end of the day.

3) Write or Die 2: The name caught my eye when I was Googling around in August 2014 to kickstart manuscript revisions. It’s a web- or desktop-based plugin that’s targeted for the NaNoWriMo crowd: your goal is to write text non-stop without worrying about formatting or editing. The fun part is the reward or punishment settings you choose to help make your writing goal. Below is an example from the Consequence category. (An additional perk is Kamikaze Mode, where if you go a certain time without writing, an invisible monster starts eating all the vowels in your sentences.)


Pros: We have birds in our lab that are rewarded with birdsong when they accomplish certain tasks. Likewise, I wrote an entire introduction to the soothing sound of crickets. Thank you, cognitive behavioral psychologists.

Cons: It’s buggy, costs money, and is mostly good for the novelty. It’s also not great for revising because you can’t format EndNote or other fields, so eventually I had to abandon and return to Word. So I’ll mainly stick to using it to jump-start drafts.


Finally, perspective really helped.

Russ’s passing during my dissertation year consistently nudged me forward. I wrote a few words to myself after he died.

Do it for Russ.

Remember the short-term pain that you want to avoid is countered by the long-term sense of accomplishment, and of success, and of getting the credentials you need to do the things you want. Don’t shortchange yourself now. Don’t torch your dissertation out of procrastination. At the end of the day, it is yours, and you want to be able to own that statement with every cell in your body. Now go forth and make it something you’re so proud of you can’t wait to share it with the world.

Remember how much you want to know the answer. Remember the excitement. Remember the difference between liking and loving your research. Sometimes you may dislike it intensely. Often you are convinced it’s so shitty and clumsy that anyone else could do better. (Which is maybe why you put it off.) But behind the anguish and the fear and the uncertainty is the love you have for your work. The love you have for birds, and sunrises, and that puffer fish in the silent mangrove. The love you have for the people who have gotten you here.

In closing, the PostSecret card that got me through.


Happy muddling. And thank you all for your beautiful brains. 🙂


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