Last month I came back from Christmas break feeling great. Before Christmas I had been on a three week visit to the U.S. and New Zealand for a friend’s wedding and then had had a lovely Christmas holiday at home with my family. It was the first ‘break’ from my PhD since I had started over two years ago (I use break in inverted commas as anyone who has ever done this kind of research knows you never REALLY take a break) and I was feeling refreshed and had what I felt was a new perspective on my work.
The first day back at work I came down, hard. After all this was it – I had just over a year to finish collecting my data and write up a piece of work that would define my immediate future as a researcher (or not). What if I failed? What if it wasn’t as good as I thought? What was I thinking!!!! So on my first week back at work after making plans for my most productive year ever, what did I do?
I re-decorated my chest of drawers.
Don’t get me wrong – I did work as well, but of the five things that I in my post-Christmas optimism had listed to acomplish that week I completed two. Instead I spent hours in the evenings sanding and decoupaging the chest of drawers that sit in my bedroom. Now this wasn’t entirely ridiculous, they needed it, but this was NOT the time to be redirecting my rested and enthusiastic state into interior design! So why did I do it?
Well basically I indulged in a classic spot of procrastination. Procrastination is something that we are all familiar with in one way or another. Whether it’s procrastinating doing the laundry by reading a book, procrastinating doing your homework by cleaning your room or procrastinating finishing that report by indexing your emails; procrastination is the art of putting things off. During my PhD I have come to realise that I am much more vulnerable to procrastination than I had ever thought. I mean sure I was always happy to sack off cleaning up the pile of laundry to watch just one more episode of ‘Firefly’ but everyone does that, right? And I had never let it interfere with my work. So why was the PhD bringing out my inner procrastination vampire?
Procrastination is part of the suite of motivational malfunctions that also includes self-sabotage. Where motivation, inspiration and work-ethic are your better angels driving you forward, procrastination and self-sabotage are part of the arsenal of fear that hold you back. These functions are all manifestations of your own self control, and whilst the causes of procrastination are still uncertain, a meta analysis of research in this area completed by Steel in 2007 (The Nature of Procrastination: A Meta-Analystic and Theoretical Review of Self Regulatory Failure) does suggest a strong correlation with self-control, impulsiveness and concienciousness. Tis relates procratination to how much the opinions and influence of other people controls how effective you are. There are also connections to perfectionism and extraversion in that your own perception of yourself in the eyes of others (real or imagined) impacts on the way you control your behaviour.
Also this paper has the best procrastination related line: ‘Continued research into procrastination should not be delayed, especially because it’s prevalence appears to be growing.’
So my procrastination is coming out so strongly for two reasons.
- This PhD means a lot to me. I gave up a normal life and reasonable income to go back to University as a mature student so I could chase my curiosity, but if I fail it will be personally crushing – however if I fail because I didn’t try my best I can equivocate my failure (I know – not trying hard enough is a also failure, but it’s easier to rationalise).
- The PhD may mean a lot to me, but it means very little in a tangible way to anyone else. Sure my supervisors are invested in my work and have provided marvellous support to me, but if I fail it won’t actually affect them. The only person that is really impacted by my success or failure is me. Because of this I’m finding it hard to develop the same sense of ‘people depending on me’ that I have felt in every other job I have had (even the ones I hated). This makes my motivation waver.
So what about self-sabotage? If procrastination is a vampire, sucking away your time and enthusiasm, then self-sabotage is a poltergeist. This potergeist lives inside your brain, it’s invisble and the things it does seem to have come direct from your own thoughts. It’s affect however is very visible. My poltergeist, much like the ones you see in the movies has a characteristic trait. It’s not slamming cupboard doors or knocking over coat stands, no my self-sabotage poltergeist says mockingly ‘and now you are behind schedule’. The things I did to get behind schedule all came from me, they seemed reasonable at the time but my poltergeist was driving it. I didn’t need to check that email for the third time, I didn’t need to stop transcribing because I made three mistakes in a row – but I did. And now the poltergeist is laughing at me ‘now you are behind schedule’.
So what can you do? Well for me it starts with recognizing my own vulnerability to this. When I feel myself slipping back towards procrastination or self-sabotage I lean in to my work, don’t give myself that excuse. Surprisingly my motivation from feeling alone has come from my data itself. The people who are depending on me are my participants – they depend on me to represent them honestly, to do the best job I can and help solve the problems of communication between geoscience experts and non-experts.
And at the end of the day, that is why I am doing all this in the first place, to make a difference. So bring on the garlic and holy water, I’m not going to let me defeat myself.