Solved Challenge: 5 steps to overcome procrastination and finish what you’ve started

Elina's Challenge:

I’ve finished all the mandatory courses for my Master Degree two years ago, yet I cannot since then complete my Master Thesis.

This year I have actually changed the topic; my supervisor told me that while my subject was really interesting, it was too ambitious (no one studied the topic in my country before, so I had really few data to work with). So technically speaking, now with the new, “less ambitious topic” I have it easier. Or do I?

Because somehow I still cannot finalize it. Instead of making research and start writing I spend hours on several internet forums and I read gossips online.

How can I get myself together? How to start studying? How to start writing?

I was very good at my studies in the past but before I was also going to the University daily where I had contact with teachers and other students and I was more rooted in that reality. Now I have work and my own home and I simply cannot get myself together to start working on Thesis again.

Do you have any tips for me?

 

Greetings Elina,

Thank you for sharing your Challenge with us! We have to admit that although having a problem with finishing something we have started, is universal for the majority of human beings (and probably some alien races as well), not many of us have mastered a bulletproof strategy on how to cope with it.

What are you dealing with is rather common – yet of an extreme importance. And for some strange reason, Master Thesis is usually that one project with which we all have struggled. Even if we didn’t have a challenge with procrastination prior to Thesis, somehow writing an academic paper causes most of us to fall into a black hole of doubt, stress and writer’s deadlock.

So, is it possible to “beat that beast” and get back on track? Of course! There are actually several ways to get out of that black hole and start being productive again and w will present them to you today (also listen to our podcast about procrastination here)

 

And here are your 5 Steps:

Step 1: Start with “Why?” aka “Why are you writing your Thesis in a first place?”
Step 2: Drop It Like It’s Hot
Step 3: Change the Topic
Step 4: Get to the bottom of your Procrastination
Step 5: Set up Your Goal and make a God Damn good plan to achieve it

 

Step 1: Start with “Why?” aka “Why are you writing your Thesis in a first place?”

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So this may sound pretty obvious (for some people even too obvious), but the very starting point of the process is to ask yourself one very important question: Why am I writing the Thesis in a first place?

It is rather common, that we take on a big and important project, but after a while, we are just going with it “on an autopilot”, without reflecting on the reasons why we have started it in a first place, and – more importantly – the validity of those reasons.  If you are doing something, without really knowing why you are doing it in a first place, you may get easily subconsciously demotivated to continue.

 

Write down your reason

Please take a piece of paper and note down the reason why you are writing you Master Thesis.

And not just “some reason”. THE REASON.

Imagine that someone is waking you up in the middle of the night, and threatens to burn your house down if you don’t give him a valid reason why you need to finish your Thesis. Are you able to come up with something truly convincing? If, for instance, your answer is “To get my diploma” are you able to explain why you need that diploma in a first place? How will you use your degree in the future? What having a Master Degree will change in your life?

Many times we give some “automatic”, superficial answers to why we do the things we do. If that is your case, you may need to reconsider writing the Thesis altogether (in this case, please go to Option 2)

 

But if you have a convincing reason – congratulations!

From now on, it will act as your number one motivator. Write it down on several pieces of paper and place it strategically around your house and/or workplace. You can pin it to your desk, computer or on a fridge – wherever it suits you the best. The most important thing is that you can see it and read it every day.

It will keep your motivation high and remind you of your purpose.

 

Step 2: Drop It Like It’s Hot

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Remember the “write your reason” exercise from the Option 1? If you realized that you actually had no valid reasons to continue with your Thesis, just drop it. There is no point to waste even one day more and stress yourself over something you see no point in doing.

Let me guess, you started to hesitate again?

 

The Sunk Cost Theory

Do you know why so many of us are continuing with the projects that we have once started, even if we know they are pointless? Why we stay in relationships that we don’t want to be in? Why we keep the jobs, apartments, or agreements that are not relevant for us anymore?

It is because we often fall into “the sunk cost trap”.

I actually see it very often in the business world. Companies and departments continue with some mediocre solutions or projects only because “we have already spent 2 years on it, so we need to implement it.” So instead of stopping outdated initiatives, we keep pushing them forward.

We often feel that we have already invested so much time, energy and/or money that it would be a huge waste to quit now. On a subconscious level we know that no one will give us that time back – so if we have already “spent it”, we feel somehow pressed to stick to what we are doing.

What we actually fail to see, is that we have plenty of time/energy and resources to use ahead of us; yet we tend to cry over the past “spending” instead of focusing on the possible future investments.

So instead of focusing on the time that has already passed, try to imagine what you could do with all the time you would gain, once you quit doing something that is not valid for you anymore.

 

How Do I know if I should “Drop it”?

We would like to propose you the “Drop it” exercise. Imagine that you go for a meeting with your supervisor to tell him/her that you are quitting your Thesis. Imagine the moment you say it and the way you explain your reasons why.

What do you feel?

Do you feel relieved? Or do you feel remorse?

Please note that it is perfectly normal to feel some fear and anxiety – after all, that is a big decision.  Instead of focusing on feeling scared, please try to figure out which feelings from those two are stronger: Is it Relief or is it Remorse?

If it’s a relief, then you just might have gotten yourself an answer.

 

Step 3: Change the Topic

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If you have decided to continue with your Thesis, then we would recommend you to rethink the baseline of your project again. Not only it will allow you to get more grounded and ready to start with your work, but it will possibly help you to discover why you have a challenge with writing in a first place.

You have mentioned that the first topic of your Thesis was “too ambitious” – at least this is what your supervisor has told you. Is it possible that you’ve lost your motivation because you actually do like challenges and you wanted to create something really significant in your field? And once your supervisor suggested you to go for a “simple solution”, you found it uninteresting?

Unless your new topic is “set in stone” by a contract signed with the university, consider if changing it again could help you in getting your motivation back

 

Back to the original topic

It is indeed difficult to make a Thesis about something that was not yet explored at your University or in your country, but on the other hand – have you thought that maybe you are meant to be the very first author who will write about it? Maybe there is a gene of a researcher in you? Writing a Thesis in an unexplored field could be exciting and could also bring you some recognition in the academic circle.

If it’s the lack of sources or research papers that frightens you, how about using and translating some foreign publications? Or trying to get in touch with abroad universities and ask for mentoring?

 

Go for something new

Or maybe it is time to expand your horizons and consider a totally new area of research?

Before you start to work on your thesis again, let your mind wander for a couple of days; allow other ideas to come in. It could be that you got so hung up on the current subject of your research that you forgot to consider other options

Many people change their thesis topics several times until they are able to say with a full confidence that “this is the one I want to write about”.

Maybe you haven’t found “the one” yet?

 

Step 4: Get to the bottom of your procrastination and “Beat that Beast”

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If you have gone through the first 3 steps, you should be pretty grounded in your attitude regarding writing the Thesis by now. Let’s make a quick check to see if you have everything in place:

  • You have your reason “Why”
  • You’ve made the “Drop it” exercise and you are sure that you want to continue with your Thesis
  • You have re-evaluated your topic and made a final decision regarding the subject of your paper

It seems that the only element that is missing is to have a kick-ass “Thesis Execution Plan”, right?

Wrong.

Because even the most detailed and bulletproof plan in the world is only a plan – especially in the hands of a procrastinator.

The trick is not to “just make a plan”. The trick is to make a plan and to actually execute it. And in order to do it, you need to “Beat that Beast” and get to the very bottom of your procrastination.

 

“The Good” and “The Bad” type of Procrastination

Before we get to the very bottom of procrastination, first I would like to mention that there are actually two kinds of it. Usually, we think that procrastination is something negative and destructive, but sometimes putting away your work for a while, can have fantastic benefits for your creative process.

“The Good” procrastination, also known as “productive procrastination” is a deliberately chosen break in your work that allows your mind to wander and get inspired. It is especially important while we are working on long, complex and creative projects, where we don’t have an immediate deadline.

How many times did it happen to you that you were looking for a solution to a complex issue and you were unable to find it, but once you’ve let go and allow yourself some space, the answers “just came” to you? This interesting phenomenon goes by names like “sudden realization” or “random inspiration” – it’s one of those “Newton got hit by an apple and defined the law of gravity” or “Archimedes was taking a bath and screamed ‘Eureka!’” moments.

Unfortunately, most of the project plans don’t take into consideration the time needed for “productive procrastination”. We plan everything up to the slightest detail and we don’t include the time to rest, wonder and get creative. Hence, little note to you Elina – once you’ll start to plan the execution of your Master Thesis, include some time for the productive procrastination; your brain will thank you for it.

“The Bad” procrastination is the one that we all know very well. It’s the destructive kind, when you are avoiding things that need to be done, until the point where you create delay and end up with some negative consequences.

Sounds familiar?

Some people are more prone to procrastination than others, but personally, I believe that every single human being in this world is guilty of procrastinating once in a while.

 

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So maybe you have everything under control at your workplace and you never miss the deadline, but how about that fitness program you were supposed to start two months ago and never actually joined (now you gained yet another 5 kilos and you don’t fit in most of your clothes anymore)?

Or remember that “spring cleaning” in your closet that you’ve finally started in September (and only because your husband got extremely pissed as he literally had no more space for his clothes)?

How about that phone-call to your mom which for some reasons you didn’t have time to make (and now she’s upset)?

Applying for that dream job you’ve seen online (and now it’s not available anymore)?

Asking out that girl you really like (and now she has a new boyfriend)?

In the end of the day, we all procrastinate. And we all procrastinate for the very same reason.

 

Procrastination as a self-coping mechanism

While preparing for this challenge we were trying to find the most appropriate definition of procrastination and on the way, we have discovered that procrastination is not what we initially thought it was. As you can see from the examples above, it’s not “just” some form of laziness. It’s rather a form of an avoidance.

From all the definitions “out there”, the one that has really spoken to me was Mel Robbins’ explanation, presented in her book “The 5 seconds rule:

Procrastination is a coping mechanism for stress. The main thing that drives procrastination is not your desire to avoid work, is avoiding stress. Procrastination is a subconscious desire to “feel good” right now so you can feel a little bit of stress release. A common mistake we make is to believe that people make a deliberate decision to procrastinate (…) in fact most folks who struggle with procrastination tell researchers that they have zero control over it. And they are right.

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There are plenty of reasons that you can find in books and articles explaining why people procrastinate: lack of motivation, lack of interest, skill deficiency, fear of failure (or fear of success), lack of focus, perfectionism, etc. But all of these explanations are only scratching the surface.

At the end of the day, procrastination boils down to one single thing: avoiding stress and emotional unpleasantness by replacing it with temporary pleasure.

 

The Gap between “The Present Self” and “The Future Self”

But what really lies at the very bottom of procrastination?

After all, we are capable of a rational recognition that even if the task/project/initiative is unpleasant or difficult, there is a nice payoff at the end of the day. Why can’t we just “get our shit” together and work for the award we want so badly (clean apartment, fit body, completed Master Degree, etc.)?

The thing is that “the award” will be enjoyed by our “future self” – that awesome guy or gal that we are planning to be in 3, 6 or 12 months. But the guy (or gal) who has to do the work, is “the present self”. And what “the present self” wants the most is to feel an instant pleasure.

James Clear explains this phenomenon in a really fantastic article Procrastination: A Scientific Guide on How to Stop Procrastinating

When you set goals for yourself — like losing weight or writing a book or learning a language — you are actually making plans for your Future Self. You are envisioning what you want your life to be like in the future. Researchers have found that when you think about your Future Self, it is quite easy for your brain to see the value in taking actions with long-term benefits. The Future Self values long-term rewards.

However, while the Future Self can set goals, only the Present Self can take action. When the time comes to make a decision, you are no longer making a choice for your Future Self. Now you are in the present moment, and your brain is thinking about the Present Self. Researchers have discovered that the Present Self really likes instant gratification, not long-term payoff.

So, the Present Self and the Future Self are often at odds with one another. The “Future Self” wants to be trim and fit, but the “Present Self” wants a donut. Sure, everyone knows you should eat healthy today to avoid being overweight in 10 years. But consequences like an increased risk for diabetes or heart failure are years away.

Similarly, many young people know that saving for retirement in their 20s and 30s is crucial, but the benefit of doing so is decades off. It is far easier for the Present Self to see the value in buying a new pair of shoes than in socking away $100 for 70-year-old you. (If you’re curious, there are some very good evolutionary reasons for why our brain values immediate rewards more highly than long-term rewards.)

This is one reason why you might go to bed feeling motivated to make a change in your life, but when you wake up you find yourself falling back into old patterns. Your brain values long-term benefits when they are in the future (tomorrow), but it values immediate gratification when it comes to the present moment (today).

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On a top of that, when your “future self” sets a long-term goal that requires a lot of work, you “present self” starts to immediately feel anxiety, stress, and confusion.

See, the “present self” only operates in “now” and it is not motivated by long-term consequences and rewards; yet on some level, our brains understand that “the present self” should move its ass and get to work. That knowledge, combined with the simultaneous reluctance of a “present self” to start working (and go on Facebook instead) creates the feeling of anxiety and shame.

Additionally, our brain can also comprehend the gap between where “the present self” is and where the “future self” wants to be. In complex situations that require a lot of effort, work or courage (like writing a thesis, changing a job, moving to another country or even getting a divorce), that gap can seem to be really huge – which stresses as out and works as a discouragement.

 

How to “Beat that Beast”

There are quite a number of good strategies we have found in order to break the vicious cycle of procrastination; in this article, we will briefly present two of them, but we strongly encourage you to visit all the links we have placed below – trust us, this is GOLD

 

3-steps model to stop the cycle of procrastination by Mel Robbins

In her book “The 5 seconds Rule Mel contributes the entire chapter to the topic of Procrastination, and let’s be honest – it is awesome. We would truly recommend you to read (or listen to) that book, but for the time being take a look at these 3 simple steps:

 

Step 1: Forgive Yourself

Not only it is emotionally healthy to forgive yourself for the past mistakes but in case of procrastination, it is actually proven that by forgiving yourself you are increasing your chances of breaking the procrastination habit.

Why is that?

Remember when we’ve mentioned that procrastination is a self-coping mechanism against? Procrastinators are usually very hard on themselves; they feel guilt and shame, they feel like failures. And what are guilt, shame, and self-doubt causing in return? More stress. And the more stress you face, the higher urge you feel to start procrastinating again.

 

Step 2: What would the future me do?

When you can picture the person that you want to be in the future, it gives you an objectivity to push yourself in a present moment. We do it all the time, but usually towards others (especially kids) – “In a year you won’t even remember why you were so stressed” or “At this point, this thesis seems like such a burden but in 5 years you will smile, thinking about the whole experience of writing it”

 

Step 3: Just Start

As Mel says:

“If you have an impulse to act on a goal, you must physically move within 5 seconds or your brain will kill the idea.”

So when your scheduled time comes to start working on your thesis, just do it. Don’t allow your brain to kick in and trick you into the good ol’ “I don’t feel like it”. Just count 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 and start.

 

 

Close the Gap between the Present and Future Self by James Clear

James talks about more specific approaches regarding how to “close the gap” by making it as easy as possible for the Present Self to get started:

 

Make the Rewards of Taking Action More Immediate

Please check out the “the theory of temptation bundling”, an approach where you bundle a behavior that is good for you in a long-run, by combining it with a behavior that feels good in a short-term (for instance, only watch your favorite TV show while you are ironing)

 

Make the Consequences of Procrastination More Immediate

Coming back to the topic of a Master Thesis, how about agreeing with your supervisor that by the end of each month you will deliver on Chapter or x amount of pages?

Another pretty cool strategy is to sign up for Stickk – a website where people are sharing their goals/targets and they make a bet that they’ll achieve it by a specific deadline.

 

Design Your Future Actions

Bearing in mind what your main distractors/temptations are, get rid of them (or make them less attainable) up front.

Do you tend to drift away into the world of gossips online? Block that page with tools like StayFocused. Are dozens of notifications on your phone screen distracting you? Turn off the mobile data and put your phone in the other room while you are working

 

Make the Task More Achievable

“Slice the elephant” – break down one huge task into several small tasks.

Remember, motivation often comes AFTER you start to work and not before.

 

Notable Mentions aka “THE GOLD”

The Real Reason We Procrastinate (and What to Do About It) by James Clear

The Real Reasons You Procrastinate and How to Stop

Why Procrastinators Procrastinate

How to Beat Procrastination

How to Stop Procrastinating and Boost Your Willpower by Using “Temptation Bundling” by James Clear

The Ivy Lee Method: The Daily Routine Experts Recommend for Peak Productivity by James Clear

 

Step 5: GROW – Come up with your Goal and make a plan to reach it

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Now it’s time to establish yourself a SMART goal (Simple – Measurable – Achievable -Realistic – Time-Bound).

Example:

I am planning to hand over my Master Thesis by 15th of December, so I can enjoy Christmas holidays with no stress

 

Recognize You Reality

It’s time to make a reality check regarding where are you right now. Evaluate your situation by asking yourself a couple of questions.

Examples:

What have I written so far (how many pages)?

Do I have all the sources?

Do I have a detailed plan?

What can stop my progress once I start (my “gossip online” addiction, getting sick, too much workload at my current job etc.)

What are the strengths that could help me in reaching my goal? (I am bilingual so I can use sources from many publications, I am well-organized, I like to write etc.)

 

Explore the Options

Now it’s time to write down you Options (yuppie!) – All the possible ways in which you can achieve your goal. Brainstorm as many Options as possible!

Examples:

Option 1: I can write daily, one hour in the morning. Option 2: I can take 2 weeks off from work and complete the writing then. Option 3: I can go each Saturday to the library and write there the whole day

 

Establish the Will

So you have your Goal, You know your Reality and you have already explored (and hopefully chosen) your Options.

What is missing? The last final thing:  The Commitment.

Now it’s time to commit to your Goal. Make a contract with yourself!

Example:

“From tomorrow I am starting to work on my Master Thesis again, so I can complete it by the 15th of December. I will write every day, from 5 to 6 o’clock in the morning. Additionally, I will spend every Saturday afternoon working on my research in the University library”

Sounds pretty good, right? Additionally, please consider the follow-up questions to you “Contract”:

What could stop me from moving forward? How will I overcome this? (for instance: “I am too tired to drag myself out from the bed at 5 am. Maybe changing my evening routine and going to bed earlier would help?”)

How can I keep myself motivated? (“I will write down my reason WHY and glue it to my desk and to my fridge so I can see it every day”)

How will I review my own progress? Daily, weekly, monthly? (“I will agree with my supervisor to hand over a chapter at the end of each month”).

The method that we have used here is called a GROW Model and it’s a very popular and effective one, used both in life coaching and mentoring.

We hope that you will give it a go!