Philosophical Advice for a Procrastinating Graduate Student

This post is long for three reasons:

(1) I have long experience myself with procrastination and specifically with graduate school induced procrastination, and a ton to say about it.

(2) People who suffer from procrastination I think will be greedy for as much insight and help as they might be able to get.

(3) A nice, 4,000 word article is ideal for procrastinators because it can either give an excuse to spend a lot of time not working or become so much of a chore that just getting back to the work you’re supposed to be doing suddenly seems preferable. Whichever this turns out to be for you: you’re welcome.

Dear Dan,

You might be the perfect person to answer my quandary, you have been and still are part of the academia, you think in logical, philosophical way and you’re a no-nonsense kind of man.

So here is my problem, I am suffering from severe procrastination. I avoid work and indulge in time wasting activities. I am not focusing on my career and the guilt is eating me. I will mention these problems as follows:

• I have three Incompletes that I need to finish by the mid of August and I still haven’t started them.

• I tell myself that today will be the day when I start making progress but then that today never comes.

• I feel apathetic and numb towards my work.

• I have been to psychologists and psychiatrists but that hasn’t been any help.

As I write to you right now, I want to escape and start doing something else, it feels a little painful. I blame my task avoidance on the depression I have, but I know that it is only an excuse.

What do I need to do. Help?

~Danny

I hated graduate school. And no small part of why I hated it was because of all the time I spent feeling and living like you describe here. I cannot promise a silver bullet solution that would replace more individual counseling or, additionally, your dealing with any neurologically depressive causes that might be physically hampering you in ways that mere thinking cannot overcome. But I will share what I have learned about this problem and some strategies for overcoming it.

The first thing to stress is that I don’t think that procrastination, at least among high achievers like graduate students, is a product of laziness. When you say you want from me a no-nonsense approach and say that looking at how your depression might be contributing to your procrastination is “excuse” making, I get the impression that your guilt is taking the form of contempt for yourself. The first thing I would recommend doing is stopping being your own harshest critic and taskmaster.

Among high achieving people, procrastination can be strongly motivated by perfectionism. Because you have exacting standards for yourself, you cannot do anything unless it’s perfect. Knowing how unlikely your efforts are to achieve perfect results, or how difficult it is to achieve perfect results every time you go to work, you get overwhelmed and psych out. And when you put a lot of stock in your abilities in a particular area, your identity gets threatened when you are at risk of failing with respect to that part of your life.

Research has shown that children who are told they are smart, rather than merely praised for their hard work when they do well, can be prone to avoiding tasks they might not succeed at. Because their identity is as a “smart” person, the prospect of failure and not feeling smart is a threat to who their very sense of self.  So if you understand yourself as a hot shot with respect to the subject you’re dealing with in your graduate studies, starting to struggle can shatter your entire sense of who you are. You feel like, you’re not supposed to struggle with this subject or these kinds of tasks. You’re The Natural. This comes easy to you.

Graduate school is a humbling and difficult period for many in no small part because for the first time people who are used to being standout students in their subject matter are both surrounded by equally competent or even superior peers. And they’re dealing with professors who take for granted that they should be exceptional and who focus much more on their limitations that need improving than doting over what a rare and special flower they are. This is a period in which many high achieving students encounter serious failures and disappointments for the first times in their lives in areas that previously made them feel the most empowered and rewarded and admired. Not only does this put their identity at stake but their entire sense of self-worth.

And so the temptation to freeze is terrible. It is difficult to show your professors your imperfect work. At the graduate level, professors do not have reputations for being gentle or merciful in their criticisms. They often take the attitude that they need to be as unsparing with you as with a peer since that is what you are supposed to be proving yourself to be. They also can be aloof and neglectful in some cases and an insecure graduate student can spend months or years languishing in paralyzing uncertainty, getting little of the necessary feedback to speed up her progress because of a combination of her own perfectionist unwillingness to frequently send material to professors for responses and because of many professors’ habits of replying to graduate students in delayed, indifferent, harsh, and unsupportive ways.

Another thing I experienced that makes the procrastination terribly worse is that procrastinating is not resting and it’s usually not having fun. When I am procrastinating I am simultaneously not getting work done and not mentally recuperating and recharging. I am often doing things which are ostensibly fun or which could be relaxing. But emotionally I am suffering. The guilt is horrific. In his e-mail Danny describes numbness and apathy and guilt. This is crippling. At every moment not only do I feel the need to start working and frustration that I’ve been unproductive but I also feel emotionally worn out rather than revived. In my case I have lost years’ worth of potential socializing, isolated alone night after night struggling to motivate myself and making despairingly little progress.

I have told myself I cannot enjoy myself or commit myself to intentionally fun activities while my dissertation is so far behind or while my blog is not yet ahead and guaranteed to post everyday, etc. But since it is extremely hard and unlikely that my mind can work on difficult intellectual matters from the time I wake until the time I sleep, I inevitably wind up most days spending most of my time unproductive. But when it’s all officially blocked off for work and not play, that unproductive time is guilty “wasted” time even when I’m doing what should be enjoyable restful things I deserve to do as a hard working person who deserves enjoyments in life. And since I am locking myself in my room trying to force myself to work, often the fun I’m having is less fun than the kinds of planned activities I might engage in if I concentrated deliberately on making the most of my time available to play every day instead of only diddled and dithered accidentally and incidentally as an avoidance strategy.

Another contributing fear that I wrestle with that causes me procrastination is fear of punishment. I will avoid doing tasks that might involve negative feedback.

And, finally, I find one of the most maddeningly illogical causes of procrastination is uncertainty about where to start when I have multiple tasks which all need to be done. Since I feel the pressure to do each of them all at once, doing any particular one of them feels like it would be avoiding the others (and I can’t avoid any of them) so I wind up paralyzed and doing none of them.

So, what can someone like you, Danny, (someone whose plight hits so close to home I gave you a pseudonym close to my my own name in solidarity) do?

Here are the things I would recommend you start doing immediately.

1. Understand that punishing yourself with negative messages will not help you but only discourage you. Not only do you not need me to provide “no-nonsense” advice that will snap you out of your irresponsibility, you need to stop being your own merciless taskmaster. You need to accept that you are an earnestly well-meaning and talented person who has exceedingly normal psychological problems and deserves the care from yourself and from others that will help you succeed. Forgive yourself.

2. If you’re anything like me you read any biographical narratives of successful people with heightened interest. Notice how many of them took detours in their lives or suffered any number of failures on their way to success. You are younger than you feel and beyond your short term tasks which feel at present like your entire career there are a number of roads that will be open to you in the future. Your failures so far by no means have to destroy your career. With a wide imagination, indomitable determination, and the randomness of circumstances you will have potentially a huge number of paths to happiness available to you in the future. Whether or not you got your assignments done on time this past year or whether you have had the most productive several year stretch of your life recently are not going to be the things that determine your whole life course.

3. Stop thinking about the past. Stop thinking about how much time you have wasted or how much time is lost. This time cannot be regained by fretting about it. It’s gone. Reset your world to today. Do this everyday. You are in a ditch. Focus proactively on steps towards getting out.

4. If your thoughts are obsessing on how much you screwed up, this may be because your mind is trying to make sure that it doesn’t forget what went wrong and keep repeating it. I find my mind can be reassured if I just spend a half hour writing out a narrative of how I got derailed, why it made sense, what I learned, and what my plan to do better is. Just take that half hour once a day if need be and then return your focus to productive steps.

5. When you have multiple tasks you are behind on and crippled with anxiety over, pick one for the day and resolve not to worry about the others that day. Tell yourself that your only task is this one today. And if the task is enormous, make it only a relatively small and manageable section of the overall task. If you plan to solve all your problems in a day you’ll probably get overwhelmed and get nothing done.

6. Figure out when you feel less anxious and most energetic and plan to work for just a half an hour to two hours during that period. For me this is immediately upon waking up in the morning. Anxiety builds for me throughout the day. For others it might be after running or working out when their body is filled with endorphins, their mind feels like it has accomplished something, and their pulse is settling to a calmer rate. For others it might be after spending a day running errands and cleaning the apartment and clearing every other task that might distract the mind, so that it can finally relax and concentrate. Think about when in your day you feel most charged up and mentally freed to get down to work and schedule just a couple hours of work for that time.

7. Plan your time not working. Once you have scheduled a small window of working each day, be deliberate about the time you’re not working. Is there something you’re itching to do and much more passionate about doing than your work? Once you’ve put in your work time go do that. Don’t feel any guilt about it. The summer before I finished my dissertation in a concentrated way, I spent most of my time creating my blog and writing thousands of words daily for it. I got no less or more done on the dissertation that way but I started feeling really good about myself and excited about life again. And the discipline of writing I developed for myself and the practice I gave myself writing when there was no pressure made it so that my rate of productivity, my creativity, and the quality of my thinking when I returned to the dissertation had all vastly improved. Plus, I found a medium I loved and built something that I could be passionate about and made sense to me to keep working on when I finally finished being a graduate student. Your priority has to be about restoring your sense of fullness in life. You are not just your incompletes. Connecting to hobbies, to friends, to passion projects which feel like escapes rather than pressure, can all revive you.

8. Only once you’ve gotten good at working a half an hour to two hours a day and then letting yourself be free, build up to where you can work more hours. But keep them all concentrated to a set time during the day. And then continue to accept that you cannot work all day. At most work a stable 9-5 schedule if your mind can handle something like that and then mentally consider yourself free for scheduled social activities or a passion project or a romantic partner or whatever it is that you are going to allow yourself. Those periods of rest and those times spent enjoying life with a good conscience are vital to making returning to work bearable.

9. Focus on the long view of your life to get perspective. Fantasize about a wide range of possible things that success might look like for you and learn about the variety of paths you might take to get there. Your present predicament is not by any means the end of the world. It’s a set of tasks to complete and then move on from. And if you don’t do them perfectly, it’s okay, you might find hundreds more chances to succeed in life. The more you focus on just how many options are conceivable in life, the less any given failure will feel like the end of the world.

10. Allow yourself great latitude to brainstorm and experiment freely and often. Tell yourself when you start to work that what you’re about to write is not something you’ll ever show anyone. It’s just for you. And then just write without judging what you’re doing. See if anything exciting happens. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t matter. Some days you don’t succeed. But if you do that every day, some days you’ll hit something amidst a lot of nothing. And that’s all that matters. Not everything you do has to be perfect. Be imperfect and let the kernel of something great appear amidst it. Then just spend a little while shaping what you’ve stumbled on and that’s a successful day.

11. Slow and steady wins the race. If you accumulate day after day each with just a few concentrated hours of work, during days spent mostly in mentally healthy activities unrelated to your work, over time you will be far more successful than spending 24/7 crippled with anxiety and not having any fun either.

12. Make a plan and stick to it. If you can map out very manageable and realistic goals for each day between today and a finish date, then every time you psych out and want to accomplish everything all at once you can remind yourself to stick to the plan. Sticking to a well charted plan will carry you to the goal steadily. But then don’t let the plan itself become too rigid or a source of extra frustrations. If you’re not feeling like doing today’s task but feel moved to do next Wednesday’s now, just switch the schedule and go with where your motivation is. What’s important is that you’re breaking your tasks down into manageable chunks that can be handled one a day, not necessarily that you’re doing them all in a certain order.

13. When you lose a day or two to psyching out or flaking out, for whatever reason; just accept it, forgive yourself, and don’t increase the pressure on the next day. Mentally beating yourself up will not help. You are not a bad person who needs to be whipped into shape. You’re a good and hardworking person who just isn’t perfect but deserves every chance to succeed. So forget yesterday and focus back on manageable tasks. Don’t try to pile up for the next day two days’ worth of work and don’t start denying yourself the pleasures and activities and relationships that make you happy. Just focus on your daily allotment of work like usual.

14. If possible, connect your work to people outside yourself. If you can collaborate with peers, do so. Get supportive feedback from them and give it to them. If blogging will inspire you by making you feel heard (like it did for me when I was a stuck and lonely graduate student), do that. Don’t make the only people you show your work to your professors whose (often harsh) judgments you will be tempted to overload with significance and psych out about. Get comfortable being imperfect with people whose steady input can be stimulating. Being isolated is terrible for intellectual progress. A regular give and take of ideas with others is encouraging, makes criticism a more regular and less overwhelming and scary part of life, and makes your ideas better.

15. Examine your fears rationally. Don’t be hard on yourself but be as clear minded as possible. Consider meditating even so that you can learn how to examine your emotions while neither judging nor succumbing helplessly to them. And think through every fear. How likely is it to come true? When I used to have panic attacks my first year of graduate school I received advice that for me stops them cold. I was encouraged to lean into the fear and tell myself that the worst would happen. And my mind, no longer trying to fight the fear with the risk of escalating it, just let it go. Maybe it was because I realized that I would be okay even if the worst happened and that was all I needed emotionally to calm down. Or maybe it was because the worst cases were so absurd that trying to believe them (rather than to avoid them) made them hard to accept and they went away. The long term goal is to allow yourself to fear in ways that are rational rather than exaggerated. Use your fear to plot out productive thinking about what you can control. What you cannot control, learn how to accept.

16. Be assertive about your needs with your professors. I have known too many graduate students who have been in toxic relationships with their professors. Sometimes these unresolved issues mean the end of otherwise promising academic careers. You have a right to your professors’ time. If you are psyched out about the prospect of their criticizing you, you can go to them and request that they please let you know first what they see of potential in your work, even if it is only small things. You can ask them for more specific instructions if they are vague. You can ask them for specific tasks or steps to follow or questions to focus on answering. You can seek out advice about your work from other professors if one you’re working with is not providing what you need.

If professors don’t get back to you about your work quickly, you can write them back and hound them. I had a friend who waited something like a year for a reply from his adviser only to find out his adviser either forgot he’d sent him something or missed the e-mail altogether. And my friend felt so hurt and rejected as forgettable that he took even longer to ever send his professor anything again. If they are to succeed, graduate students need to develop senses of entitlement to their professors’ help. Otherwise, many professors will just assume they are “adults” and practically peers academically and so can be ignored and left to figure out everything on their own. Graduate students are still students. They should feel no shame in demanding teaching from those to whom they are charges.

17. Part of your fears may not be of failure so much as of success. Some things I procrastinate I know are obstacles to things I think I want but I might be afraid of having. There may be deep unresolved emotional issues that make you more afraid of getting what you think you want than not having it is.

18. Allow yourself a relatively trivial but obligated task to procrastinate so that working will feel like evading what you’re supposed to be doing. Procrastination is in part motivated by the pressure that you have to do something rather than want to do it. We don’t like to do what feels like it’s forced upon us. If you can find some task you want to do even less than what you have to do and convince yourself you must do that, then doing what you actually have to do can feel like goofing off. Figure out how to make doing what advances your life feel like “goofing off”.

19. Sometimes we don’t feel like we can get to our official work until we do certain other tedious tasks that are not even work related. Stalling on these priorities that need to be attended to can sometimes get in the way. It may be helpful to just accept this and pay someone to do things like take care of your laundry or clean your room so that these things don’t just add to the pile of responsibilities in your mind.

20. Finally, and most importantly, understand that your life is already happening. You only have a finite number of years in life. Do not waste them thinking your happiness is some time off in the future when you have made it through graduate school or reached financial stability or found a lifelong romantic partner, etc. Your life is happening right now. Resolve to live your life in the well-rounded happy ways that you want today. Do what you imagine being happiest doing today in whatever ways you already can. Of course you have to make some sacrifices for the future. But enjoying life and doing what you find most fulfilling is not a reward scheduled for a decade from now. It is something for your whole life, starting day one.

Your Thoughts?

This was an installment in my Friday’s Philosophical Advice column. I am an American Philosophical Practitioners Association certified philosophical practitioner and I have a PhD in Philosophy from Fordham University. If you have a problem you think I can help with write to me at camelswithhammers at gmail dot com with the subject line “Philosophical Advice” and if I feel comfortable advising you and can get to it I will answer it here on the blog. All identities of those writing in for advice are kept strictly confidential. I use pseudonyms for all the letter writers when writing about them on the blog.

As a philosophical practitioner I help people reason through their beliefs, values, priorities, identities, emotions, ethical dilemmas, life decisions, existential quandaries, religious or post-religious struggles, love relationships, interpersonal conflicts, search for meaning and purpose, or struggles in any other areas of life that some conceptual clarification, logical consistency, theoretical sensitivity, and emotional intelligence can be helpful.

I do not treat mental illness. I simply help people reason more clearly, consistently, ethically, and proactively about their lives.

If you are interested in counseling sessions write me with the subject heading “Philosophical Practice”. All sessions are confidential. And it does not matter where you are in the world; philosophical practitioners are not bound by state certification requirements and restrictions, so you and I can meet online.

To keep up with all installments in the “Philosophical Advice” Series keep tabs on this page.

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • amytales

    Thank you! I am not a graduate student, instead working a 9-5, but many pieces of advice given are just as applicable to my situation. Going to bookmark this page. :)

    • http://camelswithhammers.com/ Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      Thanks! I’m glad to be able to help. Pass it on to your friends!

  • Katie Pizzano

    I went through something similar in my first (and only) year of graduate school. As a matter of fact, I have been procrastinating all day over writing this response because the memories are rather painful and not easy to rehash. Two years ago I started a Ph.D. program in Applied Math at Northwestern. I knew that I was going to have to work hard because my undergraduate work hadn’t fully prepared me for the program I was entering, but I could never have known what was really in store. A long distance relationship with another first year Ph.D. student who was in a similar boat didn’t help matters either, as I found myself constantly doing whatever I could to help my boyfriend through his rough spot and spending all my spare time visiting him because it was what made us both happy. I felt I didn’t fit in with any of the other graduate students, so I never went to the study groups, which made the workload impossible. Professors were generally unhelpful and sometimes even insulting, so I felt I had nowhere to turn. All of these things, combined with my personal need for excellence, led to a state of what I can only describe as paralysis and numbness. Every time I tried to do something, I would start procrastinating within half an hour, and I hated myself for it. I sought help too late because I was too proud and didn’t want to admit that I needed it, and by then I couldn’t undo the damage I had done. It was at that point that I sat down and took a hard look at my life objectively. I came to the conclusion that the degree wasn’t worth the strife it was causing me, or the medication that the counseling center suggested to help me get through it. I can’t say that the revelation magically made everything better, and the depression that came with it didn’t disappear either, but it was an important start to the process of rebuilding my sense of self-worth and re-evaluating my priorities in life.

    Anyway, the point of this very long response is that this situation is more common than most of us think when we are going through it and the points you made were extremely pertinent and helpful. Thank you for putting all of this together in one place.

  • Lane

    Great Advice. I especially like your plan time not working. When I get really stressed due to procrastinating I can’t seem to get anything started including doing things that are not work. Oh I will do things that waste time, like play around online, but nothing constructively fun. So while I’m procrastinating from work I’m also procrastinating from not working.

  • KatInAZ

    I never could figure out what I wanted to major in for College, (too many interesting subjects ending with -ology!) so I procrastinated then had a kid and now he’s trying to get into college. I can’t go back now, because I’m the only wage earner in our family and seeing my husband’s Master’s Degree go unused these 2 decades hasn’t helped.

    But, I see this article as something so much more useful than just for college Grad students. This is applicable to all facets of life, enough so that I sent it to my husband and son for them to read as well. I’m also sharing it on my Facebook wall. Thank you!

  • Dhoelscher

    Psychologists see procrastination as, in part, a perverse but human response to the need for control over one’s life and one’s situation. If I’m putting something off I may very well be decreasing my capacity to flourish, but, mostly unconsciously I guess, in many instances I’m insisting on a more appropriate degree of freedom than the circumstances would otherwise allow for.

    I’d just add, concerning the pressures of grad school, that for a talented minority of people, procrastination is a sanity-saving form of rebellion. There they are, usually assigned (in fields like philosophy and history anyway) hundreds of pages of reading per week more than they can possibly get through. They’re surrounded by ass kissers and suck ups who pretend to read everything and who endeavor to say whatever it is they think the profs want to hear. And the profs, many of them insufferably arrogant and full of themselves, pretend they don’t notice that most students are reading only a small fraction of the assigned material and dish out inflated grades to those students who are in their good graces. Under such circumstances, procrastination is a sign of good mental health and a healthy self-respect.

  • George

    What an amazing post! I’m a 5th year grad student who solved most of his procrastination issues, but did it the hard way: trial and error and analysis of my own behavior, eventually arriving at almost same conclusions that you nicely presented here. It feels good to read about it now. I just wish I had read an article like this years ago. Will definitely share this one. Thank you!


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