[Productivity] An Essay on Procrastination in Graduate School

*Disclaimer: I wrote this post to share my thoughts on procrastination during the dissertation proseminar class. This is not an academic article, but I hope it helps someone who has experienced the same difficulties as me.

While some people may not experience it, many graduate students face the temptation of procrastination. Sometimes we cannot understand ourselves when we have something important to do, but we keep procrastinating. In this post, I particularly want to write about why graduate students (those who want to become researchers) experience procrastination and how to deal with it. Sometimes, understanding why could be helpful in breaking the vicious cycle.

As proven by many previous studies, procrastination is a psychological problem rather than a self-management issue. As shown in the graph below, you are procrastinating because your stress levels are either too high or too low. However, I believe that for most graduate students, high stress caused by the desire to do well and to complete tasks perfectly (either perfectionism or imposter syndrome) is the cause of procrastination.


I know lots of graduate students, especially those who are pursuing doctoral degrees, consider learning and reading as enjoyable. They might have enjoyed writing before starting their graduate program. However, when it comes to writing (such as writing journal articles or theses) as a profession, graduate students often experience a lot of stress and procrastination. It is because there is a gap between learning as a “hobby” and learning as a “job.” Learning as a hobby does not necessarily require excellence, so there is little stress, and individuals can control the pace of their learning. Learning as a job is challenging and demands an (at least) moderate pace of learning.

Armour, P. G. (2006). The learning edge. Communications of the ACM, 49(6), 19-22.

As we discussed learning, let’s use the Learning Curve model. This model examines whether learners feel more boredom or anxiety by plotting two factors, a) competency and b) difficulty of the task, on the x and y axes. While the first graph may seem fixed, the competency zone could expand over time when learners continue to work hard and take on increasingly challenging tasks, resulting in more tasks falling within the competency zone. Having a growth mindset, one that sees your competency as growing rather than fixed, will help you move forward and keep learning despite your anxiety and fear.

I believe learning means “continuously expanding the competency zone.” There are moments when we suddenly realize that tasks seemed too difficult a year ago, but they now become easy tasks. It applies to all areas of study, not just language but also statistics, writing, and reading. However, some tasks are highly challenging, making us feel overwhelmed and keeping us procrastinating. But after learning them, they may become easy tasks without noticing it. In the learning process, we continue to work with anxiety, tension, and fear while expanding our competency zones. For example, five years ago, I had a habit of avoiding Stata coding as something I feared, but now it has become one of my hobbies. But still, for me, coding in R is the source of procrastination. It’s because it’s out of my comfort or competency zone.

The problem is that researchers are destined to constantly confront ineffective due to anxiety zone throughout our academic life. In a company, when one is promoted to a managerial position, they end up doing management tasks; rather than learning completely new things, they use the expertise they have learned in the past. Fundamentally, it is beneficial for the company to keep that person doing what they are good at. On the other hand, in academia, it is difficult to have a sense of mastery. Lots of great scholars keep learning even in their 80s, and they are challenged by emerging scholars or methods.

The peer review system also forces us to get out of our comfort zone and learn something new (and challenging). Let’s talk about the comments from the reviewers or feedback from the mentors/peers. They often recommend trying something else that I did not include/test in the original manuscript since it is beyond my area of skill set. It is similar when we present our research; people always ask, “why don’t you try this?” We are forced to learn beyond what we currently know. So, I identify the challenges to going beyond the competency zone as inevitable and try to accept it as one of the good parts of being in academia — anyway, we will continue to grow, regardless we enjoy it or not. Optimistically speaking, as we repeatedly experience “going out of your competency zone” in graduate school, we become less afraid of new/difficult things. The psychological cost of challenges is being reduced thanks to your past experience: “I was able to do this, even for the more difficult one.” I appreciate this as one of the advantages of an academic career.

Therefore, instead of thinking, “I will master this if I persevere in my doctoral program,” it is better to learn how to break down high-difficulty tasks into manageable levels of stress and to enjoy the process of learning. Even if something feels difficult, breaking it down into specific, manageable tasks for each day would be the best solution. The popular book “Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day” suggests the same strategy. By avoiding and procrastinating high-difficulty tasks, even if you manage to do them somehow, you won’t be able to enjoy the process itself, which will drain your emotional energy. It is not a long-run strategy in academia.

Let’s talk about my experience. When I have a goal of writing a high-quality paper in a short period, it is likely to be tempted to procrastinate. I need to remind myself to “just write anything.” When I read others’ articles and theses, I often think about how inadequate I am, which can lead to writer’s block. I also try to remember that very few people write perfectly from the beginning, and many have become good writers through the reiterative process of feedback and practice. At times, the fast-fail culture in Silicon Valley could be helpful for the mindset that “I need to fail a lot of times before having a single success,” even as a graduate student, the researcher in training 🙂

More resources

Why you procrastinate even when it feels bad
Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator | Tim Urban | TED

Devon Price. Laziness Does Not Exist, But unseen barriers do

  • October 5, 2022