Kicking the time thief’s arse

Where has this year gone? I took a break from mid-December because my eye had been twitching for months and I was having “do I really want to do my doctorate/am I good enough to do my doctorate” thoughts. My friend Dr Lorana pointed out that I just needed a break and of course she was right. We went to NZ, and when we got back we had about 10 days to pack up the house and move everything into storage. I did most of the packing during the day so ManFriend didn’t have to come home from work and worry about it.

We stayed with friends for a few weeks until we were able to move into our new place. I took it upon myself to unpack everything as well, as part of my strategy to make ManFriend’s life as easy as possible since he’s the one bringing home the bacon (the tasty tasty Schultz bacon). My part-time salary is so pitiful that it basically just keeps us in cider. It’s odd that two strong feminists like us have moved into traditional gender roles, but since he’s supporting me financially while I do this doctorate, I support him domestically so it feels fair. (Even though, bless him, he insists I don’t have to.)

We’ve been here for about three weeks. I have a great space for my desk, a big, light-filled room without a mould problem – so it’s the complete opposite of my last study space – but it took a few weeks to get around to getting a desk chair. We still don’t have the internet connected even though they said it would happen last week “at the very latest”. Once that happens, the plan is to download Nvivo, Scrivener and Zotero and spend some time playing around with them, because Word and Endnote suck balls and arse.

Do you see what this is? It’s an enormous excuse. I have been avoiding my doctorate like it’s nobody’s business, and I don’t know why.

In Psychology Today, Hara Estroff Marano writes:

Procrastinators actively look for distractions, particularly ones that don’t take a lot of commitment on their part. Checking email is almost perfect for this purpose. They distract themselves as a way of regulating their emotions such as fear of failure.


Marano spoke to Joseph Ferrari, associate professor of psychology at De Paul University in Chicago, who identified three basic types of procrastinators:

Arousal types, or thrill-seekers, who wait to the last minute for the euphoric rush;

• Avoiders, who may be avoiding fear of failure or even fear of success, but in either case are very concerned with what others think of them; they would rather have others think they lack effort than ability;

• Decisional procrastinators, who cannot make a decision. Not making a decision absolves procrastinators of responsibility for the outcome of events.

Double ouch.

I think I’ve got fear of failure and fear of success. Succeeding might mean I get a job that is interesting and challenging and requires me to put in some effort, and I’ve never had to do that before and thatkindafreaksmeout. And I would definitely rather people think I lack effort than ability, even though being thought of as lazy is not very flattering.

Looking up procrastination on the internet – and really, what better way to procrastinate? – I found some info from the Academic Skills Centre at California Polytechnic State University:

Procrastination is only remotely related to time management, (procrastinators often know exactly what they should be doing, even if they cannot do it), which is why very detailed schedules usually are no help.

I have been trying this very detailed schedule approach for ages and guess what? It doesn’t work for me. I love lists, but I don’t respect the work list.

The procrastinator is often remarkably optimistic about his ability to complete a task on a tight deadline… Lulled by a false sense of security, time passes. At some point, he crosses over an imaginary starting time and suddenly realises, “Oh no! – I am not in control! There isn’t enough time!” At this point, considerable effort is directed towards completing the task, and work progresses. This sudden spurt of energy is the source of the erroneous feeling that “I only work well under pressure”…

Barely completed in time, the paper may actually earn a fairly good grade; whereupon the student experiences mixed feelings: pride of accomplishment (sort of), scorn for the professor who cannot recognise substandard work, and guilt for getting an undeserved grade. But the net result is reinforcement: the procrastinator is rewarded positively for his poor behaviour. As a result, the counterproductive behaviour is repeated over and over again.

Apart from all the he’s, and the panicky exclamation marks – I am remarkably calm under pressure. In my performance review, under the bit about being able to cope in a “stressful and hostile environment” (yes, it actually says hostile), I wrote “I laugh in the face of stress” – that’s me right there.

But I’ve got a bigger problem than just leaving assignments until the last minute: I’ve got a whole freakin’ doctorate staring at my lazy arse. (Although I’m not quite sure what that sentence means.)

According to Ahern and Manathunga (2004), the warning signs of a stalled student include “taking too much time with other work, particularly teaching; over-reading or collecting more and more” information (p. 238). This is the pile I feel I need to read before I can start my interviews (it’s only this neat for photographic purposes):

my desk

There are 92 journal articles and five reports. It doesn’t include the four books on the other side of the desk. Collecting more and more information? Naaahhhh.

Last semester I allowed my teaching to take up way too much time. I loved doing it, so it wasn’t just pure self-sabotage, but between teaching and part-time work and the rest of my life, there wasn’t much time left for uni.

Problem is, all the books and articles I’ve found on How To Kick Your Own Arse Into Finishing Your Doctorate are about how to finish writing the damn thing. But for me, the writing’s the easy part. I need the How To Kick Your Own Arse Into Starting Your Doctorate guide.

Kearns et al (2008) compiled a list of the self-handicapping behaviours commonly displayed by PhD students: over-committing, busyness, perfectionism, procrastination, disorganisation, not putting in effort, and choosing performance-debilitating circumstances. And Greenberg (1985) found that people are “more likely to self-handicap when the task involved is very important to them,” (Kearns et al, 2008, p. 79).

Yes, I’m aware that the time spent doing the research for this post is time I could be doing my doctorate, but let’s be honest here: I wouldn’t be spending that time on my doctorate anyway. So I’m taking a different approach for the next month, one that focuses on getting unstuck. And hopefully writing about it here makes me accountable.

Ahearn K., and Manathunga C. (2004), ‘Clutch-starting stalled research students’, Innovative Higher Education, vol. 28, pp. 237-254.

Kearns H., Gardiner M., and Marshall K. (2008), ‘Innovations in PhD completion: the hardy shall succeed (and be happy!), Higher Education Research & Development, vol. 27, no. 1, pp. 77-89.

Marano H. E. (2003), ‘Procrastination: Ten things to know’, Psychology Today, available online:

26 responses to “Kicking the time thief’s arse

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Kicking the time thief’s arse | the news with nipples --

  2. Oh my freaking god. Everything in this article is me. It’s terrifying. And I’m procrastinating by reading (and commenting) on it. :-O

  3. thefirstJanineonthisblog

    Totally sympathise.
    I am currently procrastinating in reading this blog to avoid the study I am doing at a US uni in yet another move of procrastination to avoid starting writing my LLM (but I say this US form of procrastination is justified because it is informing the LLM). More study, to study before I write? Hmmmm go figure.

    I do think you are beating yourself up a little too much though. All in good time. A very good mate of mine and fellow procrastinator, just finished the last chapter of her PhD in internet cafes on a semi holiday in Indonesia. She has battled the same challenges over the last 4 years and the time was right to write; it just happened. Luck favours the prepared. Maybe the same is for research/writing. Maybe you are not procrastinating but preparing.

  4. I like this post not just because I got a mention but because I did ALL those things and still finished. I think you’re doubting yourself too much and if I could take back anything from my PhD years, it’s the time I wasted wondering if I was going to finish or fearing I wouldn’t. In fact, I could have probably written a whole separate bloody thesis with that spare time. Don’t fret, pet, just do it. Or don’t – if you’re at the park/pub/beach/movies, don’t feel guilty, just enjoy and then go back to doing a bit of the thesis afterwards.

    • I am pretty hard on myself. And part of writing posts like this is getting the reassurance from others that this is normal. It’s hard to move past the idea that I need to be workingmyarseofffortwentyhoursadayforthreeyears to be a real PhD student.

      • Kim, I wrote a way-longer-than-necessary thesis in 3 1/2 years. I also worked part-time in three jobs in three different cities and did a lot of baby stuff (inc feeding round the clock and crying my eyes out with PND). Except for the last week before submission (when I did honestly work 20 hour days for 5 days straight, because I became totally obsessed with finishing it), I never worked more than 30 hours a week on the thesis, generally more like 20 and sometimes more like none. I am not saying this to say how amazing I am, but because there’s a lot of crap out there about how you have to dedicate your whole life to the PhD and give up everything else for the duration and in my experiece this is total bullshit! You can get there and have a life too – just don’t waste so much energy on the guilt and self-doubt. Good luck!

        • Oh gawd, now I feel lazy. I know that wasn’t your intention, but that’s one busy life you’ve got there lady.

          • that was definitely not my intention and not in fact how I look back on my PhD time – to the contrary, there was a lot of hanging out in parks and going to the movies too. I am actually pretty lazy myself and don’t believe in working long hours. If you don’t have time to do fun things, what’s the point after all??

  5. Okay then. Pull your finger out (of the keyboard) and read something. Get away from the computer and just read paper. Maybe that will help to ‘get unstuck’.

  6. thefirstJanineonthisblog

    sorry – work computer reverted me back to original state. The Janine above is me.

  7. Ahh.. LOVE this article.

    This article came just as I needed it (writing a novel)… so thanks for sharing. I have been reading your blog since I saw you present at the Emerging Writers’ Festival last year. The info is often a little over my head but I enjoy your writing style and trying to decipher the world of politics.

    Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks for being a part of the sharing. And the festival was great fun – it was the first time I’d done anything like that and I now want to talk at all the festivals!

      What’s your novel about? I’m envious of anyone who can sustain that amount of creativity.

  8. Apologies if this is out of line (an Abbott gesture) but are you researching and writing about procrastination as a method of procrastination???? Is this intended irony?

  9. I found this page while looking up software (zotero, scrivener) but really… i was procrastinating. I’m a year in to my PhD and i feel i have almost not done a thing. I too have been accumulating journal articles and web pages while not reading them and my sense of guilt has been increasing alarmingly lately.

    I’ve got an idea for fellow PhD procrastinators out there… I’ll do your PhD if you do mine?

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  12. Dino not to be confused with

    Less chatting more writing. Capish?

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