Don’t let PhD Procrastination keep you from finishing your thesis


Writing your thesis is hard. It’s much harder work than you expected. Each chapter, each section takes longer to finish than you planned.  It becomes tedious, repetitious and a little bit boring. The shine of starting a new thing has worn off and you are easily distracted by new shiny things. Or you are just plain stuck, uncertain what to write next or even where to start writing. Any or all of these things can lead you to PhD procrastination.

PhD procrastination can take many forms. Some of the most common ones I see are:

  • Planning, making a new plan, changing the plan, colour coding the plan…
  • Obsessing over one sentence or paragraph
  • Obsessing over formatting
  • Endless reading of material that is increasingly distant from your thesis question
  • Prioritising other tasks such and child care responsibilities, housework and paid employment over the thesis

Before you know it months have flown by and your word count is stubbornly stuck in a plateau.

Sometimes taking a break, putting your work to one side for a while is beneficial and even necessary; but when your PhD procrastination is doing you more harm than good, try these 4 ways to overcome procrastination and get back to writing.


Identify your pattern or triggers for starting and stopping


The first step in overcoming a pattern of procrastination is to identify the pattern.  Think back on the times you have started then stopped working on your thesis, or on a particular chapter. What caused you to stop and put the work aside? What about times you’ve planned to work on your thesis and then things just got in the way and you never began?

Write down as many examples as you can think of. Can you see a common cause or a procrastination pattern?

Once you know what triggers you to procrastinate, you can create strategies to either prevent those triggers from happening, or work out how to neutralise the triggers so they no longer cause you to put your work aside.


Make a start, no matter how small


There are many ways to start on a project, so I will share just 2 of my favourite approaches. If you have a no fail “just start” technique let me know in the comments below so I can add them to my arsenal.

Write a plan, but only if that is not your chosen form of procrastination (you know who you are!)

Writing a thesis is a huge undertaking, and can be overwhelming to the point of paralysis. If you have no idea where to start, then making a plan to follow helps take the huge, esoteric notion of  “my phd thesis” and tether it to realistic concepts and achievable chunks. If you are feeling overwhelmed by the sheer size of your theses and unsure where to start download my free PhD Thesis Structure Worksheet. With room for your chapter titles, sub-headings and memory prompts for what to put in each chapter, get your PhD plan out of your head and onto the page:


Start writing, defeat Blank Page Sydnrome.

A blank page is one of the greatest blocks to writing in the history of writer’s block. Luckily, it’s fairly easy to overcome. It’s as simple as opening up a new documents and at the very top putting the heading of the chapter or section you are going to write, followed by the word “draft” then the date. And just like that, the page is no longer blank.

If you need a little more on the page to get you going, copy and paste the sub-headings and memory triggers from your PhD Thesis Structure Worksheet. Then follow the structure, deleting the prompt when you complete each part.


Set the right goals

Unless you set the right goals to start with, you will not feel motivated to work toward ticking them off. As well as being specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-based (SMART) your goals need to be tuned to you. You can have as many SMART goals as you like, but if they are not aligned to what motivates, inspires and is rewarding to you then you are not going to do the work required to achieve them.

Find out how to set great goals in this article


Create some external accountability

You’ve worked out what triggers your procrastination and you have set the right goals for you. You’ve made a start, no matter how small, now how to keep going? For many people, accountability to someone else is a great way to keep that momentum going.

Have you ever noticed it’s easier to do things for others than stick to your own plans and good intention? If this sounds like you, then committing to someone else that you will get your work done may help you avoid procrastination and get on with writing. To make this work, there needs to be accountability and consequences.

Make a date when you will show and tell your accountability buddy what progress you have made on your thesis. This should be weekly or fortnightly at least to be most effective. Personally I prefer positive reinforcement than negative consequence, so I recommend a reward for meeting your weekly commitment. Maybe you meet for coffee, and you can only have cake if you’ve met your target for the week. And if you haven’t kept your commitment, then not only do you miss out on cake, but you’ve disappointed your accountability partner.

Choose an accountability buddy who won’t let you off the hook too easily, and who is genuinely invested in your success. Partners and other PhD candidates tend to make poor accountability buddies; friends and family who are not writing a thesis and who are able to dish out some tough love form time to time are good choices.

Goodbye procrastination hello productivity


There as many reasons and manifestations of procrastination as there are PhD topics. The key to overcoming PhD procrastination is to first work out when and why you are procrastinating.  Once you understand what is getting in the way of writing your thesis can you work out which techniques will help you overcome it.

Making a start can be challenging, but you can rise to the challenge with a bit of determination. If you haven’t already, create a plan, structure or outline to follow. This will help keep you from feeling overwhelmed and lost.

Nothing is so debilitating to a writer as a blank page. Defeat Blank Page Syndrome by simply writing out what you are going to write. This might be the title or subheadings of the section you are working on, or key points from your plan or outline.

Setting the right goals to motivate yourself will make it easier to keep going once you have made a start. You need to feel excited about your goals, and about achieving them. When you feel excited about reaching your goal it’s easier to do the work required to get you there.

And finally, create some external accountability. Make a promise to someone who will hold you to it, and have regular check-ins to keep you on track. Build in rewards for meeting targets, and consequences for procrastinating and not getting it done.


Let me know how these tips have helped you overcome PhD procrastination, I love to hear a good success story.

Until next time,

Bec, Your PhD Buddy