Miguel Panao | Professor and Author

Finding ways to improve scientific writing and academic productivity.

How to overcome procrastination in your scientific work

5 Ways to Start Changing How Things Get Done

Two reasons for procrastinating is being unclear about your goals and lacking your why. Although this may happen when we do scientific work, the major part of us knows where the research is headed and the underlying reasons for doing it. However, we can still procrastinate. Why?

I don’t know if people have a correct idea about the work of a scientist. Most probably base their views on what they see in the movies, but it is different. Most researchers are professors, so, besides classes, which means: preparation; lecturing; and evaluating students; we also supervise Master and Ph.D. students, take part in research project meetings, peer-review papers for scientific Journals… so where’s the time to do the research work we love doing?

But, is time lacking, or the will to do it? Based in Michael Hyatt’s recent article on why we still procrastinate, I’ll adapt these reasons to ways researchers may use to improve their scientific productivity.


#1: Chunking tasks into small steps

If we know what needs to be done, we also know what it takes to do it. That’s why we procrastinate. It’s too big. But if we invest time and chunk the task into small ones, our brain can’t refuse, it’s a proven strategy to reach our goal.


#2: Organize small steps and “walk”

But there’s a problem we need to overcome. It’s not enough to chunk big tasks or goals into small steps the brain can’t refuse. If you don’t organize how you’ll give these steps, you won’t walk because you lose the ability to discern which of the small steps will be the first. I use Todoist to keep a list of the small tasks belonging to each project. Examples of projects can be reviewing a paper, or writing one.


#3: Too many tasks is overwhelming

Sometimes it’s not the fact the goals are big, or chunking into small steps and organize them. It’s the fact we have too many tasks. And overwhelmed by the number, we become distracted and procrastinate. The best way to deal with this is setting a number. I follow the same strategy as Michael Hyatt and establish each day my “Big 3”. Then, I go over the chunked parts of each of the Big 3 and set a time to dedicate myself walking the small steps.


#4: Urgent and unimportant distracting tasks

General Eisenhower famous quote

I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.

lead to the development of the priority matrix used by so many people to set their priorities. Last minute meetings, students having doubts and meeting us for clarification are some of the urgent and not important priorities that can distract us from following our plan. When I state they’re not important, it means they’re not important to us, but to others. In my experience, the best way to deal with this is developing the ability to say “no”. But a positive “no” in the sense we understand the importance of the solicitation, and will attend to it as soon as possible, if possible at all.


#5: Set deadlines to built accountability

Accountability is proven to be one of the essential steps toward goal success and, in scientific work, this means: deadlines. The challenge appears when we have tasks without deadlines. This is when we tend to procrastinate. The answer is setting deadlines yourself and find a way to share them. It’s not the embarrassment that will drive you if you don’t fulfill the deadlines, but more the opportunity of someone asking you about your goal, thus, reminding you about how important it is to fulfill it.


Question: Which of these reasons affected you the most and lead you to procrastinate lately?

About Miguel Panao

I am a Professor at the University of Coimbra in Mechanical Engineering. I am also author of books in the fields of environmental ethics and Science and Religion. From the several research projects, this site is personal and dedicated to the search for the best approaches, tools, techniques to improve scientific productivity.

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