Motivation and Procrastination – or “How not to do it”

I went for a walk today, in the sunshine by the river. The the birds were singing in the trees and kids were running along the towpath. I looked at ruins of dams and waterwheels and the quarried sides of the valley.  It was pleasant and good to be outside. Things caught my eye and the breeze on my skin felt delightful, but meh, I was just not quite with it.

Holm Head Weir

Holm Head Weir, a calming place

And I got home, and remembered my dream from this morning. I was doing tissue culture in the lab, and people were clamouring for my attention, and it was a disaster. I dropped things on the floor, knocked things over and spilt all my cells all over the workbench, ruining my work for the week. I was such a klutz! Completely useless! A failure and a screw-up. I woke up nearly in tears, enough to wake A and cause them to worry.

Yeah, things, they are not so good.

I had my monthly meeting with my supervisors on Friday, and it was gruelling, Two and a half hours, I kid you not. I was expecting an hour tops.

The meeting began with “summarise what you’ve been doing this last month”. And I had no words, my mind blanked out and I umm’d and ahh’d, and stuttered and stopped and started again. I mangled a few sentences only for M to stop me, and start yammering on about presentation skills and how we were going to discuss my lack thereof. Joy. He asked me to start again, and I fluffed it, again. Then he asked how I felt about the project and how I thought it was going.

“Ehh, so-so” *hand-wavey gesture*.

And then, it broke forth. My worry that it’s not making progress because I’m not working hard enough.

“So why do you feel like that?”

“Because there’s all the stuff I haven’t done, and there’s so much to do and, and, and…”

I say I feel like I’m not doing enough work, when in fact I *know* I’m not doing enough. I spend my “free” time dossing around on the internet, reading blogs and playing mindless games of solitare and Mah Jong. I put off my data analysis and I leave things til “tomorrow”, and eventually get round to them two months later, maybe. M said I was being critical of myself. Damn right I am. I know I’ve been slacking off, but my brilliant super-ego nag just isn’t working any more. I used to be so driven, so motivated. Sure I’d often only get things done at the last minute but by golly, they would be done and done well. High achiever and perfectionist doesn’t even begin to cover it but these days, eh, not so much.

I’m bored out of my skull and I don’t feel challenged. Data analysis is mind-numbingly dull and tedious and takes for ever. I hate doing q-RT-PCR, I hate doing CellTracker, I just can’t be bothered.  I said as much, and at the words “I don’t feel challenged”, M decided that there was indeed a problem. I’m a motherfucking PhD student. I’m supposed to be at the top of my game, and with four or five months left of lab time, I should not be bored! I “can’t afford a major dip right now”, end quote. Yeah, I know. If I knew how to fix it, I would have. If I could find the motivation to do the boring, soul-sucking grunt work, I’d be doing it already.

And despite this ranting that I’m bored, don’t make the mistake of thinking I don’t care. I do. On a good day, the science is amazing and I’m damn good at what I do. On a bad day, well, I’m lucky if I make it into uni by lunchtime. I’m bored, but I’m also panicked. On a bad night, I look at how much work there still is to be done to get the bulk of my thesis produced, and I can’t get to sleep for hours because I’m lying awake with “I can’t do this” running on repeat in my head. How is it even possible to do that much work? Especially if I continue with my current strategy of putting off ’til tomorrow what should be done today?

Bluebells Season

Bluebells, running late

I’m scared, and I’m running out of time. We’re nearly at the end of May and I have to be done in the lab by the end of September, and I need to start writing up now, I need to be doing my analysis now, and ugh, I just can’t face it. I flicked through a couple of the theses from previous students in the lab and it just doesn’t seem possible.

My supervisors tried to reassure me I’m on track. They shared their stories of their PhDs and how they thought it was going to be impossible. They shared their set-backs and frustrations and told me I’m right on track – that now is when most final year PhDs have their major panic. They told me that if I keep on plugging away and be smart about my experimental design for the next stage, it will be okay. I don’t see it.

They said to reward myself for the grunt work with my thinking time. That I should read papers and start putting ideas together and see what exciting thoughts it sparks. It is the unfortunate nature of my PhD, and most other molecular biology study these days, that there is a lot of grunt work and boring analysis to be done, and it is true that if I never do the analysis, I’ll never get to the good thinking part where I get to try and figure out what on earth is going on, but argh! It is so DAMN TEDIOUS! If anybody knows a good computer programmer, or how to find the services of an app creator that can turn Cell Tracker into a gaming app so that I can farm my data analysis out, please do tell. It’s just a case of drawing circles round objects that like to run all over the place….

Anyway, back to the meeting, and the now. I’m sat on my sofa typing away, and three paragraphs previously I was crying tears of hopelessness and frustration, and it was the same in the meeting. Crying in front of your supervisors isn’t fun, but at least I got to say things out loud that I’ve been worrying about for the last month. And in better news, I did actually get an amazing result on Friday. My cloning finally worked! I have my gene under the control of it’s own promoter, tagged with a fluorophore, and when I put it in my cells and put them on the microscope they fluoresced! Huzzah! Also good was that M and V agreed to give me regular deadlines for mini-writing projects and lab work, so that should help some.

Wild Periwinkle

A Periwinkle, for friendship and memories

(An aside to anyone reading this who is thinking about doing a PhD, be serious with yourself about whether you cope well without structure. If you don’t, and I think many folk who did well at school because of timetables and homework deadlines are in this basket, make sure you pick a supervisor who likes micromanaging. Mine is very hands-off, and while he did mention it during the interview, I didn’t pick up on it until too late. I also thought I was good at managing my own time because I can always hit a deadline, but that is in fact not quite the same thing when you’ve had people dictating your work schedules and deadlines your entire life.)

The other final thing that’s been rattling around my brain is this quote on procrastination:

“I realized that procrastination isn’t just about laziness. It’s about anxiety. To work on something you don’t understand means facing your doubts and confusions head-on. Procrastination pushes back that painful confrontation.”

This sums up the main reason why I procrastinate at work. I think about doing x difficult task and feel overwhelmed, so I put it off and go work play on the internet. I’m sure there’s something the mindfulness practice has to say on this, something about sitting with your discomfort for a few minutes and then getting on with whatever’s causing the discomfort any way. I may learn to do this at some point. Maybe tomorrow?


8 thoughts on “Motivation and Procrastination – or “How not to do it”

    • You know, I’m not sure that’s helpful.

      Once upon a time, I was a bright young thing, hopeful and excited to be studying! science! I was going to be a researcher! I was going to change the world! Or at least a small bit of it! The Doctorate was a no-brainer of a choice! I’d always known I was going to university and once at university, that I was going to do a PhD.

      And now, I’m too close to the end to quit, but I’m unfulfilled and there’s no way out without loosing a lot of face, and it will still be useful in the future. Or something.

      • Hi there,
        Didn’t mean to be unhelpful, just thought that we put ourselves through hoops for other peoples reasons not our own, what we once needed to do or are expected to do may no longer be our priority. However, I think you should carry on if you are nearly there. Sending positive vibes if that’s not too out there for a scientist.

        • I agree, we do often put ourselves through things for other people’s reasons, and that may well be playing a part here. But acknowledging it doesn’t solve my dual problems of a) lack of motivation and b) procrastinating out of fear.

          • I’ve always believed that awareness is the first step to solving the problem. On a practical note, a visit to an NLP therapist will help you conquer both these issues.
            Good Luck

  1. 1. Re: cell tracker, that sounds tedious and awful, but for those kinds of research tasks I always found that putting on some music/an audiobook/podcasts and just pushing through to be the only way to do it. Try to give the poor bored part of your brain SOMETHING to do, and then get on with it. I feel your pain though… I spent months trying to avoid spending a few days getting the PERFECT glowing neuron picture for publication. I already had plenty of images for data analysis /proof-of-concept, my boss just wanted a prettier one, in the perfect orientation, etc… and it just took hours and hours of going through slide after slide of worms until I found the perfect one. Tedious as fuck.

    2. I’m sorry you’re struggling so much with motivation. I don’t know how much help I can be there… in the end, I only got through my thesis by breaking it down into small pieces, assigning myself a few a day, and brute forcing it, even when it made me fucking miserable. All I can recommend is breaking up your work into the most manageable increments you can, and going at it.

    Good luck. :-/

  2. I totally understand this, I have a few months left in the lab and the number of emotional break downs, be it anger or tears, are increasing the closer I get to the deadline. I know the supervisor wants to be encouraging when they say its good, your on track, but im just not believing them. I’m chock full of fear and nothing is going to make it any better. I am definitely questioning if the PhD route was a good idea, hopefully I will be feel differently in a year but it is nice to know i’m not alone in these worries.

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