Achieving States of Flow, Beating Procrastination and my PhD

Flow is a mental state where we feel highly productive, at our peak performance and time just seems to fly by. It is at the complete opposite end of the work spectrum to procrastination and something that psychologists have suggested may be an important component of achieving happiness in our lives. Certainly we feel more satisfied during this productive moments, and it is where enjoyment and work somehow coincide.

I have been working on my PhD research now for almost 10 years and am a famously frequent procrastinator. I’d be done with this degree long ago if I wasn’t. Part of lengthy-ness though to my study has been the very intentional choice to have a broadly balanced life and focus on other things  too like starting a family, setting up a home, having professional jobs and my health and fitness beyond my study. Whether or not that has been a sensible decision is really an entirely different blog post perhaps, but I do know that when i want to sit down and devote myself to my research I want to be as productive as possible and for it to feel good, not a struggle. This however is not (often) the case and I have spent more hours than I can count procrastinating during the times i’d previously decided were thesis writing times.

Now I am hardly putting myself out there as someone that has all the answers with this but there are a couple of things that i’ve done recently that have really helped me with this and broke me out of what can only be classified as a ‘cycle of procrastination’ where my distracting activities became so engrained as habit that I at times wondered if id ever be able to do anything else! I have even had quite a few moments where I really have got to the state of flow and it felt fantastic and through this I rediscovered my love of the subject that i’m studying! The following has been essential in achieving this for me:

  1. I created a mindful morning ritual. I decided a few ‘healthy habits’ i’d incorporate into my morning routine with the specific purpose of telling myself that I was starting my day with the right intention. For me this is making my bed, putting on my essential oil diffuser, having some lemon juice in water and doing a very short session of yoga. It really doesn’t matter what it is is, it is that it means to you that you are starting the day right and doing what you set out to do. The morning ritual is a lot easier than the work you’ve been previously procrastinating on and therefore easier to commit to and actually do, but subconsciously you start associating yourself with a person that actually does the things you set out to do so has a much bigger flow-on effect in your day and outlook.
  2. I changed up my working environment. Since i was trying to break a bad habit and cycle of procrastination, changing some of the things about the context I was working in really make it feel like I can have a fresh start. It also helps me not just slip into my bad habits as it feels all new. Studying in a different location really helped me with this such as the library or even just a different room in my house. It seems silly because i have a perfectly good study to work in, but this had become my ‘room of procrastination’. I guess if i didn’t have the option to just move where I was working then i could redecorate or even just do a big clean of the room and it might have had the same result – previously though i’d used cleaning up my study space as an activity of procrastinating. So using a space that someone else has to clean up instead like a public library or cafe has really helped me. Also sometimes i like to move several times during a full day of work too. There are lots of different nooks and crannies within the library for example and usually since i have to take all my stuff with me if i were to go have lunch or go to the toilet I used this as an oportunity to try out a new study space (often this was also forced upon me anyway as someone else came into the space i was previously when i got up to have my lunch). Even if i’ve been studying really well in one spot moving keeps things fresh for me which for some unknown reason helps me focus.
  3.  I had created a study ritual. These are little things that tell my subconscious ‘now is study time!’. For me this was as simple as a Spotify study music playlist or even just having earbuds in my ears with no music. Also having my notebook, pen and water bottle set out. I make sure i also have stationary and pens that work well for my needs. If i had a notebook where the lines were too dark or my pen didn’t work properly my annoyance at these things would take my mind away from the work and stop me from archiving flow or any progress for that matter. For that matter turning off email notifications or your phone if you get a lot of calls is really important.
  4. A short time of uncomfortableness is necessary. Despite all the previous methods there is going to still be a time at the beginning of a work session where it is hard to get into it. This is unfortunately necessary and once you realise it and have experienced the joy of work flow previously you won’t mind so much and look forward to what comes next.

Finally flow is something that is said to be only possible when a task is somewhat challenging but not too difficult and this definitely seems to be the case for me. There are areas of my thesis i find just downright boring and these are a real slog! For those tasks creating some kind of treat that i get when i achieve that goal is a better method as i am unlikely to ever achieve flow for these particular task.

Now it is often said by productivity guides to create a to do list at the beginning of the day. I have tried this, and continue to try to do this but have found with my PhD thesis that I never ever, despite years of working on it, estimate correctly how long something will take me. I think the nature of doing new research that has never been done before and reading literature on dense topics where is there is always some other paper that must be read and difficulties that pop up the way on analysis. Thus my to-do lists are almost never achieved and most days I don’t even bother anymore. Instead of feeling down on myself for not ticking them off i judge my progress and productivity on the amount that i have written, the analysis that i have completed in relation to how difficult it was and things like that. In general it is easy to have a ‘feeling’ of how productive my day has been. I know this doesn’t work well with deadlines and it is probably for this reason that PhDs tend to have much less defined deadlines and time-periods that can often get close to a decade. I definitely found a to-do list easier to achieve for easier tasks like reports I previously had to do at work, or even assignments I had to write for lower degrees at university. So a to-do list is definitely worth a try but if you aren’t quite achieving everything but feel you were still productive don’t get down on yourself.

So that is what has worked for me, I hope that it works for you too if you have a project of some sort that you really want to do but for whatever reason have got into a cycle of procrastination. May you be productive and happy.

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