How to avoid procrastination and stick to writing goals

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How to avoid procrastination and stick to writing goals

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Everyone at some point finds themselves in a situation where they know that something needs to be done but are unable to bring themselves to do it. This gap between intention and action is considered procrastination. For most researchers, getting started is the most challenging part of the writing process.


We all procrastinate, but why?

At any given time, if you ask a researcher what is bothering them the most, they will likely talk about not meeting writing goals or struggling with writer’s block. This “block” may not necessarily be a creative obstruction; it might be a form of procrastination.

Procrastination is not a negative reflection of your productivity or time management. It does not make you a terrible researcher. Experts consider procrastination a problem of self-regulation. The science behind procrastination is the tug of war between your limbic system and the brain’s prefrontal cortex.1 The limbic system acts autonomically to root for survival and avoid the unpleasant (e.g., it directs you, “Eat that burger and watch that movie to feel good!”), while the prefrontal cortex is controlled by you and lets you make decisions based on information (e.g., “You need to finish writing that paper!”).

It is important to identify why you are delaying your writing task. Recognition and awareness of your state of mind can help you retrain your brain to react differently and break negative patterns. Below are some ways to deal with the feelings that might be keeping you from achieving your writing goals.


Reasons you are delaying your writing task and how to handle them

1. Lack of motivation to begin: Just like your body needs to “warm up” before a run, your mind should be allowed to slowly warm up to a challenging mental task.


What can you do? Be patient with yourself: you cannot just flip a switch and transform into work mode instantly (some lucky people might be capable of this!). A cup of coffee or tea is just what you might be needing to increase alertness and motivation. Physical activity like a brisk walk or run can boost your mood and make you feel more ready to take on a challenging task.


2. You are wallowing in self-doubt: You might not feel confident of your writing abilities. Your blank document stares back at you, and you get that insecure feeling that you aren’t ready or smart enough to write. Try to assess this feeling further. What part of writing stresses you out?

  • Lack of confidence in writing

What can you do? You can get help (writing coaches, books, AI-based writing tools) for working on your writing skills and even assistance with improving written drafts.


  • Struggling to create an outline

What can you do? Discuss your ideas with your supervisor, colleagues, and coauthors. Try to get ideas from papers that hold your attention.


  • Bogged down with handling literature and references

What can you do? No biggie! There are plenty of reference management software programs to explore.


  • The job seems too big and unattainable

What can you do? Break down the task into manageable micro-goals (e.g., aim to complete a paragraph or section a day). The dopamine high of “self-congratulation” upon achieving small wins will motivate you to move on to the next micro-task. Before you know it, you will be closer to completion!


3. You feel stuck: OK, so you cannot get past that blank screen. Or maybe you got started but got stuck for many days, unable to write at all.


What can you do? Don’t fret if you may not achieve much progress when you are working on the task during the time slot you’ve dedicated to it. Sometimes, ideas may come to you when performing something completely different. Try running the ideas—about the outline or flow of your article—in your mind over the course of the day when you’re not under too much pressure. This could be when you’re doing mundane activities, like say, walking, cooking, or doing repetitive tasks in the laboratory. This way, you can initiate the project with the words in your head. Keep a notepad or device handy to jot down points, ideas, even words or phrases you might like to use in your manuscript. You can record voice notes on your phone and transcribe them using voice-to-text tools.


4. You are distracted: You find yourself falling for short-term rewards over long-term rewards, e.g., binge-watching a new show that dropped on Netflix rather than savoring the success of writing and submitting your paper in time. While staring at the blinking cursor on your blank screen, you switch tabs and doomscroll on Twitter! Or you keep reaching for your phone to check your WhatsApp messages.


What can you do? It’s time to minimize distractions! Put your phone in another room, mute social media notifications, and use app blockers on the device you are working on.


Some tweaks to your routine to beat procrastination

Harness the power of visualization: It is easy to visualize the “finish line,” but how about trying to visualize the “start line” for your project? Then, you could also create visual cues or visual reminders that prompt you to act, such as Post-Its and lists. In your mind’s eye, shine a “spotlight” on the goal you want to achieve. This makes the goal appear closer and achievable.

Find the right working space: Does it feel like drudgery to keep returning to the same desk to write? Even the visual cues you have put up slowly become part of the background, and you overlook them. Change your working spot; a new location might help. You could even try a standing desk for a change, which might increase your alertness. If you are anything like acclaimed science writer Siddhartha Mukherjee, you might even enjoy writing in bed2!

Find your best creative time: All too often, we hear the refrain of “don’t wait for the perfect time to start writing” or “the best time is NOW!” However, we each have a time of day we are at our productive or creative best. You should find yours to do the main creative part of your writing task then. Some people tend to work better under pressure and actually use this approach to their benefit. If that’s you, enjoy the adrenaline rush as you near the deadline!


Closing thoughts

The procrastination experience is more painful than doing the job you are putting off. And yet we are all prone to delaying things that don’t offer immediate rewards. It is up to us to find a balance between happiness from short-term and long-term goals.

I will leave you with an experiment. Just this once, push yourself to finish a writing task on time. Maybe stretch yourself and try to complete it earlier than needed. Observe how you feel after you hit the send/submit button (spoiler alert: It will be exhilarating!). Savor that feeling, but don’t stop there. Try and memorize and internalize that feeling. And tap into it the next time you feel like putting off your writing. For all you know, that rewarding feeling might be all it takes to break old patterns and get into a new cycle of being a productive writer!



1. Sudakow, J. What you need to know about procrastination to effectively combat your natural biological tendencies. Inc. (2017).

2. Fox, K. Siddhartha Mukherjee: ‘I don’t like writing as if I don’t exist’. The Guardian (2022).


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Published on: Nov 10, 2022

Sunaina did her masters and doctorate in plant genetic resources, specializing in the use of molecular markers for genotyping horticultural cultivars
See more from Sunaina Singh


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