This post first appeared on Thesislink in June 2018.
I recently had a vivid flashback to my old routine when I was in the early stages of working on my Masters / PhD theses. I would wake up, head to my office (if I was using it) or haul myself to my desk (if I was working from home) and open up my laptop.
Then I would browse through a long list of websites. I would catch up on national news; check my email; tend my farm on FarmVille (don’t judge, it was big in 2011); read any new posts on the blogs I followed; check the weather; shop online for any upcoming birthdays; check bus times; read some vaguely academic-seeming articles from Arts & Letters Daily, and so on and so on.
My Firefox bookmarks panel was a smorgasbord of interesting-but-not-essential browsing opportunities. Every morning, I’d think: I’ll just check this one thing, and then I’ll get down to work. I knew that I could stop browsing at any minute. But, like a true addict, I didn’t.
The thought of ‘starting work’ was so overwhelming that I simply avoided it. Starting work meant facing a giant brick wall of a project. The sheer scale of what I had to produce – 40,000 words for my Masters, and 80,000 for my PhD – was too intimidating. In theory I knew how to conduct research and write – after all, I’d done it very well in undergraduate essays. But once I was committed to a massive task, I lost all confidence. I’d been admitted to the university and given an office and a supervisor, and then sent away to write what is effectively a book-length document. It was like being asked to build a pyramid and being handed a plastic teaspoon.
Internet procrastination was very tempting because it often felt productive. I would get a mini sense of achievement each time I dealt with an email, and filed it away. Research and writing did not provide the same frequent rewards. They were long-term projects that promised a far-away reward, but that was too abstract. I genuinely wanted to conduct my research, and write, and achieve my degrees. But I needed small everyday achievements along the way, and completing a challenge in an online game or finishing my Christmas shopping gave me those boosts. Unfortunately, that meant I was spending hours every day on things that weren’t productive for my research.
If you’re like me, and you spend a little too much time online, here are a few tips for beating internet procrastination.
Make online procrastination less appealing
I eventually reduced my online procrastination by deleting all my non-academic saved bookmarks (aka ‘favourites’ for IE users). It was painful. My beautifully curated list of preferred websites was gone. That had two effects. One: I couldn’t access my favourite sites with one click anymore; I had to type their names or URLs in full to find them. Two: my favourite sites were not visible when I opened my browser. With these web distractions both less obvious, and more cumbersome to access, I started spending less time online.
Make your research more achievable
If, like me, you work best with frequent small tasks, try breaking down your research goals. Instead of planning to spend your day doing one big task (e.g. ‘work on lit review’), try making a list of several sub-tasks (e.g. ‘read Lewitsky paper, make notes on Russell paper, source materials on composition theory’). You may like to break this down even further so that a paper is chunked into pages. That way, you can ‘tick’ each task off your to-do list and get that small sense of achievement at regular intervals.
Take yourself offline
The thought of going offline is revolutionary these days, but it can really help if you are prone to distraction. Set aside a period of time – it might be an hour, or a day – to disable your desktop internet connection, and turn off wifi and mobile data on your devices. For a fully distraction-free environment, you may also like to turn off your phone and convert your writing software to a writing-only mode to reduce the amount of stuff onscreen. (Microsoft Word users: try pressing Alt+v then “u” to enter full-screen mode. Hit Escape to return to your usual view.)
Writing retreats are also a great way to focus on your work. You can even create your own mini-retreat. Towards the end of my PhD I cleared a week in my schedule, prepared all my meals in advance, and unplugged all my distracting appliances (TV, modem, Xbox, etc) so that I could spend the week in hard-core writing mode. I think I got more done in that week than in the preceding month!