Category Archives: procrastination

Summer bummer and working to white noise

By Emily Arvay

© University of Victoria

As the weather warms, it can be increasingly tempting to cast off thesis or dissertation work in favour of a strawberry gelato, or pick-up baseball, or a fluffy beach book. Ironically, it is often during the summer months that graduate students find themselves bogged down with preparing for major field exams, thesis or dissertation writing, or condensed language-requirement courses. For many, the intensity of graduate work during the summer months might mean having to forgo that picnic in the park or rousing beach bonfire. One tactic for warding off such tempting distractions is to pretend, at least temporarily, that summer doesn’t exist. To drown out the squeals of children leaping through sprinklers, you might try losing yourself to the quiet din of a busy library, steady rainfall of a winter storm, or smoothing balm of furniture music. Rather than bemoaning those mint mojitos you’re missing out on, you might try embracing your newfound status as a den-dwelling troglodyte by closing those curtains, silencing those devices, and riding out that tsunami of graduate schoolwork with this ten-hour loop of rainy-day jazz. Although it won’t be easy, you might approach your thesis or dissertation project as you would a sandy band-aid: by pushing through the short-term pain of getting those drafted chapters off to your supervisory committee as quickly as possible. Then, once sent, you can treat yourself to a much-deserved break. Long-awaited, that beach-side lemonade will taste all-the-sweeter.

About the author:

Emily Arvay completed her PhD at the University of Victoria in 2019 with her thesis “Climate Change, the Ruined Island, and British Metamodernism.”  Since then she has worked as a Learning Strategist and EAL Specialist at the University of Victoria. She is currently conducting further research on the intersections between literary metamodernism and contemporary climate fictions.

Need to get on track? There’s an app for that

By Madeline Walker

Our last post was way back in March. I was going to write about some time management and productivity apps and tools to complement Emily’s wonderful post, but fittingly, I procrastinated about that. And here it is, the end of May, and I am finally tackling this task! I think I need one of these apps. . .

My colleagues  at the Centre for Academic Communication told me about some productivity tools and apps they use or have had recommended to them. Today, I am checking out a few.

Some apps are about sticking to the task at hand by shutting out distractions. If you are a Mac user, this free application, SelfControl, will “let you block your own access to distracting websites.” The skull image scared me a little—I might die if I can’t  access my mail for half an hour!

SelfControl app

Calmly Writer and Forest apps also give you the “distraction-free” writing experience; as with many of these apps, you can get a free trial then will have to pay.

Kaveh swears by the kitchen timer: “I find the simple technique of dividing your working time to rotating minutes for work and a break (at a ratio of 5:1 or 4:1) the most effective. If a kitchen timer does the magic for you, then you can call it the Pomodoro Technique (but it doesn’t have to be). You can simply use any timer.”

Are you a list maker? You might like Toodledo, a listing app that helps you organize life and work. The claim is that it will “increase your productivity,” providing a place to “write long notes, make custom lists, create structure outlines and track your habits.”

Finally, two intriguing apps have to do with making commitments in order to increase your productivity.

stickk is a “commitment platform with the tools to help you achieve your goals.” When you sign up with stickk, you make a  commitment contract, for example, I will write five times a week for 12 weeks. The makers claim the difference between having a goal to achieving that goal is to make a binding agreement with yourself.  Additionally, you can put money on the line by committing to pay a certain amount if you do NOT reach your goal. They even suggest promising to donate to an organization with values antithetical to your own in order to motivate you to stick to your commitment. I thought of promising $100 to the National Rifle Association if I fail to meet my goal of walking four times a week, but then I backed out.

With the app called focusmate, you sign up to be part of a “community of doers.” You arrange to work in tandem silence with a “live peer accountability partner” for 50 minutes of distraction-free writing (or some other task), up to three times a week. The app claims that it can help you eliminate procrastination and commit to “blasting excuses and get important work done.” When you are accountable to another person, you show up.

Sounds a bit like our Graduate Writing Room, 2-4 PST Wednesday afternoons: Join us and get ‘er done:

Do you have any great productivity and time management apps you’d like to share in the comments? We’d love to hear from you.







Too much to do and not enough time?

By Emily Arvay


Q: Why is time management so hard?

A: There are many different reasons for why time management is hard. Lots of students might wait until things are already off the rails to think about time-management. And when you are in triage mode and putting out fires, taking the time to create a time-management plan can seem counter-productive. Also, students sometimes create vague or unreasonable time-management plans that set them up for failure. So within a week of setting up their plan, they are already behind and then just abandon the plan.

Often, time-management plans are unworkable because the student has neglected to really think through and spatialize their course requirements in enough detail. Frequently, students already in a state of panic about missed assignments and late penalties might find it challenging to think through complex processes in a step-by-step way due to elevated cortisol levels that often come with anxiety, not to mention sleep deprivation from pulling successive all-nighters.

Ironically, one of the great benefits of building a reasonable time-management plan is that it can greatly reduce that sense of panic by restoring to students a sense of control over their lives – once the plan is in place, a student need only review the items for a single day, hold those items in mind, and let go of the rest. So, to use a metaphor, instead of staring at the top of a mountain wondering how can I possibly climb that, a student need only look to the closest tree and hike to that point.

More importantly, having a good plan in place can prevent burnout because it enables students to give themselves guilt-free permission to set school-related activities aside. If you have ticked all of your to-do boxes for the morning, you can go for that walk to the ocean. Or, if you have completed the task you needed to do after dinner, you can binge-watch whatever new series you enjoy without feeling that you are somehow not doing enough.

One added perk that comes with good time-management plans is that students often find interpersonal tensions related to poor well-being or the perception of overvaluing school at the expense of significant relationships really improves, which can generate a supportive and motivating feedback loop.

But setting aside the impact of stress, anxiety, sleep deprivation, and interpersonal strain, more commonly students may not give much reflective thought to how much time it takes to complete different tasks and then do the math to see what that process looks like when spatialized.

 That is, not many students time themselves to see how long it might take to read one page of a challenging but not overly difficult academic article, or how long it might take to write 250 words of an essay. So, in underappreciating how long certain tasks might take, students also can set themselves up for failure in terms of time-management.

Most often, when I ask to see how students are presently managing their time, what I see spatialized are assignment deadlines, marked in an agenda or on their computer calendar, or on the whiteboard. What I most often see are a string of dates for submission: something along the lines of submit English research paper today at midnight and that’s it. Or a student may dedicate large coloured squares of time to different subjects: on Mondays, there might be a large blue square for Math in the morning and then a large green square for Biology after lunch, but without any indication of what particular tasks are intended to be completed during those intervals.

What is notably absent from most time-management plans are the most important elements: catch up times and necessary activities such as buying groceries, eating, sleeping, getting exercise, socializing, doing things that make you feel good about your life.

Also, sometimes what students “label” poor time-management might actually be something else, such as procrastination due to perfectionism, or writer’s block due to a fear of failure seeded by familial expectation, or a sense of dread created by overly-critical thoughts, or poor self-discipline from a lack of intrinsic motivation or greater sense of academic purpose.

So for students who find it difficult to stick with an otherwise reasonable and well thought out time-management plan, it might be worthwhile to give some thought to what, in particular, is behind poor time-management. In those moments when a plan is abandoned, it might be worthwhile to draw greater awareness to what kinds of thoughts or feelings might be surfacing to prevent the completion of that task? If the underlying issue is perfectionism, or fear of failure, or lack of purpose, there are related strategies students might use to overcome those challenges too.

 Q: What are some effective strategies?

A: To create a time-management plan with enough detail, I would forgo sticky notes, or those tiny paper planners, or even a white board in favour of a some type of electronic planner, if possible. This strategy often allows students to squeeze in more information, cut and paste items efficiently, and even automate important reminders. But really, use whatever system will work, since there is no point in generating a time-management plan that is not regularly consulted and, for some people, the physical reminder of a white board is key.

I would recommend that students build comprehensive time-management plans in the first week of the term when they have access to all of their course syllabi. First, I would recommend coding in necessary items, such as meal times, ideal start and stop times, times for exercising, times for commuting to work, times for enjoying hobbies, times to enjoy friend or family commitments. Perhaps you might decide to take each Saturday off to recoup from school?

Then code in major deadlines, noting the weight/value of each, time they are due, preferred method of submission. Then spatialize, working backwards from the deadline, all the tasks required to complete that assignment. So if the assignment is a seven page research paper requiring you to cite ten academic sources, code in the time to write each of those seven pages, time to create your outline for writing, time to collate notes and quotes from selected sources, time to read those ten sources, time to locate and upload or print those sources. Once this process is complete, time also to book an appointment with a CAC tutor, and time to integrate their feedback into your final draft before submitting that assignment.

I would do the same process for each major assignment, leaving in one hour of catch up time for each hour of time worked so that if things really start to slip sideways, if there is an unexpected illness or extenuating life circumstance that pose a setback, there is still plenty of wiggle-room left to shift items around.

Likewise, I would ask each student to give some thought to how long they can reasonably focus. Some students prefer to work for two-hour intervals without interruption followed by a long break. Some students find they focus best in 25 minute intervals with 5-10 minute breaks. Some students do their best work early in the morning, with their first cup of coffee. Some students work best after dinner into the wee hours of the night. Regardless of whether you are an early bird or night owl, you might give some thought to what time of day you tend to sustain greatest focus, think most clearly, and can produce your best work. If you can identify that time, I would complete your most challenging task then.Likewise, you might give some thought to the hours of your day that you tend to feel more foggy or sluggish (for many this is right after eating a large meal, or right before bed) so you might want to devote your easiest work to those periods of time?

You might also think about ways you might incentivize the completion of hard tasks. Perhaps you might go for a run, then sit down to complete a hard task. Or perhaps you might complete the hard task knowing that, once completed, you can reward yourself by listening to your favourite song, or watching comedy on Youtube, or eating a bowl of ice-cream.

Q: What should a student do when they simply DON’T have enough time?

A: If you find yourself in triage mode, it might be wise to adopt a “good enough” mentality that is dispassionately strategic. To this end, you might consider….

  • Which assignments are worth the least? Which readings do you NOT have to read? Which feed into assignments? Which readings can you skim?
  • Read the abstract and headings. Read only the intro and conclusion and forget the middle. Read topic sentences. Read phrases that are italicised or in bold. Read (peer-reviewed) reviews of that work to obtain a scholarly synopsis (rather than online cliff notes, etc).
  • Tag team with a trusted classmate. You read one article and they read the second; you share with each other what you have learned.
  • Ask instructors for extensions as soon as you realize you are in an impossible time crunch. Avoid asking for extensions on the day of your assignment deadline. Keep your email to your instructor simple and straightforward. Include your full name, course section, and V number. You do not need to explain why you are requesting an extension beyond using a phrase such as “difficult extenuating circumstances.” Suggest an alternative deadline, one that gives you more time than you need to avoid having to ask for an extension on your extension! Thank your instructor for their time and consideration.

 For more time-management strategies, you might listen to this podcast.

 About the author

To show the author's faceEmily Arvay completed her PhD at the University of Victoria in 2019 with her thesis “Climate Change, the Ruined Island, and British Metamodernism.”  Since then she has worked as a Learning Strategist and EAL Specialist at the University of Victoria. She is currently conducting further research on the intersections between literary metamodernism and contemporary climate fictions.









A few tips to help with the writing process

By Kate Ehle

I’m assuming that you and I have something in common. It’s probably something to do with writing, and I’ll risk a guess that it’s related to the frustration that can often come with the writing process. Sure, exams are stressful, and graduate school has introduced me to a whole new level of self-scrutiny and subsequent existential drama, but nothing causes me to clench my jaw or neglect to feed myself quite like a long and arduous writing task.

Riding high off a couple of successful papers and nearing the completion of my first thesis chapter, I volunteered to write an article for the newly launched Graduate Student Writers’ Community. I jotted down a few ideas and shifted my attention to other tasks, allowing just enough time for my momentum and conceit to prove that they are, indeed, fleeting. I sat down at my desk, reviewed my notes, and was briefly consumed by writer’s block and an acute awareness of other jobs waiting on the backburner. Well, now is the perfect time to test those writing tips that I scribbled down in a bout of apparent overconfidence.

Here’s the first tip: Create a title that is creative, specific, and catchy. The idea is to jumpstart the writing process in a way that is fun and not too challenging, with the desirable side effect of articulating your topic in a fun and creative way. What should naturally follow is the creation of an outline and abstract, and a consultation with your professor to get some feedback.

The scenario outlined above certainly sounds like the best case. But even with my very own writing tips sitting right in front of me, I’ve been finding myself staring at a blank screen, thinking about the lemon cake sitting in the department kitchenette, and wondering if my gut can handle another cup of coffee. Do I even like lemon cake?

It seems the issue at hand begins with an initial stumbling block that opens up a whole plethora of focus-related challenges. In situations like these, what can actually help are immediate, targeted strategies that work to channel your attention and help you feel diligent. A good place to start is by reading a few articles by writers whose style you like, taking a moment to think about how they begin their writing, and using it to inspire your own (thank you, Masha Gessen). Try to stick to this task without interruption for a full 30 minutes. If you just can’t get any words out, ask yourself, “What am I trying to say?” Jot the answer down, regardless of how sloppy, and then refine it. Use a thesaurus whenever you need.

A few paragraphs in and I am already beginning to feel like a wrung-out dishrag. There has got to be more to say on the subject, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to focus and my output is slowly declining in quality. Now is the time to utilize some strategies to help maintain focus.

Generally, sensations that are soothing to the senses are useful. Making tea and drinking it as you read and write can help you to remain focused and in one place for as long as the tea is hot. And, recent research suggests that the polyphenols contained in green tea could contribute to the maintenance of a healthy brain.

The human brain also loves music. Research suggests that there are parts of the brain that respond solely to sounds that we categorize as musical. If you’re one of the lucky people who can read and write while music plays in the background, it is worth taking advantage of that fact. Do you have a couple favourite albums that you like to listen to while reading or writing? Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage has been on heavy rotation in my office these days.

Some people use scents to help focus. Please be considerate of those who may be sensitive to fragrance. I have recently had luck with burning palo santo, a type of wood used in traditional South American ceremonies and medicine, that has been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties. Maybe it helps to relieve the jaw clenching and related neck tension. Regardless, I recommend sticking to techniques that are calming and complementary to your writing environment.

So, what am I trying to say in this blog post? That I finished my writing, and that you can, too. It may be frustrating, but you’ve got some new ideas in your back pocket to help you stay focused. Now get ready to try them out, and go consult some of your favourite writers to get some inspiration.

Also, I checked the expiry date on the lemon cake in the kitchenette and strongly recommend steering clear of it.

Kate Ehle is a second year MA student in Slavic Studies, editor of the Department of Germanic and Slavic Studies’ graduate journal, Verges, and a drummer. She is a strong proponent for music, eating, and writing, as safe and healthy ways for understanding and interacting with people and the world.



Balancing on the point of a pin…

By Dr. Janet Sheppard

Balancing on the point of a pin. . . . Does that phrase make you wince or squirm a little as it does me? I’ve been reading a lot lately about productivity (we’ll get back to the pin later), a new buzz word for people who have a desire to achieve their goals and accomplish as much as they can, with as little pain, frustration, and procrastination as possible. Graduate students, academics, and professionals all want to maximize their ability to get things done. For those of you reading this blog, that means mostly writing, editing, and/or revising.

One of the places grad students sometimes stumble when it comes to writing is that they believe it should flow out of them. They do not see themselves as writers and, as Rachel Cayley, author of the blog post “Explorations of Style” says, here and here, grad students often hold a dichotomy between their “writing” and their “work”.  Because academic writing is different from other types of writing, it’s easy to form beliefs about what it ‘should’ be like.  One of the factors that has a large impact on these erroneous beliefs is that many grad students are so isolated in their academic work once their courses end.

I am a huge fan of communities of support for the writing process (please check out the Thesis Writing Starter Kit if you haven’t yet).  Not everyone needs a writing group, but in my experience, almost everyone needs a place to talk about their writing process, their stuck spots, and their successes! Sometimes other work gets privileged over writing because grad students feel more confident and competent doing it, and there are natural social rewards from tasks that have us engage with others.  I want to be clear that doing other things as part of your graduate work is important (attending a conference, TA-ing, acting as a research assistant), but if you find yourself with a long ‘to-do’ list of non-thesis writing tasks, chances are you are helping yourself feel more productive in the short term but making yourself vulnerable to criticism and imposter syndrome in the long term.

One of the most important foundations of productive writing is probably what Charles Duhigg (2016) describes as a sense of control. Have you thought about that lately? How ‘in control’ do you feel of this massive project called your thesis or dissertation? Particularly in the early stages, having no idea exactly what your thesis should or could be, means that for many grad students a sense of control is hard to come by.

One thing that can help to increase a sense of control (also known as agency, or an internal locus of control) is to form two different types of goals for yourself – what Duhigg calls an ‘aspirational goal’, the big ‘why’ of your decision to be in graduate school, how you see it contributing to your life/career goals, and SMART goals. (remember those? Specific, Measurable, Achievable/Action-oriented, Realistic, Time-bound) SMART goals are the ‘how’ of our productive work.  When I was working with Thesis Completion Groups, I frequently asked participants to break their weekly goals into smaller, more concrete elements…

“I’m going to finish Chapter 2”…hmmm. Okay, that is often the literature review chapter, how far along are you with reading and outlining your review? How much time can you give to the task of working on this each day? When during the day do you plan do this writing? Where will you work?

This may seem like an insane level of detail to include in your goal setting, but research shows that the smaller and more concrete our goals, and the more we anchor those goals into our physical environment, the more likely we are to achieve them. (Pychyl, 2013)

Here are some other writing tips you may already know about and integrate into your routine:

  • Disconnect from social media, limit your distractions during writing periods. We are often tempted to navigate away to search for something, check our email or Facebook, when we feel lost. If you use an app to limit access to certain sites while you’re working, you will become more productive!
  • Working with a timer helps to maintain a deeper focus! Cal Newport (2016) has called deep work the superpower of the 21st century, because it is so important to making progress in learning and business, but people are more and more distractible and managing only surface thinking!
  • If you are struggling with ‘writing your way into your topic’, ‘writing undressed’, or clarifying your thinking…try moving away from your computer and picking up a pen and paper. There is evidence emerging that suggests handwriting (a form of disfluency) forces you to slow down and facilitates deeper processing.

Okay, back to that pointy pin…the metaphor came to me as I was reflecting on the many graduate students with whom I have worked over the last six or seven years. While every student is different and the range and complexity of graduate student lives, interests, abilities, and research topics are phenomenal, one thing I believe shuts down productivity faster and more thoroughly than almost anything else, is the belief that there is a ‘right way’ to do this academic writing thing. The critical external gaze of instructors and your supervisor can compound the struggle to get it right, but if you feel that you must focus very hard on balancing all those competing demands, expectations and beliefs before you can start to write, you will ultimately end up in an impossible situation: trying to balance on the point of a pin. Here’s what I want for you: leap off. Surround yourself with people who believe in you as you (re)learn how to believe in yourself. Ask for help if you need it. Go to the Centre for Academic Communication, or to Counselling Services if your quality of life has been severely impacted. If you’ve made it this far, you can learn how to navigate without paralysis and endless pain. Stay tuned for another blog post that will touch on some other health and well-being ‘hacks’ that can help you soar.


Duhigg, C. (2016). Smarter, Faster, Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business. New York, NY: Penguin Random House.

Newport, C. (2016). Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. New York, NY: Grand Central Publishing.

Pychyl, T. (2013) Solving the Procrastination Puzzle: A Concise Guide to Strategies for Change. Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin.

Dr. Janet Sheppard worked in Counselling Services for more than 25 years. While she retired last summer, in the last part of her UVic career Janet coordinated a series of Thesis Completion Support groups, helped to organize and facilitate Thesis Boot Camps, developed and co-facilitated a graduate student career exploration group with Career Services, and generally loved working with graduate students. Janet is currently completing a graduate certificate program in executive coaching.