From procrastination to productivity

September 2013

 

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As a personal performance & development coach working with postgraduate students, Brian Johnston has seen it all. Here, he discusses how procrastination and other self-sabotaging behaviours need to be addressed to become a productive postgrad.

The challenges faced by many postgraduate students can sometimes seem insurmountable. These challenges include adjusting from undergraduate to postgraduate study, time management, a lack of organisational skills and the student/supervisor relationship.
For some, the supervisory relationship is pivotal in determining timely completions. Postgraduate students seeking my coaching services regularly disclose dissatisfaction with either the level of supervision they receive or the quality of feedback offered by their supervisor(s). Power dynamics within the supervisory relationship may be inevitable. However, in my experience of working with postgrads, inequalities and power imbalances can adversely affect the postgrad’s confidence and academic progress. Conflicting cultural values, gender issues and the “absent” supervisor are other factors which impact upon the student’s experience of supervision. Part of my work with postgrads focuses on how to improve communication within the supervisory relationship.This may include adopting a more assertive approach in their interactions with their supervisor. Conversely, some students are appreciative of their supervisor’s support and guidance and report feeling valued, respected and treated in a collegial manner.

Self-sabotaging behaviours!

Many postgraduate students achieved high grades in their undergraduate studies but struggle once they embark upon postgraduate study. Committed and motivated as undergraduates they worked well in a structured environment of timetabled lectures, assignments, tutorials, weekly tests and lab reports. As postgraduates, the challenges of self-directed learning, self-discipline and effectively being accountable only to themselves, can seriously impact upon the student’s ability to progress their studies. Periods of procrastination, indulging in pleasant distractions such as social networking, perfectionism, and the avoidance of regular academic writing, are some of the “self-sabotaging behaviour patterns” characterised by postgraduate students. According to Dr Joseph Ferrari, one in five of us are chronic procrastinators producing symptoms of depression, obsessive compulsive behaviour, stress, anxiety and disturbed sleep patterns. Periods of sleep deprivation can produce irritability and affect our relationships with others. Negative self–talk such as “I’m useless!” or “what made me think I could do a PhD?” exacerbates the situation.
It is not unusual for students to attribute their lack of academic progress to what has been termed the “imposter phenomenon”. The phenomenon is characterised by the individual assuming they cannot live up to others’ perceptions of them. Postgraduate students in particular make inaccurate assessments of their competencies and often convince themselves that nothing they do is good enough. For some postgrads the challenges can seem so overwhelming he or she considers giving up on their studies.

Help is at hand!

Personal performance & development coaching is a dynamic, practical, and goal-oriented process. It enables individuals to set themselves realistic, achievable goals. It encompasses elements of cognitive behavioural theory and positive psychology. It focuses on providing individuals with the tools and techniques to manage and often overcome their particular challenges. In my initial meeting with a student we explore prior learning and life experiences which may be useful to their current situation. My approach to working with students is non-directive and I aim to facilitate what steps the student needs to take in order to achieve their professional and personal goals.
This may include creating daily and weekly structure, focusing on her or his current priorities. A balanced and committed approach to tasks is the key and I always emphasise that replacing ineffective habits with effective habits is a “work in progress”. I use the term the “three Cs” to illustrate what is required to achieve sustained change and success: the first is constancy, to ensure a steadfast and reliable approach to change. The second, consistency, often requires a change in attitude and behaviour. Consistency is essential to create regularity and structure.The third and most vital component is commitment. Without commitment to an agreed action plan, it is unlikely the postgrad will push through, especially when lacking in motivation, to achieve her or his goals.
A very effective “tool” for managing self-doubt and negativity is the application of positive self-talk (alternatively described as reframing or adopting a positive mental attitude). I often hear students talk themselves down, and by gently challenging their negative self-talk, they begin to focus on what they can and are achieving rather than what they are not; a sort of “the glass is half full” rather than “the glass is half empty” approach.

Lack of sleep!

Many students experience periods of   and other “self-sabotaging” behaviour patterns which can produce disturbed sleeping patterns. A tormenting, overactive mind keeps some students awake for most of the night chastising themselves about what they didn’t achieve. They may not surface until late in the morning, log into their email account or Facebook, partake in copious amounts of coffee and then decide there’s not much point in starting any work until after lunch. Other distractions will occupy them until it’s time to pack up for the day. And so the cycle continues. Part of my work with students considers ways of managing poor sleep patterns and I encourage “golden hours” for study. This involves the postgrad setting aside at least one hour first thing in the morning and one hour after lunch to do nothing but write! This habit helps create daily structure and soon the student is able to acknowledge and evaluate their progress. With improved sleeping patterns concentration and productivity levels increase.
Students tend to come and see me for, on average, three sessions. By then some students will have created the structure they need to progress their studies. Others may require more sessions and others may arrange to come back and see me periodically as a kind of “warrant of fitness”. He or she just needs a “check-up” or “fine tuning”. Once reassured they’re on the right path to completion, the student can continue on their postgraduate journey.

Brian Johnston is a personal performance & development coach at University of Otago’s Graduate Research School.


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