From procrastination into action: make paper writing easier by asking yourself these 3 questions

overwhelmed studentIf you are a PhD student or a postdoc you might be familiar with this situation. You’ve conducted research, completed data analysis, made graphs and discussed the results with your colleagues or your supervisor. You maybe even presented it in a talk at a seminar or a conference. You were looking forward to sitting down and writing up a paper, but for one reason or another it never happened.

You’ve tried to get organised and find time for writing, but somehow things just keep getting in the way. You might now be busy with another project or you feel overwhelmed by everything else that is on your plate right now. You’ve tried to sit down to write but then did not know where to start and ended up procrastination or getting distracted with searching for papers or googling for information.

You can shift from procrastination into action and get on track with your paper by asking yourself these 3 simple questions

#1 WHAT is that you want to write up? Which project? What paper? I get to talk to many scientists who run several projects in parallel; they have this constant thought on their mind: “I need to write more papers, I need to publish more.” But when asked “Which paper you are going to write next?” they don’t know what to say, because they cannot choose which one it’s going to be. And if you cannot choose, you won’t ever start writing, right?

If you have many projects running in parallel, it is time to choose ONE now! This could be the one that will have the most impact on your career in the next 6 months, or the one that is the easiest to write up, or the one that you have most control over. Now decide which paper you are going to write up.

A BONUS step here would be to decide now which journal you are going to be writing for. When you do this you can simply go to their website and check their section for “Authors”. You can get there specific guidelines for various types of articles and their length. You can even download a format file and know exactly the outline, the number of words and even the format for figures and references. Having this information will help shift you from procrastination into action because you will have all these details that will give you a pretty good idea where to start.

#2 WHY do you want to write up this paper?
Reconnect with your motivation and your constructive WHY. Why do you want to write it up in the first place? See, many of us go about our day thinking: “I have to write this paper, I have to write this paper” but it is exactly this thought “I have to do it” keeps us stuck in avoidance and procrastination. Reconnecting with your motivation and constructive WHY helps you get into action and start taking next steps.

An example of a constructive WHY would be: because it will have a big positive impact on my career; I want to make a contribution to the general knowledge; I want to leave a mark in my field of research; I have something to say that others need to hear. Reminding yourself of your WHY will help you stay motivation and keep coming back to working on your paper even if challenges and problems come up.

Stir away from a destructive WHY that will keep you stuck in procrastination or even paralyse you and prevent from taking action. These are for example the guilt that you took time from many different people; they invested their time and energy and now you feel guilty that you have not written up the paper. Or it can be the need to prove to yourself or to prove to others that you are worth it and deserving.

And you know what? You are deserving right now exactly as you are, without needing to do anything else, without any papers. You do not need to prove anything to anyone. So quit worrying about it, reconnect to your constructive WHY and start writing that paper!

#3 By WHEN do you want to have the draft ready. Create a timeline with intermediate deadlines.
See, this is the thing with the papers, they don’t usually have a deadline. And if there is no deadline there is no work. As simple as this. And the opposite is true, when you have a close deadline you become super productive during the couple of days before the deadline, don’t you? So you want to take advantage of this phenomenon and set a deadline by when you would like to have a draft of your paper ready.

Look in your diary or your calendar right now to see if there is anything big coming up in the next 3-6 months? Maybe a conference, or a new experiment, or maybe it’s a friend’s wedding. If you are presenting this project at a conference, you would want to have a draft of your paper ready by then! It was actually an unwritten rule in one of the labs I was a postdoc in, to have the draft of the paper ready by the time of the talk at a conference.

Decide now by when you want to have the draft of your paper ready, and 2 to 3 months time is quite a good guess. Now you can create intermediate deadlines for various stages of your paper.

The first intermediate deadline can be by when you want to have your first bad draft ready. By the way if you want to write a paper you need to be willing to write a bad draft first. Decide by when you want to have your second draft ready, by when you want to have all your figures ready, by when you want to communicate it to your collaborators.

Now put those deadlines into your diary/calendar and schedule your writing time. It’s time to take action!

Olga Degtyareva is a productivity expert for scientists at She helps scientists around the world to overcome overwhelm, become more productive, get in charge of their day while feeling happier in their life. Download her brand new FREE resource for scientists “From procrastination to publication: your 5 action steps to a complete draft”


  1. Keith says

    Ben, I love this!!! I will say that #3 has helped me the most in my first year of Ph.D. work. And i recently had my first peer review article accepted for publication! I just sent my 2nd one off for peer review. This blog I will send to my peers and keep it as a reminder when I am in that phase of…finish-polishing-off-this-paper-and-submit-it-phase. :) THanks for all of your practical encouragement. It has helped me have more confidence in my novice writing work.

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