Defeating Self-Sabotage

There are many hurdles to overcome when you’re a PGR. Beyond deadlines, networking, and balancing work with self-care, there’s also self-sabotage. This comes in many forms, from procrastination to over-committing and even avoidance—we can be our own worst enemies. Luckily, help is at hand. Last week I was able to attend Hugh Kearns’ workshop on Defeating Self-Sabotage, and it was an invaluable experience. Mine was one of many nodding heads as Kearns described each symptom of self-sabotage. However I was able to walk away upbeat, having learnt plenty of ways to combat my own bad habits.

Kearns began by discussing what shapes self-sabotage comes in for PGRs. Some of them might ring true for you- they certainly did for me!

avoiding writing thesis
Image credit: “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham,

If your office suddenly become the tidiest in the building when you’re nearing a deadline, you’re probably skilled at productive procrastination. Missing submission dates because you’re busy organising two conferences and writing an article for a journal can be a symptom of over-committing, whilst refusing to send drafts to your supervisors until they’re exactly how you envisioned them is often a sign that you’re a perfectionist.

There are countless ways in which PGRs self-sabotage. Beyond the behaviours listed, there’s also imposter syndrome and distractions to deal with. Crises and emergencies also seem to affect a number of PGRs, with technology, illnesses and grandmothers mysteriously aligning with file deletions and deadlines. Interestingly, grandfathers seem entirely unaffected by our research…

So how do we overcome self-sabotaging behaviours? Procrastination, or “waiting for the motivation fairy”, as Kearns termed it, can be defeated by a good short dose of writing. Instead of cleaning the house, making a pot of coffee, and replying to every single email in your inbox, Kearns suggested breaking work down into smaller chunks, or “micro steps”. Writing a few words can quickly become a few sentences, which will then lead to a paragraph or two as you gradually realise that the task you’d been avoiding wasn’t so terrible after all. On a similar note, ensuring that you have quality time and space can also help combat procrastination or distraction; two hours in which you turn off your phone and sign out of your inbox produces work of better quality than five hours of “multi-tasking” and dividing your attention between research, Facebook, your phone, and chatting with your office mates.

graph showing phd writing motivation
Image credit: “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham,

Kearns also touched on over-committing, stating that it’s important to remember that we have a finite amount of time each week. Accepting yet another shiny bauble of an opportunity can often impact on the other umpteen things we’ve agreed to do, as well as cause our research and self-care time to be forgotten, an issue which Jade has blogged about previously. Kearns suggested responding to all new offers by saying that you need to check your diary first. This then buys you time to consider the reality of your schedule, as well as how this opportunity may benefit you. If the costs outweigh the benefits, this may not be the right thing for you to accept. As Kearns also pointed out, it is okay to say no- there will always be plenty of other things to become involved in occurring throughout the academic year.

Feeling overwhelmed is another issue that can derail PG research, however, Kearns had some advice to help restore control. Instead of focusing on the multitude of things we can’t influence, focus on those we can. We may not be able to control government policy, or when people email us (yet!), but there are plenty of things we can control, such as when we check our inboxes, or start writing that next chapter.

If you weren’t able to attend the workshop, Kearns has a fantastic website where you can find plenty of guides, and other valuable online resources to help you along your PGR journey.
Do you have any handy tips for dealing with self-sabotage? As ever, let us know via the comments, or tweet the best advice you’ve received to @UofG_PGR blog.

Post Author: Cia Jackson

Cia (@miss_ciakate) is a PhD Candidate Comparative Literature & English Literature researching gendered power and fandom DC's Batgirl and Harley Quinn comics. She also works as an RSIO PGR Office Intern, and a Graduate Teaching Assistant in Comparative Literature.

2 thoughts on “Defeating Self-Sabotage

    Jade Scott

    (28th February 2017 - 4:55 pm)

    I too can vouch for Kearns’ Defeating Self-Sabotage workshop, having attended in my final year of research. The best thing about these workshops is that they remind you that you aren’t alone and you aren’t the only one who does things a certain way so don’t beat yourself up! Instead, try taking small steps to get past your bad habits. Ignoring your inbox first thing each day was my favourite tip. You will feel much less pressure if you don’t read every email and every social media comment before you have even started!


    (28th February 2017 - 9:43 pm)

    That workshop is such a reassuring one, with loads of great tips. Last year he showed around a statistic that like 98% (I forget the exact number) of submitted theses pass in the end, and that became something of a mantra for me in the last few months of writing..

    I also laughed at your observation about grandfathers and thesis-disrupting emergencies Cia. Maybe we can apply for funding to look into this phenomenon (but perhaps you should check your diary in case of over-committing).

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