Career & Tools

Do you ever find yourself procrastinating on big, important tasks out of fear? Read on for tips from the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity (NCFDD), an independent professional development, training, and mentoring community. Membership (free for UCSB students!) provides several forms of professional support to help combat common problems academics face - find out more here.

By Daina Tagavi, Professional Development Peer
Friday, July 12th, 2019 - 8:30am

Do you ever find yourself procrastinating on big, important tasks out of fear? Read on for tips from the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity (NCFDD), an independent professional development, training, and mentoring community of over 71,000 graduate students, postdocs, and faculty members​.

To take advantage of this amazing resource (free for UCSB students!), you must register with your UCSB account (see how to register here). Once you ​register, you are automatically subscribed to the Monday Motivator -- your weekly dose of ​positive energy ​and actionable steps to increase your productivity and motivation. This week's Monday motivator focuses on getting stuck due to fear of failure.

Monday Motivator: Tips & Challenges
There are many academics in the field who are afraid of failure. ​These are people who have all the right credentials, have received multiple fellowships to focus on writing, who perform the role of an intellectual with perfect precision, and yet ​struggle to be productive. Often, they engage in various types of self-sabotaging behavior because they fear that the publication of their work will expose them, make them vulnerable to other people's criticism, or reveal that they're not really as smart as others believed. These scholars are often paralyzed by uncertainty about their current skills and abilities and the possibility that they won't be able to sustain any future success they may achieve. They feel that no matter what they do, it will never be enough to earn tenure, get promoted, and/or win the respect of their senior colleagues, so they don't bother putting themselves through the work and exposure. They focus instead on the things that they can easily and readily engage in (such as the verbal exchange of ideas). An alternative version of this involves aggressively avoiding face-to-face contact lest the individual be asked if they have written anything lately. That said, it's not difficult to identify resistance that is driven by a fear of success, even in graduate students.

In the midst of summer, take a moment to assess your procrastination tendencies by asking yourself:

  • Are you writing for at least 30 minutes every day, or have you created a story that you can't possibly write in short periods of time?
  • Do you fail to prepare for presentations until the last minute, stay up late the night before, and/or go out drinking prior to presenting your work?
  • Do you talk a big game about your project but never actually engage in the work to make that project become a reality?
  • Do you luxuriate in negative talk about the state of academic journals, the abysmal job market, and/or the shrinking proportion of tenured faculty positions at universities to the point that you convince yourself there's really no reason to bother writing because your manuscript will never get published -- and if it does it will only be read by five people -- or that you'll never get a job, tenure, promotion, respect, etc.?

In short, procrastination, destructive behavior, and excessively pessimistic thinking all provide the same outcome -- a safe and justifiable reason to blame a lack of performance on so that you will always have an explanation about why you didn't do well.

Here are some tips to help combat this mindset:

Imagine Your Future
Make a detailed plan. Not because it's fun (it's not) but because the process of writing down what you want and mapping out the steps to achieve your goal is transformative. It requires you to: a) ask yourself what you really want, b) acknowledge that the road to getting it is filled with lots of small steps, and c) get honest about the fact that taking no action guarantees failure.

Create Accountability
While it is the last thing that any unproductive writer wants to do, what you need more than anything else to overcome your resistance is weekly accountability for your writing. Because you are capable of generating sophisticated levels of denial and complex rationalizations for not writing, you need a group of people who won't allow you to babble on endlessly about how you have a "slow process," but who will instead hold your feet to the fire in a spirit of firm and loving support.

Start Writing and Preparing
Work with your accountability group to set deadlines for presentations and drafts that occur far in advance of the actual deadlines. This will help you to break the habit of last-minute sabotage so that you can focus any evaluation of your performance on the actual substance of your work. The trick is that these deadlines will have to feel consequential, so set up other people who are expecting to review, edit, or collaborate with you on your work so that you can't just slide through the advanced deadline without any consequences.

Reach Out ​to Your Mentors
It's time to start having serious conversations with your mentors and role models about the reality of academic life. The difficulties you are experiencing are common, and asking your mentors to share how they got to where they are today and what types of failures they have experienced will give you a clearer picture of their path to success. I've never had a conversation with a successful person that didn't involve devastating failures that were critically important to their eventual success.

Consider Starting the Inner Work
If you are unable to unravel why you keep sabotaging yourself by not writing and you just can't imagine reaching out to your departmental mentors for help, it may be time to find a good therapist and start doing the inner work that's necessary to determine what's standing between you and getting what you really want.

Each of these suggestions is aimed at a single outcome -- breaking you out of your unproductive state to take one concrete step forward. Taking any one of these steps will help you to explore what's holding you back, connect to the support of a community of people who want to help you, and get you back to your writing.