Why Can’t I Just Write This Paper?

Posted June 14, 2016

By Dan Blalock

I am in my 24th year of formal education—stretching way back to kindergarten-- and I still struggle with writing papers. Regardless of the topics or length I find it difficult to motivate myself. I’ve attempted to trick myself in all sorts of ways but nothing seems to work. On second thought, the paper I began writing a year and a half before it was due, as well as the paper I forgot about until the day before it was due were both—ultimately-- written and turned in.

Yes, one was better than the other, but not by as wide a margin as you might think. So quality of the finished product aside, and self-diagnosed ADHD aside, why is it so hard for me to engage in the process of writing exactly when and for how long I want to? If this question sounds relevant to you, I will go ahead and make one important assumption: there is something else you’d rather be doing in that moment than writing a paper. There are plenty of other factors that can play into this, but if you’d rather be doing something else, then we have stumbled on an issue of self-control[1]. In this context the better question is “why don’t I have enough self-control to just write this paper?”

There are at least three reasons why you can’t which means there are at least three solutions to this dilemma. Rather than a typical self-control bootcamp[2], however, all of these solutions involve avoiding using self-control.

[Image: Jonno Witts, https://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/2429136239/, CC BY-NC 2.0, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/]

Reason 1) You can.

Short of getting sick or being rushed to the hospital, you can (and probably will) write that paper. This does not mean it will be easy or fun, but if there are external systems in place to hold you accountable by rewarding or punishing you, that paper will likely get written. Increased motivation has been found to be key to overcoming self-control difficulties[3], and that motivation increase typically comes from outside sources. Joe Rogan has made a career on the TV show Fear Factor by showing how external motivation (in the form of a $50,000 prize) can make people perform crazy acts of self-control – like laying in a pit and being covered by cockroaches for five minutes or letting tarantulas crawl across their faces.

Solution 1) Find an external system whose rewards or punishments are so important that you can write this paper.

If Joe Rogan won’t pay you $50,000 to do it, the next best option is to procrastinate until the fear of failure is motivation enough. It’s an effective strategy, but not ideal. However, if you can incentivize yourself in a similar way – by agreeing to turn in drafts early, scheduling meetings to review your paper, or even making bets with colleagues that have steep payoffs or consequences – you can control your environment to motivate the paper writing for you.

Reason 2) You’re just not used to it.

Even if it feels like you’re always writing a paper, you’re not. How often do you actually sit down to write without an impending deadline? Probably less often than you think. Yet some people regularly perform extraordinary acts of self-control (like waking up daily at 4am to swim, or passing on dessert every single time). The secret is these people aren’t actively exercising self-control, they’re passively performing automatic responses of ingrained habits. Some recent research has shown that people who are touted as having “a lot of self-control” actually don’t use self-control all that often. Instead, people with higher self-control are more likely to form automatic healthy habits that resemble self-control[4].

Solution 2) Write. All the time.

Write a lot, write for hours. Get in the habit of writing so that it takes inhibitory action to NOT write on a given day. This is a strategy advocated by many academics, including Paul Silvia in “How to Write A Lot”. People with the highest self-control are successful because the engage in good habits.

Reason 3) You don’t want to.

It’s a simple desire/goal conflict. The short-term goal of sleeping/relaxing/socializing eventually outweighs long-term goal of having the paper done THAT NIGHT. It’s not that you don’t want to finish the paper, or reap the long-term rewards such as graduation, publication, or job offers. But in the here and now, those goals are not as salient as the short-term desire to binge on Netflix.

Solution 3) Find something you want to do.

Seriously. Align your desires and goals so that your short-term desire is in line with your long-term goals. Find a way to write about something so awesome to you that Netflix seems like a punishment. We all have to do things we don’t want to do, which is an ability strongly related to achievement in many life domains[5]. But if writing a paper is truly that depleting to you, consider that as information. Perhaps writing papers on other topics are less depleting? I am not advocating to only do what comes easy to you, but it is useful information you can incorporate into intentional decisions about what you spend your time doing.

So grind out those papers when you need to, but the most successful people find ways to not flex that self-control muscle. Perseverance in the face of adversity is an honorable trait, but the path of least (or less) resistance has its virtues too.


Dan Blalock is a PhD student in Clinical Psychology at George Mason University. Dan's interests focus broadly on self-regulation, motivation, and their impact on behavioral change both generally and within treatment contexts. This interest includes a strong focus on the phenomenology of self-control. More generally, Dan is also interested in research methodology, psychometrics, and transdiagnostic factors in clinical disorders.

[1] Hagger, M. S., Wood, C., Stiff, C., & Chatzisarantis, N. L. (2010). Ego depletion and the strength model of self-control: a meta-analysis.Psychological Bulletin,136(4), 495-525.

[2] Hester, R. K. (1995).Behavioral self-control training. Allyn & Bacon.

[3] Inzlicht, M., & Schmeichel, B. J. (2012). What is ego depletion? Toward a mechanistic revision of the resource model of self-control.Perspectives on Psychological Science,7(5), 450-463.

[4] Galla, B. M., & Duckworth, A. L. (2015). More Than Resisting Temptation: Beneficial Habits Mediate the Relationship Between Self-Control and Positive Life Outcomes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 109(3),508-525.

[5] Tangney, J. P., Baumeister, R. F., & Boone, A. L. (2004). High self‐control predicts good adjustment, less pathology, better grades, and interpersonal success.Journal of Personality,72(2), 271-324.