Task avoidance / wall of awful for research papers

Hi everyone,

I’m sure you get “how do homework” posts pretty frequently, but I couldn’t quite find what I was looking for in the search, so I thought I’d make my own post.

I’m new here - only just found the YouTube channel this evening in a bout of task avoidance (by googling “task avoidance coping strategies”, like some ADHD ouroboros). And I need some help with a wall of awful for a research paper that’s gotten so high I can’t see the top.


I’m back to school after getting my bachelor’s 8 years ago, and have a big research project that was assigned last fall that should have been worked on continuously for the whole semester. One part is a paper & an annotated bibliography, and one part is a “development portfolio” where I have to log time spent/thought processes/notes etc

My professor kindly offered me an extension into the next semester when I came to her 36 hours before the annotated bibliography deadline having just picked a topic. I took it, because duh. This isn’t the type of paper you can really bang out in a night - it requires 20+ sources and is supposed to be pretty long.

Spent spring semester trying to gear up to doing it while working on another class, and then COVID hit. The library closed and one avenue of research (special collections books that aren’t digitized was closed) got cut off. I’d been back and forth with my prof once or twice with a “making progress!” sort of email (I wasn’t…not really, but I was intending to!) and when it came down to the wire and I hadn’t got anything to her, she was like “Hey COVID’s been awful do you need just a little more time?” I said yes, already completely burnt out on writing a shorter paper for my other class on the same day that my dog unexpectedly died. My intention was to take a day or two off and then get back in gear and finish everything up within a week or so.

Two days became two weeks became two months. It’s now down to the line, and our informal deadline of July 31st is looming next week. I’ve made very little (but some) progress. Even the idea of thinking about doing this thing turns my brain to TV static and I default to doomscrolling social media (I deleted it from my phone but that barrier stopped working) or similar or just crying about it. Even small bursts in which I’m able to finally look at the thing and do more research leave me super drained and unable to sustain it.

I work full time (from home, have since last year!) and I even took this past week off to see if that would help so I could devote more mental energy to just the paper, but no dice.

The advice of “break it down into its smallest components” hasn’t worked for me because there are then WAY TOO MANY small components!!! If it takes me hours to gear up to this one small portion, there’s no way I can get anything done in time, and then I freeze up.

The “reward yourself for small immediate milestones” advice doesn’t work either, because instead of saying I can have a cookie if I do the thing, I can just eat the cookie and not do it, it’s very easy, watch me.

This whole thing has led to a bananas, months-long self esteem nightmare spiral. The annoying part is that I actually do find the topic very interesting–one evening I took a library book that I’d already read the relevant chapter for my paper in and started reading the rest of it like a novel–but the idea of having to take notes, show my work, and synthesize a thesis about it kills me - the portfolio where I have to log my work especially, because then my professor can see how much I procrastinated and how little I actually did if I cut corners.

I have only recently started therapy (within the past month) and have not been formally diagnosed (because assessment is like $500), I have no tools in this box & can’t really look back on how I’ve been able to do a thing in the past, because I’ve always found research papers difficult, have never successfully completed anything of this scale and I barely managed to get through undergrad.

in short: h e l p.

Thanks <3


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I guess my first thought would be, what would the consequences be of not finishing? Would you need to retake the class? That might offer a fresh start. It may suck financially but it can sometimes be worth the cost to relieve yourself of the stress and shame.

Second, I found for me I could never break it down into smaller parts because I’d lose my motivation. I would always be a “one draft wonder” and do things the night before the deadline. Or, I’d calculate how much time it would probably take and start when I was close to the deadline. For research papers I’d also get all my sources together and stack them up in a pile before I started writing. Then I’d go through and write the paper, citing each source one at a time and creating my references page at the same time. I found that it was “all or nothing” for me when it came to projects like this.

I’d say that there are other ways to help motivate yourself. If you’re already working from home full-time, it may be that you’re just too worked out in your own place and you might benefit from going somewhere else to do some work. If you have a library or coffee shop open where you are that could be good. It can put you in an environment where all you have to do is the project itself. I also find that sometimes the new environment is so uncomfortable (not familiar, too quiet) that it forces me to work faster so the discomfort can be over.

It could also be helpful to setup an accountability buddy. That could be a friend, spouse, or even the faculty member. You can be honest about where you’re at and have them check in to make sure you’re meeting certain benchmarks by certain deadlines.

You can also set smaller deadlines. Rather than doing it in small pieces, you can say, “I need to have the first two sections written by tomorrow at 5:00 PM.” Sometimes deadlines are motivators, and if we set arbitrary ones they can SOMETIMES help. Artificial deadlines are hard, though, because there’s usually no real stakes if you don’t meet them and they can easily be pushed.

Finally, it could be that you’re just not interested in what you’re researching or writing. It may be too late to change that, but maybe you can come at it from a way that is interesting. Change your thesis or change the argument you want to make. Take a look at the information you have and see what speaks to you. I sometimes find that I can take the information I have and come at it from a different angle. I once took a course on systems such as social systems and instead of filling the assignment that was designed I wrote a paper about how society rewards the commodification of the self. The professor really liked it, even though it was outside the box.

It sounds like you have a really understanding faculty member, so being honest may be the best strategy overall. Whatever happens, good luck! I’ve been in similar situations so I know how painful emotionally it can be and how you can go to sleep each night and wake up each day with an incredible weight of dread on your shoulders and body.


Welcome . . . :sunglasses:


So very sorry . . . :heart::dog:

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I am coming to that same conclusion . . .

Aside from that, I can very much relate to how you approach your assignments. I don’t think I ever finished a paper before several hours prior to the class at which time I had to turn it in. this happened mostly in graduate school for me. MSW (Social Work). Being the dinosaur that I am (73 years of age) in those days I worked using a manual typewriter . . . The only thing that finally enabled me to pull together the paper was an overwhelming feeling of panic, (“Oh shit, it’s due today!). I pretty much always had all the research done because that was the fun part. Always has been. Like a scavenger hunt. But I’ll stop rambling here. We each have to find our own maddening way to get to the finish line, I think you will too! :+1:


Thank you for the really thought out response!

The consequences of not finishing are, basically, yeah, I would have to re-take the class in the fall (different professor), but then I’d just have to do this all over again. It’s more a point of pride than anything at this point, I have a 93% average in the class without this giant assignment in my way. So it’s an option, would put me $1500 in the hole, but. It’s there.

I’m definitely an all or nothing worker, always have been. I find it much easier to push through when I’ve already started and just keep going until it’s done (I guess that’s hyperfocusing) but with projects of this scale it’s not possible - there are so many things to read!

I love researching/writing in libraries and coffee shops, but unfortunately with COVID, none of the places I like are really open for sitdown at the moment :frowning:

Turns out there is a friend of mine stuck on a work project giving him a lot of anxiety, so today we are accountabilibuddying two hours’ worth of work (and screaming) and I think helping him get into the mindset is helping me a little

Smaller deadlines might solve my all-or-nothing problem! I’ll wrap that into my accountabilibuddy hours!

I am interested, it’s more about being transparent with my process, show my work, and having to coalesce it into something coherent that’s making it difficult. I just want to read about this, not have to scour and take notes!

You’re right about the weight, I feel like I’m not allowed to do anything else until I get this thing done, and it’s put a damper on the past few months.

Thank you again for your thoughtful response. I’m gonna take your advice into consideration for sure.


Thank you <3 he was an old boy, but it came very suddenly

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Our little 10 pound “Dodger” died this past April 14th. He’s the little picture next to my name here. It takes time . . .


I’d try seek a diagnosis for medication if possible, see if there’s the options that are available for an ADHD diagnosis, there’s different types and such.

Other thing would be to destimulate before doing it, prepare for it set it up, and eat, drink water, take medication if possible, and then meditate, and then do it right after meditation, throw your phone across the room if need be, and don’t let people distract you.

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Also, not recommended but it is possible to do in one shot, if you have real bad emotional dysregulation with ADHD, as I do, it’s definitely possible to do in one shot, but not healthy at all, I had a research paper in 9th grade, for a college course, the AP type thing, and had to have 25 annotated sources for bib, teacher thought I was gonna fail, it was idk like a mid term or something, which makes no sense bc it was AP, but idek, but I did the thing in like maybe a little over 2 days with no sleep, and I did the same thing months later with no medication. Hyperfocus can be outright scary sometimes, but it can amaze you at it’s capabilities.

Then I was supposed to do a 10 sourced, annotated bib, in honnors english, it was seriously on the same topic and like within the same week, that the other one was due for the college course, I told my teacher i’m not doing it. The teacher was a nice guy, it was like our final our something, and it was very, very light workload, but since I just got through writing the same exact paper, but essentially 3x bigger, I told him i’m turning in my AP work for my final, he told me not to as that would be cheating, as to which I argued, no because I can’t really plagiarize my own work, but I ended up turning it in anyway, because there’s no way on planet earth, I’m rewriting a paper, that I just wrote on the same topic, days prior, and my paper was far better than although guidelines on the rubric he gave us, but I ended up turning it, he gave me a 99/100 instead of the 0 he said he would, and a note on there that said.
“Very great writting, impressed at your ability to write such a long but yet captivating research paper, you should utilize your vocabulary more this way in English, but I had to take a point off as you were lacking in one skill, that was cheating, next time you probably should advise your teacher your going to turn in work from another class, and you should probably change the heading.”
I forgot to change the heading on my paper… But he still gave me an A so he’s a pretty nice guy.
That’s just a funny tidbit to the story, but you really can hyper focus on it, it may not be the best work, but it’s surely possible, it’s also not healthy, and I advise, with years of experience in the art of sleep deprivation, there becomes many points at which, you can’t escape the consequences of sleep deprivation, at some point a lot of the time you start to get sick, I got sick quite a few times from sleep depriving my self to finish work on deadlines.



How’s it been going so far, any update on progress?

If you want you could email me at rnaimoli@hotmail.com and I could take a look at it and help peer review, or recommend sources and such to help you cut down on time.

I did pretty good in AP seminar and AP research classes so I have experience with exactly this sort of thing.

Just make sure you reply to this to remind me if you do decide you want extra assistance because I got a lot of emails and stuff and might not check it, or see it if it goes to spam


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You’re not alone - I recently wrapped up what became a 34 page research paper in my Graduate Artificial Intelligence course and encountered much of the same challenges.

What worked for me was 3 things:

  • I kept in relatively frequent contact with my instructor with updates and questions at an appropriately substantive level. This is what could help you with the “I have too many directions to go in and too many small chunks of knowledge!” issue; as we were able to make several key refinements to the outline/organization of my paper as to make completing it feasible.

  • I put a flame under my ass and insisted to my instructor that my due date would be 2 weeks before the rest of the class. I think I ended up turning it in 6ish hours late to this new deadline, which I knew he would be fine with — as we both knew why I asked him to do this for me. If your instructor is a decent, nice, helpful person — they can be your perfect accountability person and mentor on taking what you have and directing it towards a completed product!

  • I suffered through it towards the end — because the passion for doing the paper had faded getting through half the wall-of-awful, and a new passion of ‘finishing the damn job!’ got me through the other half. If all you can do is write a few crappy sentences or sketch out the crappiest outline imaginable — then do it! It’s more than what you would have if you didn’t. Apprehension Anxiety is your enemy because yes, a graduate research paper is a quest and a journey of many steps.

So to recap: I suggest reaching out to your instructor with full honesty and determine how they can help you keep focused on target; as this will give you feedback and a physical goal to work towards; while making some, any progress each day. And DO NOT GIVE UP - you will benefit from this experience when the next wall-of-awful is encountered


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Thank you! My instructor has been very understanding considering she is completely unaware of my issues (not to mention I wasn’t down a path of getting myself help with my brain stuff until this summer), but being obscenely behind after two extensions with my deadline now three days away, it’s past the point where I can really ask her for direction.

All the same your response is encouraging. I’ve been beating myself up for a while for not being able to do this the proper way, and I might just have to settle for doing it badly, and my way, instead.

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Please continue to “shop” assessments. (I’m an insurance agent, shopping around isn’t always a bad thing). I say this because the first place I asked about getting an assessment was $900… No ma’am or sir or whomever. So I continued searching. I don’t have health insurance, so whatever I agree to I have to pay out of pocket. I finally found one that did it for me for $180. I am going to have a conversation with the Nurse Practitioner though because I was prescribed medication and I have a two week follow up this coming Wednesday (as long as this hurricane isn’t too bad I guess) and I can’t be paying $180 every two weeks for the next few months. Either we’re going to have less appointments or they’re going to implement a sliding scale!
Happy Hunting but KEEP HUNTING!!!

P.S. If you have an interest in this topic, are you able to get creative with the log part of the assignment? Are there sources that may not be able to be used on the Thesis but could speak to how engaged you are with the topic? Use your un-diagnosed diagnosis to your advantage dear!!!

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Careful - creativity is what partially knocked me out with my paper.

creatitivity + focused, refined plan FTW