Procrastination is not your fault

One of the most common reasons people come to see me is trouble with procrastination.  They sit in my office, and admit to the p-word as if it were a disease.  ‘I am sick’, they seem to say, ‘I procrastinate, and therefore I am a bad student.’ They worry that they are lazy.

While there are, it is true, some totally lazy people out there who use procrastination as a way of avoiding work, those people are rarely doctoral students.  You guys are highly motivated, with incredible staying power, committed to your research (or started off that way), and grateful to have the opportunity to continue their passionate interest in something. You guys are cool. When people like you procrastinate, it tends to be not a disease, but a symptom of something else.  Knowing what that might be means you can fix it… or just as often, give you permission to be kind to yourself.

The first main reason for ‘procrastination’: 

For me, if I’m ‘procrastinating’ it usually means I’m exhausted.  Like lots of academics, and anyone who used to be a doctoral student, I have very loose boundaries when it comes to work time.  I think it’s normal to work for three hours on a Sunday afternoon; to mark at midnight, to jot down notes for a lecture at 4am if I can’t sleep.

But if I get home after a 10 hour day and try to write 500 words of my overdue article, I often find I just can’t.  I stare at the screen, check Facebook, fiddle with my pencils. I procrastinate because I am actually really tired. I would be better off getting an early night, and making time to go to Shut Up and Write on Wednesday morning.

[Ironically, as I was writing the second half of this post, I got sucked into the Twitter Twilight Zone for about an hour and couldn’t get out. And then I realized it was 1.30pm and I’d missed lunch. I went out, had some sushi, and then had no trouble finishing my draft before my 3pm meeting. Physician, heal thyself.]

The second reason:

This is related to a second reason for ‘procrastination’.  You are not a robot, you can’t, and shouldn’t, be totally productive 12 hours a day 7 days a week. Graham Greene only wrote for 2 hours every day, and yet was insanely productive. Phillip Pullman only writes in the morning, producing 3 handwritten pages (about 1100 words) and then stops. I can’t do more than about 4 hours writing in a day. (I can edit for longer, but not produce words). If you have more time that that to write in, you are likely to procrastinate because you’re just passing time.  You’re not passing that time doing anything pleasurable, creative, or restful either.

The third reason:

The third reason I procrastinate is because I’m avoiding a job that is emotionally difficult.  I am currently writing this blog post instead of doing my revisions for an article coming out later this year (the one on Judith Wright that I used the Cornell Method to produce).  I hate revisions, because, in spite of trying to be objective about it, my writing feels personal, and corrections to my writing feel like criticism of me. And as someone who is generally pretty successful, I find failing hard—and yet submitting articles means you get a lot of rejections. (See this blog post by Joern Fischer for a particularly depressing chronicle of rejection).

There are two ways of dealing with this.  The first is to outsource the work. I have a wonderful, wonderful Honours student who I pay by the hour to fix my bibliographies and accept my corrections.  When I was a sessional academic, I used to take on extra teaching to pay him, which replaced work I hated with work I much preferred. If you can’t afford to pay: barter or swap. Doing someone else’s corrections is easy. Wendy Laura Belcher has some other excellent suggestions for lessening the emotional labour of article writing in the final chapter of Writing your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks .

The second way is to have a series of ever more urgent and unpleasant tasks which enable avoidance productivity.  Just because I’m writing this, not doing my corrections, doesn’t mean I’m not being productive.  I’m just being productive on something else.  You can intentionally harness that avoidance productivity, so that in time the corrections will become more attractive than, say, marking; and then the marking more attractive than, say, doing my tax… and so on.  In the end, my corrections, my marking and my tax will all be done.

The final, and most common reason people procrastinate is because they are perfectionists (And have an experience like this). There is nothing wrong with some perfectionist behaviour in other situations.  If you are a professional musician, a nano-microbiologist, a civil engineer, a poet, then focusing on detail, and going over and over small flaws and improving them is how you practice your craft. If an engineer doesn’t care about the right diametre of wire for a suspension bridge, people might die.

But writing is, on the whole, an inexact art. There are no right answers, or right words.  There are one or two wrong words, but mostly there are words that work more or less. And, what’s more, doctoral theses are particularly awkward texts. Theses are not works of art. They are not Nobel Prizes.

There is a reason you have to rewrite your thesis before anyone will publish it.  There is a reason that the only five people who will read your thesis were paid to. A thesis is an ugly, clunky and boring genre. It shows all the working. It often addresses a very niche field in insane technical detail.  This is important for your learning and your future career—but it does not produce a text that is anything like Simon Shama’s Citizens, Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble or Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man.  Kerryann Rockquemore has a fantastic series of blog posts with advice on breaking out of the procrastination cycle , which I can’t recommend highly enough.  (I have also written something on The Perfect Sentence Vortex, and How to Escape it)

So, procrastination is probably not your fault. It’s a symptom of unrealistic expectations and working practices; or it’s a signal that what you’re supposed to be doing is really unpleasant work. Give yourself permission to be human, and be nice to yourself.  This is work you really wanted to do—let yourself have the energy to do it!

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Succeeding in a Research Higher Degree

Doing a Research Higher Degree (like a PhD) is hard, but lots of people have succeeded and you can too. It’s easier if you understand how it works, this blog gives you the insider view.


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