Recently in a meeting with my advisor, I found myself defending my lack of progress on my dissertation (note that I had made progress, just not on the things we had previously discussed). I admitted that, at times, I am a procrastinator. I quickly added however that despite this, I’m always able to get my work done in the end.
To my surprise (and relief), my advisor made a rather astute observation, “You and I are like closet procrastinators. People tend to think we have everything together, but don’t you dare look in that filing cabinet over there!” I laughed because she was absolutely right!
I always meet deadlines, always complete my work in a way that is the best representation of my abilities (I’m even a bit of a perfectionist), but I frequently procrastinate until the last possible minute. It’s not that I’m not working when I procrastinate. It’s not at all like I’m home binge watching Netflix all week (though the thought of it sounds pretty appealing).
It’s just that I tend to find other things that are more pressing and demand my attention in the moment (or maybe just things that I prefer to do at the time). In fact, when I’m under pressure or feeling stressed, I often feel compelled to start organizing things like a stack of mail, or the filing cabinet, or my closet, or the entire guest room! At this moment, I’m pretty sure there are some people who just read this and thought, “I’ve never felt compelled to organize anything!” and there’s some people who thought, “OMG, I thought I was the only one!” Either way, you are not alone! — Everyone experiences stress in their own way. (And, if you’re feeling particularly stressed and/or exhausted right now, I encourage you to read my previous post on burnout.)
I know that at some subconscious level, my compulsions to organize are probably a way that I can feel a sense of control over the things in my life (and I’m okay with that) – like, even if I don’t feel that I’m making any ‘real’ progress on my dissertation or have much power over when I will actually graduate because there are so many unknown variables, at least I can have a sense of power over this very small corner of my life and find some order within it. I personally find it so rewarding to have something tangible – something that I can actually look at with my own eyes and see the progress I’ve made after putting in a hard day’s work.
When I start organizing things, I also know it’s at least partly because my brain needs a break from the other work I’m doing. And to be honest, I think the truth is that I also just process things differently. I like to think about things (a lot) conceptually before I actually go about completing a task. I like to visualize the big picture – think about what the end product will be, and then I try to create a plan (essentially work backwards from the end) by filling in the steps that will get me where I want to be. In my research of today’s topic, I discovered that this is a real thing, sometimes called “mind wandering” and it’s a process that some people use to let information percolate before they actually sit down to complete a task. In many cases, it’s beneficial to let information sort of “soak in” and allow us time to form a strategy within our minds before we actually set out to do something.
Back in that same meeting with my advisor, she made this exact point – noting that while I hadn’t completed the work I had hoped to complete (she also frequently reminds me that my deadlines are mostly self-imposed, so I should stop apologizing when I don’t meet them), she knows I’ve been thinking about my work and that when I sit down to actually do it, I will be fully prepared to do so. It’s true, I really do think about my research ALL OF THE TIME – I literally dream about it some nights. It turns out, I’ve totally been embracing some “mind wandering” of my own and I didn’t even know it. (Side note: I think the reason my advisor knows all of this is that we are eerily similar in personality type, but that’s a discussion for a different day.)
Good news, people! Procrastinating can actually be a good thing and I’m going to tell you how to start making the most of your
bad good awesome habit today:
Include a variety of tasks. When you create your to-do list each day, avoid putting down one large goal (like writing 20 pages) and instead give yourself multiple tasks that will require different lengths of time to complete. I find this particularly helpful when, for instance, writing is on my list (let’s be honest, it always is) and I just don’t wake up feeling like writing (because sometimes I just don’t). Instead, I might choose to work on doing the laundry, or responding to emails, or working on a presentation, or running to the store, or working out (yep, I totally put that on my to-do list).
Literally, anything you want to accomplish during your day can go on your list (there’s no judgement here, you’re the only one who has to see it!). Some of the articles I read even recommended adding things like “eat breakfast” or “have coffee” or “make my bed” to your to-do list so that by the time you actually sit down to your desk (or whatever your work space looks like), you already have a sense of accomplishment that will help keep your motivation up and your completion rate high. Not a bad idea, but I’ll let you be the one to determine the extent to which you’re going to detail the tasks of your day.
An article in The New York Times, endearingly titled “This Was Supposed to Be My Column for New Year’s Day” (and posted on Jan. 14th – so only a few days late, really), referenced the work of Dr. Steel on the art of procrastinating. My favorite line from this article is a quote from Dr. Steel which was begging to be shared with all of you, “We are willing to pursue any vile task as long as it allows us to avoid something worse.” I’m not sure if I actually agree with Dr. Steel on this because I prefer for my to-list to be compiled of things that are actually attainable (I LOVE checking off tasks), but it seems like it may be worth putting something sort of repulsive on the list to see if it motivates us to (more willingly) do everything else.
Celebrate small victories. One thing I find extremely helpful is to break large goals into smaller, more achievable ones. So, if you need to write 20 pages by the end of the week, or sign up 50 new clients, or grade 100 papers, don’t expect to complete it all in one day (be reasonable!). Instead, make your goal to write 4 pages per day, sign up 10 new customers, or grade 20 papers (I just divided the total by 5 which assumes you’re trying to complete the task in a single [work] week, but you can easily do the same for a month or a year or a decade – why the heck not?!).
Then when you achieve your goal for the day, freaking celebrate!!! Take a break and reward yourself in whatever way you choose (e.g., take a walk, have a dance party (maybe in your office), hang out with a friend, get ice cream, watch some football, make it rain confetti – I can go all day…). It’s important to remind ourselves of our successes and to celebrate them accordingly. I’ll talk a bit more about this later when I discuss why we need to stop beating ourselves up for procrastinating. Bottom line: Allow yourself to relish the moment when you accomplish a goal, you absolutely deserve it. 🙂
Be intentional. Recognize that while [productive] procrastination can be a good thing, we should consider the reason that we are choosing to procrastinate. If it’s because we actually do need more time to think about a task before we start it or just that we don’t feel like doing that particular task at the moment, those can be good reasons to work on something else for a while. However, if you’re delaying a task because you don’t believe in it (maybe it conflicts with a personal value, for instance) or because you fear it (like, maybe you think you will fail), procrastinating could actually be quite detrimental.
If the reason you’re avoiding a task is because you actually don’t think it’s a good idea or if it’s a project you don’t believe in (and perhaps, don’t want to be associated with), consider handing the task off to someone else, if at all possible. On the other hand, if you fear that you may fail to complete the task in some way and just can’t seem to get started – remember that everyone fails and it’s a normal part of life. In fact, it’s how we learn! Don’t let this fear paralyze you and prevent you from reaching your goals!
There may even be things you can do to help set yourself up for success (and that will actually allow you to get started on the project) like speaking with others in your field to get advice, adding colleagues to the project to help assist with its completion, and/or breaking the project up into more manageable parts over time.
Avoid waiting too long. While I do tend to procrastinate, I always allow myself enough time to actually complete a project by the deadline. Keep in mind that this doesn’t mean I’m throwing together shoddy work at the last minute to ensure I have something (or anything) to submit. I’m committed to completing high quality work in whatever I do, so part of the time I designate to complete a project also includes enough time to do things like preliminary research and/or proofreading after my initial draft.
However, I recognize that things sometimes happen which are completely out of our control. The people I work with know that (for me) these are the exception and not the norm. So when a family emergency occurs or I get sick and have to ask for a deadline extension, it’s almost never a problem.
If you’re not already in the practice of doing so, I encourage you to work towards budgeting enough time to fully complete a project with the quality of work it deserves, even when you procrastinate. If this is a struggle, I encourage you to go back to the previous point and consider the root of the reason for your procrastination – it may be that you aren’t committed to the goal or that you don’t actually want to do the task – in which case, you may consider what other options are available to you.
Stop beating yourself up. We often berate ourselves when we procrastinate, but as you now know, [productive] procrastination can actually be a good thing. So why do we beat ourselves up for doing it? We may feel obligated to be in front of the computer screen because that’s what we think we should be doing, even if it means staring at a blank screen or wasting time on Facebook or other sites. Instead, when you know you’re not going to be productive (you know yourself and I’m certain you often know if you’re going to be productive before you even sit down to work), consider doing something that will actually give your mind the break it needs.
Remember, how I mentioned “mind wandering” earlier? There’s kind of an art to it in that when we allow ourselves to gain some objectivity and space from a project, we often find our minds more able to openly and creatively explore ideas. Sometimes, the very best thing we can do is walk away from the computer (or other workspace) and literally get outside. Take a break and allow your mind to rest.
My advisor told me about a former graduate student who actually woke up from a dream and could suddenly understand how her data set fit together. Of course, this doesn’t happen for everyone and you shouldn’t necessarily expect to have some great epiphone, but it’s a great example of how some space to just let things ‘percolate’ can be extremely meaningful and much more productive than staring hopelessly (and frustrated) at a blank computer screen.
Find some accountability. Pretty much all of us are more likely to meet our goals when we have someone to help hold us accountable. While a significant other or friend can be a good option, sometimes people we care about aren’t the best people to hold us accountable. We should be cautious because they may be inclined ‘to let us off the hook’ when we don’t meet our goals which can quickly become a bad habit. It’s also possible that they might be really good at holding us to our goals, but we may begin to feel resentful or frustrated which would likely harm our relationships with them.
Alternatively, look for a colleague who could also benefit from having someone hold them accountable. In this case, the experience is mutually beneficial. It doesn’t even have to be someone within your office. Another graduate student who I had met during a class agreed to be an accountability partner with me even though we didn’t live in the same town. We sent our daily and weekly goals to each other via email and did weekly video chats to check-in which worked really well for us.
If a colleague isn’t a viable option for you (for whatever reason), a mentor or counselor could also be a great person to help hold you accountable. Just remember that ultimately, you are responsible for your own success — you have the ability to set your own goals and you’re the only person who can choose to achieve them.
As with my previous posts, the common theme here is that it’s all about you. Make productive procrastination work for you in the way that you want it to. And, if you don’t want to procrastinate (because maybe you don’t find it personally beneficial) – don’t!
I encourage you to try some of the above tips out and see what’s most ideal for you.
Let me know what’s helping you be a productive procrastinator in the comments section below – I would love to hear from you!
All my best,
Onderko, P. (2015). 6 tips to be a productive procrastinator. Success. Retrieved October 17, 2018, from https://www.success.com/6-tips-to-be-a-productive-procrastinator/
Tierney, J. (2013). This was supposed to be my column for New Year’s day. The New York Times. Retrieved October 17, 2018 from https://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/15/science/positive-procrastination-not-an-oxymoron.html
Zhang, M. (2014). How procrastinating can make you more productive. Business Insider. Retrieved October 17, 2018, from https://www.businessinsider.com/use-procrastination-to-get-things-done-2014-6
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