Dr. Bell: My name is Dr. Bell. And I’m a recovering procrastinator. Imaginary Crowd: Hi Dr. Bell!
I used to procrastinate. Big time. It started in high school, when I’d somehow wait until midnight to start an essay that was due the next day. Sometimes, it was worse than that. At midnight I’d start the Cliff’s Notes of a book that I had to write a paper on for the next day.* I convinced myself I work best under pressure and that I was most alert at night.
In college, I found one million things to do before studying. Usually, it involved socializing. I also convinced myself that I was in a “study group” during said socialization.
In grad school, especially during the dissertation years, my procrastination took the form of cleaning. During the disseration writing, my house was always immaculate. I think I even alphabetized my spices, which is harder than it sounds. Do you put black pepper under B or P? I convinced myself that I couldn’t work in a messy environment. My roommates loved me for this.
I don’t know when the change began, but I stopped procrastinating. It probably coincided with getting a job in the school district. But why? A big part of my job is writing, just like in school. It makes sense that if I’m a procrastinator, I would still put off writing reports until the last minute. But I have become disciplined. I know I write best in the morning and set aside 2 hours every morning to write, no matter what. And it works. I’ve never worked at midnight the night before a meeting. How did I recover?
I was reading up on some research on procrastination and was surprised to consistently see it paired with perfectionism, protecting one’s academic self-worth, and fear of failure. Apparently, it’s more than just a bad habit.
The idea is this: Procrastination is a win-win situation for your ego. If you put off studying until the last minute and you do poorly on a test, then you can blame the poor grade on lack of studying. If you happen to do well on the test, then you can pat yourself on the back for being smart enough to do well without studying. I suppose a third option is you attribute it to luck because it was an easy test, but that doesn't really hurt your ego either. I remember doing this in high school. I read the Cliff’s Notes for The Great Gatsby the night before and got a B on the essay the next day.** I congratulated myself on my ability to b.s. through any writing assignment.
Procrastination can also be the result of being fearful of being unable to complete a task perfectly, or not completing tasks because there is always room for improvement. I had a client once who refused to write anything because he was afraid it wouldn't be any good. I see this with gifted kids sometimes. A gifted child may refuse to do activities rather than risk failing to achieve a superior level of performance.
So what does the research say to do about Procrastination?
*** Four Days Elapse ***
Oh Delicious Irony! I started this post on Tuesday and then realized I needed to clean my house top to bottom for a house guest this weekend and put off finishing my post on procrastination. House looks great. Now I can work.
So what does the research say to do about Procrastination?
1) Evaluate your procrastinating style. Do you procrastinate on certain types of tasks? Do you procrastinate at certain times of day? When are you most productive? Are you afraid of doing something less than perfect? Is the task too overwhelming so it is avoided? Do you think you work better under pressure? Are you putting things off because you don’t want to do the task or because you have too much other stuff on your plate? Are you truly procrastinating or are you prioritizing? Did I need to clean my house, or was I putting off the work of finding all the research on procrastinating and trying to synthesize it into witty blog entry? A good clue you are procrastinating is if you are doing X and should be doing Y, and can’t stop thinking about how you should be doing X.
2) Challenge your myths. For example, maybe you don’t need a spotless apartment to begin a writing task. You really need a writing tool and a place to sit and that’s about it. Maybe you do work well under pressure. So then set a time limit for yourself (I will write this paragraph in ½ hour, or I will finish all these math problems/paying bills/whatever before my favorite show on TV).
3) Get an anti-procrastination “coach” such as a friend, roommate, or family member who is supportive. Tell them about your goals and timeline and ask them to determine whether your plan is realistic. Then once a twice a week, email with this person on your progress. If you slip up and don’t do your “homework” than talk about it and see what went wrong (see #1). Be careful in selecting “Study Buddies.” I know if I want to get stuff done, there are those that facilitate that and those who do not.
4) Try the TIC-TOC technique. TIC stands for Task Interfering Cognitions. These are things that get in the way of you or a student starting a task. An example of this may be, “I have all those letters to write tonight” or “I can put off writing those letters until later when I’m in the mood.” The problem with TICs is the thinking trap it creates—that you must do ALL or NONE of the work, or that you must be in the mood to work (emotional reasoning). This leads to avoidance behaviors because the task can seem too big to start and you may never be in the mood to start.
Replace your TIC with a TOC, A TOC is a Task Oriented Cognition. An example to counteract the previous statements could be “I don’t have to do ALL those letters tonight, but I’d probably feel better if I did at least 1,” or “I don’t have to be in the mood to get started. Once I get started I’ll probably feel more like doing it.”
5) If you are procrastinating a writing assignment, try these tips for Writer’s Block.
6) Break down the assignment or task into smaller components. Make a list of the sub-tasks needed and reward yourself when you complete each part. When I was in school, I sometimes tricked myself into thinking I had “all semester” to finish a research project. Writing down all the things that go into said research project can be an eye opener. Try setting mini-deadlines on a calendar in a backward planning technique (e.g. this week I will explore research topics, next week I will look at good examples of research projects, the next I will meet with my advisor and run my topic by her, etc.). Then when it comes to the end of the semester you aren’t scouring the Internet and throwing something together. And as you do each step, cross it off your list, because then you can see you have started the project and made some strides.
7) Nike approach. Just do it. Tell yourself you will work on your project for 15 minutes. Chances are, once you get started, you may just get in a groove and work longer.
*I highly recommend the Cliff’s Notes for Don Quixote. They are funny. I’m told the book is too. **I did spell Gatsby wrong throughout the entire essay. An unfortunate side effect of my procrastination is that I still have to look up if it’s Gatsby or Gatspy to this day. Should have read the book.