A visit from the Procrastination Fairy

I put out two papers to top journals containing my thesis results early this year. Both editors want to publish, but are demanding significant changes before that happens. It’s all to the good of course, there’s a reason they are top journals, but I am finding the process of revisiting these articles incredibly hard work.

In fact, it would be fair to say that Procrastination Fairy has sprinkled me with her Can’t Be Bothered dust in a big way.

This kind of revision is a profoundly unpleasant activity. The problem with a peer review, if properly applied, is that it leads to DOUBT. To some extent I have lost confidence in the work and started to second guess myself. As a consequence, the whole time I have the documents open I have an uncomfortable sense of failure.

It’s easy – far too easy – just not to open the documents in the first place.

There’s lots of advice out there on the subject of procrastination – in fact one can do some really good procrastinating just spending time reading the advice. It was while doing this that I came across a great article on procrastination in the New Yorker by James Surowiecki, an extended review on an academic book on the topic of procrastination called  “The thief of time” .

Surowiecki uses the work in this book to argue that procrastination can be seen as the “quintessential modern problem”. Academics, Surowiecki claims, are prone to procrastination, perhaps because of the largely ‘self directed’ nature of our work. I’m not sure this is the only reason, but procrastination is certainly the key lament I hear in my work shops with PhD students and at pleasantly procrastinaterly coffees with colleagues.

The problem with procrastination is that it doesn’t help much to tell yourself that procrastination is a stupid thing to do. We all know that the unpleasant sensations which arise from putting off an unpleasant (or boring) task can be as bad, even worse, than actually doing the task you avoiding in the first place.

So what to do? Well, a couple of lines in Surowiecki’s article jumped out at me as suggesting a way forward, the first one was this: “procrastinators are self-handicappers: rather than risk failure, they prefer to create conditions that make success impossible”

Ouch! Maybe that one is a little too close to the bone…

Another line which might suggest a more fruitful way forward was this: “… when we put off preparing for that meeting by telling ourselves that we’ll do it tomorrow, we fail to take into account that tomorrow the temptation to put off work will be just as strong.”

This precisely explains my problem with revising the papers. Every day I tell myself that I will start that revision tomorrow, and when tomorrow comes the urge to delay is just as strong as ever. When my dilemma is put this way the answer is obvious – I need outside pressure to counteract the inner urge to put off the job.

I suppose this is why the imposition of deadlines on PhD students is ultimately a good thing. Creating your own deadlines within candidature and agreeing on them with your supervisors is good strategy for overcoming the urge to delay writing. A deadline is not the only kind of outside pressure available to you: living on a student income gets pretty intolerable after a couple of years when you think about it.

But deadlines are not the whole solution of course. The curious nature of procrastination was captured well in this line: “… we often procrastinate not by doing fun tasks but by doing jobs whose only allure is that they aren’t what we should be doing”

The truth of this struck deeply. I am currently doing research which involves reading policy documents from every other university and putting their key points in a matrix. A more excruciatingly boring research task I can barely think of – yet I will happily do it rather than open and start revising those damn papers.

Maybe the way to overcome this is to focus more on my feelings about the work – not just on the rational reasons why the work must be done. I need a way to start feeling a sense of anticipation, instead of dread; a way to ignite that spark of interest and curiosity in the work itself so I want to open those files.

Visualising can help here. I could try closing my eyes and imagining that elusive state of ‘flow’, the state of being at one with the work of writing, which is pleasurable in and of itself. Now I’m trying to summon up the glow of accomplishment I will feel when the job is finished… nope – that’s not working either.

The final thought of Surowieckis I want to share is the most powerful: procrastination may stem from the nature of identity. We could: “think of ourselves not as unified selves but as different beings, jostling, contending, and bargaining for control”.

In other words, everyone is made up of ‘multiple selves’ who want different things. My ‘want to get published in an A* journal’ self is in constant struggle with my other selves: my ‘want to have coffee’, ‘want to read twitter’, ‘want to write for the blog’, and my ‘want to empty my email inbox’ selves – just to name a few.

To my mind this explanation makes perfect sense. My ‘want to get published in an A* self’ will always be at a disadvantage compared those selves who have more intrinsically interesting – and easy to satisfy – desires. The trick then is to think of what kind of bargain I can make with my ‘want to have coffee’ self which will enable me to open those files…

I might think about that while I have go and have a coffee.

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14 thoughts on “A visit from the Procrastination Fairy

  1. Elena Golovushkina says:

    Hi, Inger. Thanks for an interesting post. I especially like this – Creating your own deadlines within candidature and agreeing on them with your supervisors is good strategy for overcoming the urge to delay writing. That’s the only thing that works for me – official deadlines. So I would recomment to all students to develop a Gannt chart at the very early stages of your project, and try to stick to it. I did it only at the end of my first year. still better late than never:)

  2. Anne Marie Cunningham says:

    I think there is something more going on here than just procrastination. You’re through the PhD and you’re used to being able to disseminate your thoughts very quickly through your blog. Going back and revising work can be so painful, and I sympathise with your sense of being so over-immersed that you start doubting the value of the work. There comes a time when you just want to move on!
    It’s a pity you couldn’t just blog those two papers. We’d be able to read them now and critique them together.

  3. M-H says:

    I work as a project manager, but I’m not sure that Gantt-chart-type schedules are for everyone in PhD-land. A lot of PhDs seem to unfold in unexpected ways, and feeling that they must stick to an externally-generated schedule can in fact prevent people really exploring their ideas. My take is to have deadlines, but to be flexible with them as you go. And the procrastination fairy can be the nurturer of creativity as well as the thief of time. I have often put something off a couple of times, then sat down to write, only to discover I’d thought out a whole lot of stuff that I wasn’t conscious of. A good supervisor, keeping an eye on progress, knows when to push and when to let go.

  4. Robyn Ward says:

    I enjoyed reading the latest Thesis Whisperer posting about procrastinating. I have been doing some of this lately and decided to have a quiet chat with some of myselves. Being in the third year of my PhD, the end is coming into sight and I’ve started seriously thinking about what I might like to do after finishing. Now when considering options like cleaning the bathroom, tidying yet again or looking at shops as I’m not really able to buy much at the moment! I focus on one of my dreams. It’s working, so far. Each time the procrasting fairy comes along, I ask her if I can write my daily number of words first and then we can play. Some days, that takes all day and at other times, I can indeed play. Thank you for writing on this subject. The contents are gold. Robyn

  5. ailsa says:

    Loved the post 🙂 and the link to The New Yorker.
    I now know i have not run out of strategies for managing my procrastination fairy.
    Paying for software to limit access to the Internet, having my valet remove clothes so i cant get dressed so cant go out…
    Going out works for me: 2 hours free parking, no Internet, comfy chairs and nice coffee.
    Dont hate me for going to starbucks, it progresses the thesis every time.
    There’s no housework, no paid-work distractions of emails to respond to…
    On a good day it establishes the roll for a whole day of writing, on a bad day, at least it progressed the thesis by two more hours.
    Gant charts dont work for me. Its not until i am in the thick of it that the nature of the path becomes known- thickets, brambles, and cliff edges… or gently rolling grassed knolls…
    so the guesswork on time to dedicate is nothing more than an exercise in creative writing, and incredibly guilt inducing on the lack of achievement.

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