Being busy doesn’t cure procrastination
Did you ever sit down committed to writing something and find yourself staring blankly at the screen an hour later with close to nothing to show for your time?I went through several weeks of “brain fog” when I wrote my first publication, which was a literature review. Weeks went by with little progress. My supervisor was getting impatient with me.
I did not understand why I was not making progress. I was managing my time well, and I allocated time for each thing I had to do. My days were carefully planned, and I assigned a chore or task for almost every free time slot I had. I even committed an hour a day to my review article.
However, every time I sat down to write, my mind began wondering after a few minutes and I decided that I would put off the writing until another day when “I felt more focused.” So, instead of working on my article an hour a day, I filled up the time with other seemingly important tasks from my to-do list.
Thus, I was managing my time “well” (striving to cross off items from my to-do list), yet I was procrastinating this literature review big time. The funny thing is that you can be a procrastinator and not know it. Your mind can fool you into thinking that you are productive, yet at the end of the day or week you realize that you have made little progress on the projects that would actually help you graduate.
Signs you may be procrastinating:
- Spending a lot of time reading and replying to low priority emails
- Engaging on social media when you know you “should” be working on something else
- Having important items “forever” on your to-do list
- Compulsively saying “Yes” to other people’s demands (a.k.a. Everyone’s Happy Helper)
- Having piles of mail, documents, and emails and being indecisive about what to do with them
- Filling your day with low priority items from your to-do list
- As soon as you start to work on a high priority task, you immediately distract yourself, by either working on something else, or making a cup of coffee.
- Waiting for the “right time” or “motivation” to get started on an important task
Can you identify with any of these “symptoms”? The reality is that we all procrastinate at one point or another. Procrastination is like the common cold – you will get it unless you consciously take precautions to avoid it, or at least reduce its severity and duration.
Time-management alone will not help you beat procrastination because procrastination is not caused by poor time management: it is caused by fear.
The most common types of fear which cause procrastination are:
- Fear of imperfection,
- Project is too big/complex/overwhelming,
- It will take too much time,
- It will be really unpleasant,
- Fear of what others will say about your work, and
- Fear of success – will I be able to handle the next step? (e.g. will I get a job after graduation?)
In order to beat fear, it is not enough to manage your time better. You need to change your beliefs and your daily habits. If you think that a project is “too complex”, “overwhelming”, “more unpleasant that cleaning the bathroom” (filing tax returns comes to mind), then “good time management” alone will not help you to make progress – instead of working on your high-priority project you will fill the time with other items, just so that you feel productive.
Act Despite Your Fear
“Do a thing every day that terrifies you.” – Eleanor Roosevelt
Last summer I took my kids to the town pool. My daughters saw their classmates line up to have a turn at the diving board, but they were clinging on to me, afraid to climb up the ladder and take the plunge.
“It is really no big deal, I will go ahead so you can watch me,” I said nonchalantly, as I went to the end of the line. As a teenager I had conquered the waterparks in Orlando, so how hard could diving be?
After a few minutes, I realized that I was the oldest person in line and the second oldest person was a high school kid. How come all the other moms were chilling in the shade with a cool drink? It was finally my turn and as I got to the top of the ladder I nearly passed out. Once you are up there, it feels much higher than it looks from down below.
I was dizzy and terrified, but there was no backing out. While I did not dare to take my eyes off the diving board, I felt my daughters eyes glued on me.With one deep breath, I walked briskly to the end of the board and stepped off it into the air.
I was in free fall for longer than I had expected before I hit the cool water. As I climbed out, my girls were cheering form me and they lined up to get a turn as well, knowing that it was “no big deal.” In fact, they loved it, and they probably took 10 dives before the end of the day.
Ironically, I read Eleanor Roosevelt’s quote “Do a thing every day that terrifies you” the day after I jumped off the diving board. Wow, the town pool really made this easy for me. Every time I go there for a swim, I head straight for the diving board before doing my laps.
The fear does not go away. My heart pumped just as fast the 20th time I jumped off as the 1st time. In fact, it is going 120 beats per minute now, just thinking about the diving board. Yet, I still jump every time I go the pool, because it trains me to act despite being terrified.
Prevent Procrastination One Day At a Time
I admit that I was a little scared when I decided to publish my first article for my website a few years ago. What do I write about? Will it take a long time to write? What if everyone thinks my article is junk? It was mid December, and after weeks of “thinking” about writing I finally sat down and wrote an article about how to set up realistic New Year’s resolutions and then actually following through on them.
Since then I have written over 200 articles, and the most important lesson I learned is that inspiration does not come before writing. If I waited for inspiration to hit me….well I might still write occasionally but not nearly as much as I write now. Inspiration and a great sense of achievement come after I do my writing.
My first draft is never perfect, no do I expect it to be. But I put in the time, whether I feel like it or not in order to deliver articles, webinars and live workshops when people are counting on me. I know that after a few revisions I will be able to deliver something with excellent value either virtually or in person.
Our natural tendency is to resist progress and change – it makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, because it is safer to keep the status quo than to try something new. This resistance can be especially prevalent if you are trying to write – expressing new ideas is scary.
The literature review that I worked on as a graduate student had to summarize cutting edge research from over 100 papers, and it was my very first publication. No wonder I was scared! Some of the technologies I had to write about had been around for less than a year, and I did not feel “ready” to write the literature review.
When I finally decided to sit down to write it, something interesting happened. The first 20 minutes were painful, because there was so much information that I didn’t even know where to start. One afternoon I decided to begin writing section that was closest to my area of research, because I was at least familiar with most of the reference articles.
After 20 minutes I finally got the swing of writing. I wrote for nearly 3 hours, and I had produced 4 pages that were relatively coherent.
‘Wow, at this rate I will finish this paper in a week,” I thought.
The next day I sat down to write, but I realized that I had already summarized the parts that were closest to my area of research, and now I had to tackle the other sections which focused on technologies that I was not familiar with. I stared blankly at the screen not knowing what to write or where to begin. Then someone came by my desk asking for help, and of course I said “yes” (anything was better than writing), and I got so distracted that I did not get back to my writing for the rest of the day.
During the next few weeks and I went through several cycles of “writing bursts” followed by writers block. I learned that hard way that I had conquer procrastination every day. I never “felt” like writing – somehow the weather was always good on the days I was supposed to write and taking a stroll by the Charles River was a great way to procrastinate. Even though I was getting exercise and fresh air (which are important for productivity), my literature review progressed very slowly.
The first 15-20 minutes of writing were always the most frustrating, but after a few weeks I realized that after those first 20 minutes, my writing began to flow. There were days when writing was almost effortless once I “warmed up.” My big breakthrough came after I sent my supervisor a draft of one of the sections, and he beamed with excitement after he revised it. “Dora, I didn’t realize your writing was so good.” (Thank goodness he did not see the very first draft)
After that day I was so motivated to finish this publication, that I became more creative and resourceful about what information to put in the article and how to find the time to write the article. What changed? I still had the same number of hours in the day, yet my progress picked up faster than I had expected.
I did not change how I managed my time, but I changed my beliefs about the article and my daily habits. My article was no longer an “overwhelming huge literature review that I was not qualified to write.” Now, I saw the article as an opportunity to make a real contribution to my field through my expertise – this was a huge paradigm shift. Second, I changed my habits. If you are working on your thesis, paper, or a book, keep this rule in mind: “Write first.”
I no longer started my day checking email or chatting with group members. As soon as I got to my office I glued myself to my chair and put in 45-60 minutes of focused writing. I was in the flow – my paper was progressing and I was feeling a lot better, and more confident. All it took was simple change in my belief about this paper and my daily habits.
Keep in mind, that the tendency to procrastinate what we believe to be unpleasant or overwhelming is normal human behavior. As you grow, your challenges will grow too, and you will need to stretch beyond your comfort zone. Procrastination is most likely to hit during times of growth, when you are in new territory – your first paper, grant proposal, your first job interview.
While you cannot wish procrastination away for the rest of your life, being aware of your fears, and consciously taking actions every day (whether you feel like it or not), will lead to incredible progress.
I have seen tremendous breakthrough among graduate students who made very simple changes in their habits – it is really possible to go from feeling overwhelmed to confident in just a matter of days.