Tips from a Recovering Procrastinator
I bought a self-help book on procrastination, but I have not had a chance to read it yet. Bad joke, I know, and in my case, inaccurate. I did buy a book on procrastination many years ago, and I immediately read it when I got it home. That does not sound like a procrastinator, does it? Well, what you need to know is that at that time, I was supposed to be writing my doctoral dissertation. I had procrastinated so much on writing that I rationalized that reading a book on procrastination would help me stop procrastinating. In truth, it was just another excuse to procrastinate. I am a procrastinator, and as such, I am great at creating excuses to procrastinate.
I did eventually rally my focus and successfully finished my dissertation. Prior to that, I dropped everything for a few months to study for my qualifying exams. I spent an entire summer reading, summarizing and learning. I entered my exams prepared without a last-minute rush. In fact, because I did not procrastinate, I found the final week of studying boring and redundant. Both of these accomplishments were huge successes in my life and are clear evidence that I can control procrastination. Even more impressive are the many accomplished faculty who have had numerous monumental accomplishments in their career. One would never believe that this is a population that suffers from procrastination. The truth is, procrastination is prevalent in academic environments.
It is probably inappropriate for me to assert that all academics are procrastinators, because that is simply not true. There are wonderfully efficient and prepared academics that not only meet deadlines but beat them. I admire them greatly and aspire to be them. However, this article is not about them. This article reveals that I have witnessed professors rushing to prepare lectures right before class. One professor confirmed my long-standing suspicion that surprise announcements of "I'm going to let the class lead the discussion" is secret code for "I didn't have time to do the reading or prepare a lecture myself." I had a professor in a graduate seminar acknowledge that she was fully aware that the class always reaches that point in the semester when nobody (including her) got around to doing the reading. She knew it would happen because it happens every year. As such, she did not get mad; rather, she had a standing backup plan that she utilized each semester. In the research environment, I have also been a participant in last-minute poster preparation as everyone in the lab rushes to finish their posters and presentations the night before they catch their plane out of town. I've participated in "all-nighters" as the research group pushed to finish research grants the night before the deadline. These events included booking flights for the grant to be hand-delivered because we could not make it to the FedEx office before closing (prior to electronic submission). And on the one occasion when we did make it to FedEx before closing, we only made it by cautiously rolling past stop signs, red lights and pathetically begging our way past the security guard who was about to lock the door.
I'm not providing my experience as an excuse for students to justify procrastination. The truth is that even though many research groups and professors have humorous stories on rushing to meet deadlines, procrastination can elicit bad choices. When I present to student groups on responsible research conduct, I address procrastination as one of the "bad practices" that can lead to bad behavior or unintentional misconduct, especially plagiarism. When I present this information, students laugh because they know they are guilty of procrastinating. Then they laugh harder when I boldly confess the hypocrisy of my speech on procrastination. I have been a lifelong procrastinator, and I have no doubt that the editors of Scholarly Messenger are rightfully grumbling as they read this because they know that I am late every month on submitting my article to them. Every month, I am rushing to finish while guiltily facing the polite email nudges and knocks on my office door. Every month, I truly feel embarrassed and guilty that I hold up their work. Yet, every month I do it all over again.
Why do I continue to struggle with procrastination? If I am truly embarrassed every month, then why do I persist in this "bad behavior?" More importantly, when I do finally rally my focus to complete a project, how do I do it? In other words, what tricks and tips do I use that help me get rolling on a project? The book on procrastination that I bought many years ago was "Overcoming Procrastination" by Ellis and Knaus (1977). Some of the suggestions that I list below come from that book, and others are realizations that I have made in my experiences. Interestingly, at the time that I purchased "Overcoming Procrastination," it was the only book on procrastination that I could find at the bookstore. A more recent search revealed that there are now many books on the subject. This suggests that procrastination is an ongoing problem, one for which continued research is justified. As such, I have no doubt that there are many more recommendations for avoiding procrastination in addition to those presented below. Also, I welcome you to do further research, if you don't like any of the ideas below. Just don't make my mistake and utilize a study on procrastination to avoid your own critical work.
So, why do we procrastinate? Well, Ellis and Knaus (1977) spent a good amount of their book discussing why we procrastinate, and for me, one of the most telling reasons that they proposed was perfectionism. We put off tasks that we want to be perfect because our desire for perfection is not attainable. Therefore, rushing at the last minute provides us with an excuse for not producing perfect work. I think that there is a lot of truth to this in academics, but also, in my opinion, we procrastinate because there are a lot of fun things to distract us from our goal. The interesting thing is that "fun" is a relative concept because it is amazing to me how much fun it was to clean my house when I needed to study for exams. When thinking of fun distractors, most people would think of watching TV, going out with friends, reading for pleasure, etc. One very odd observation is that when an assignment was equivalent to one of my fun distractors, like reading fiction or watching movies during undergraduate film or modern fiction classes, I found myself avoiding it and then rushing to finish a book or watch a movie the night before a deadline, even though these were tasks that would normally be quite enjoyable. Inversely, true procrastinators are often productive in their procrastination. We all have long lists of important things to do, and when you have a looming deadline, doing anything on that list is more interesting and rewarding than the one thing that we need to be working on right now. As such, it is easy to rationalize that priorities Nos. 2-8 are much more important than focusing on your current No. 1 priority. Since these other priorities are also very important, it is very easy to rationalize that it is critical for you to work on them right now. This, of course, allows you to procrastinate on your first priority.
The reasons for procrastination are plentiful and likely vary from person to person and situation to situation. Small projects can be finished quickly so can be put off till later. Large projects are overwhelming, so you should think about them for a while and then start when you are better prepared. Some students always cram for exams and still do well; why fix it if it works? I could keep listing. However, my goal with the current article is not to provide you with more rationalization for procrastination. Rather, I wanted to let you know that you are not alone in procrastination and then provide the reader with tips and tricks to move you away from procrastination and onto working on your looming work demands. Some of the below suggestions I got from Ellis and Knaus (1977), and others I worked out for myself over years of procrastination. Happiness versus Pleasure. When rationalizing alternate priorities, contemplate whether what you are working on is merely giving you momentary pleasure or will result in sustained happiness. When I cleaned my house instead of studying for my exams, I was getting momentary pleasure from distraction. However, it was ultimately focusing and studying that permitted me to do well on exams and proceed with my coursework—and ultimately my career. The happiness-versus-pleasure question readily pulls you away from frivolous distractions, but it is often harder to utilize when you are distracting yourself with other high-priority tasks because often completion of these tasks will also lead to sustained happiness.
Positive Reinforcement. Reward yourself for spending time focusing on your task. Interestingly, rewards do not have to be big expensive gifts. Sometimes things as small as checking an item off a to-do list is very rewarding. However, when you have made a big accomplishment, reward yourself appropriately for your hard work and focus. When I submit this article, I will be rewarding myself with a nice nap.
Negative Reinforcement. Assign yourself an effective penalty if you fail to meet a deadline. For example, if you do not meet your deadline, then you must make a financial contribution to an organization that you loathe. The problem with this tip is that as independent adults, unless you include an external system of accountability, it probably will not work. Without external accountability, this tip will not be useful because most people won't follow through on penalizing themselves. So, for the above example, to create external accountability, write a check to the loathed organization and give it to a confederate with instructions that if you do not provide evidence of meeting your deadline, they should mail the donation. For this to work, you must select a confederate who cannot be influenced by pathetic pleading as your deadline rapidly approaches.
10-Minute Exercise. Commit just 10 minutes to working on the project without distraction—no email, Facebook, TV, texting, chatting with coworkers or radio. The modern world has provided us with so much justifiable distraction through Internet access that it is often very difficult to avoid (e.g., if you unplug, your computer goes to wifi). Do everything you can to shut off the electronic distractions for a minimum of 10 minutes and focus on your work. Generally once you have begun to focus on the project, you will find that you are enveloped and want to continue to work a while longer. After all, we do choose to work in specialized areas that we find fascinating. We don't avoid our work because we hate it any more than I hated watching movies for my undergraduate film course. Once you get focused and are interested in your work, ride the wave. You will be surprised how much you are willing to do once you get a focused and interested start.
Create a Work Environment. Modify the environment to remove distractions and do not permit yourself to engage in any distracting behaviors when you are in your work environment. No Facebook, no checking the news headlines, no email, and even minimize daydreaming while in that environment. Work and only work. Many years ago, I read that B.F. Skinner had a writing room in his lab. Personnel were only permitted to write in that environment; they could not chat with colleagues and were encouraged to leave the writing room if their mind started to wander away from their writing project. By controlling their activity and even their thoughts while in the room, soon the writing room triggered personnel to focus and write while they remained in the room. Similarly, if you create a work environment without distractions, you will soon find that when you enter your work environment, it will prime your mind to do work. Of course, make sure that you then don't avoid your work space.
Remove all distractions. If you have a big project and are not successful at focusing on that project, then remove all distractions. I wrote most of my doctoral dissertation at home. There were fewer distractions there because I dismantled my entertainment system so that TV and movies were not an option while writing my dissertation. I was able to remove distractions at home, but that was much more difficult in my work environment because like many graduate students, I did not have an office. My desk was in the middle of the lab, and fellow students and subordinates constantly distracted me from writing. Furthermore, since I supervised the work of undergraduate students, I needed to be approachable when I was in the lab, so that they would come to me with problems. Thus, I developed a work environment without distraction at home, and that is where I finally wrote my dissertation.
Create a Routine. Choose a fixed time for addressing daily mundane tasks. Your routine will focus your mind on the task. Think about how often you hear parents say that their children thrive while on a routine. I have friends who will not deviate from their kids' routine because to do so is to invite chaos into the home. Sleep specialists tell adults with insomnia to create a bedtime routine, a fixed series of behavioral cues that wind you down and relax you to go to sleep (i.e., shower, brushing your teeth or no TV in bed). Just as a bedtime routine readies your mind to relax and shut down, a work routine will ready your mind to be alert and focused.
Confederates. Find a study or writing pal, and hold each other accountable. Just make sure that the pal who you choose will not serve as a better distractor than work partner.
Reminders. A planner or Post-it notes placed in strategic locations can be effective means to get you to focus. A planner can help you to break down large projects into a series of smaller controllable accomplishments. Breaking large projects down into smaller bits allows you to regularly reward yourself for your successes. And a list of things to do can provide little reinforcements when you get to check items off as complete. Such little bits of accomplishment can be highly rewarding.
Be willing to tell people to "go away." This sounds rude, but you don't have to be rude when you do it. Work environments tend to be very distracting, and even when you are trying to remove distraction from a work environment, you often cannot remove all distraction. Interpersonal interaction is a critical part of academics—student researchers need supervision; colleagues need to discuss and get feedback on thoughts and ideas; and emergencies both major and minor require your attention. Research environments require interpersonal interaction, and thus by nature, they are distracting. But with a little bit of assertive training some of the distraction can be minimized, even if you do not have an office door to close. When I was in graduate school, there was another grad student in the lab who was an extreme morning person. She got into the lab between 5 and 6 a.m. and got a ton of work done before anyone else arrived around 9 a.m. As the rest of us got into work to begin a productive day, she was ready for a break and would wander around looking for friendly discussion and banter. She did not mean to slow us down, but her need for a break could disrupt the start of our day by delaying our work. A couple of us finally told her that from time to time she would have to "go away." It was not personal, but we had an agenda that we needed to keep, and the morning hours were critical for setting the stage for the day. As expected, she understood, and later in the day when we got our work going, we would seek her out and have coffee.
I'm not providing these guidelines as someone who has eliminated procrastination from their daily work. As the title of this article states, I am a recovering procrastinator, which means that I still struggle with getting work done in a timely manner. I tend to work until deadline, so I struggle to complete projects for which there is no clear deadline. I have used the above suggestions to great success, and when I truly apply these principles, I am highly effective at minimizing distraction and promptly completing tasks. Like all behavioral change, however, adhering to these guidelines requires constant vigilance, and when I slip away into distraction, I again fall into the practice of procrastinating. In fact, one reason that I chose to write on this topic was to remind myself of the good practices and behavior that enhance timely project completion. As I continue to work on my problems of distraction, I encourage others to do the same and to share any tricks and tips that they have learned with students and colleagues. Telling people to "stop procrastinating" is about as effective as telling drug addicts to "say no to drugs"— it really does not help. You do more good by providing tools for affecting behavioral change toward productivity.
Marianne Evola is senior administrator in the Responsible Research area of the Office of the Vice President for Research. She is a monthly contributor to Scholarly Messenger. Alice Young, associate vice president for research/research integrity, is a contributing author/editor.