Procrastination for Pros

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Most people are familiar with the realization that the thing you said you’d do everyday, or at least three times a week, hasn’t been done in the last two months. It began with “I can’t do it today, I’ll do it tomorrow” and apparently “I’ll do that tomorrow” was followed by many, many tomorrows. My natural reaction when that happens is a bit of embarrassment and a growing anxiety about the thing in question. Natural that reaction may be but it’s also bloody stupid. Rather than making me do that thing, this reaction makes me avoid doing it. Even worse, it makes me avoid thinking about it.

Although procrastination (literally to put forward to tomorrow) is neither a new word nor a new problem – according to the New Yorker, Samuel Johnson described it as “one of the general weaknesses” that “prevail to a greater or less degree in every mind” – it has definitely become an incredibly popular problem in recent years. A 2010 New Yorker article described “procrastination as the quintessential modern problem” and at least within my circle of academic or artsy acquaintances it really is. Somehow, “procrastination” has become the one word which describes every behaviour. Academics appear to be unable to tidy up their living rooms without procrastinating writing a paper/thesis/application. A friend of mine regularly posts pictures of her “procrastibaking”, I just told a friend that I was procrastinating proof-reading an application by sifting through Calls for Papers. Procrastination does not only appear to be hard to avoid, it logically is unavoidable. Provided you have more than one thing to do at any point in time, any action is always putting off something else.

Of course, this is only a fancy way of telling myself that I shouldn’t be embarrassed about the fact that I did not write a single blog post or tidy up my room or exercise. There were many things I really intended to do in the last two months: write my Master’s thesis, sew a dress, apply for a scholarship for my DPhil, tidy up, do my laundry, move out of my Oxford abode, plan a party in the English faculty, exercise, write blog posts, watch television and eat pancakes with my boyfriend, play settlers with my friends, reconnect to academic contacts, have dinner with my mom, fix my computer… Except for the blog and the dress, I kind of did most of these things. I exercised a couple of times but by far not as often as I intended. I did finally do my laundry but only after a week of nocturnal sock-handwashing and you-really-can’t-see-the-soy-sauce-on-this-shirt-denial. On the other hand, I finished the first draft of my thesis three weeks before the deadline (as planned), did not need a redraft and had three weeks to polish the sh*t out of that turd. I had an incredibly enjoyable – if sartorially challenging – time writing my dissertation. I might not have done everything I intended to do but I did what I needed to do. Even though I felt bad about it at the time, the fact that my room looked like a pigsty and my appearance often matched the ambience has very little adverse consequence. Apparently I had to put off some of the many things I intended to do. Looking back, I am glad I procrastinated cleaning and sewing, rather than writing my dissertation. There might be a reason for the fact that the recent student stink comes from MIT rather than a less high-achieving university. Similarly the scatty Professor stereotype might actually reveal a causal link between procrastinating a large part of activities and achieving mastery in a smaller spectrum. The New Yorker article begins with an anecdote about a Nobel-prize winning academic’s surprised realization that he procrastinated sending a parcel for eight-months. Not sending that parcel was not an isolated event but a personality trait. What if it is this very personality trait that allowed him to become a Nobel-prize winning academic. Every day that he was procrastinating sending that parcel, or doing his laundry, or talking to a friend, he was actually coming one working-day closer to academic mastery.

While this kind of procrastination might have a clear advantage, it also has many disadvantages. If you are, like me, a tunnel-vision procrastinator, you routinely omit to do many less-crucial seeming activities, such as writing a blog, or exercising, or, especially crippling, calling your friends. Every six months, or so, I talk to a close friend who blames me for not calling her for the last six months. It’s not that I decided six months earlier that I’m not going to call her for the next six months, quite the opposite. It is just that every single day, something else, usually my academic work, is more pressing. In fact, I do not even notice the passing time and am incredibly shocked to find out that I haven’t spoken to that important person for so long. At the other end of the spectrum, many of my friends routinely realize that they have not even begun writing that paper they meant to finish months ago but their kitchens were scrupulously clean, all their friendships well-tended and actually they learned playing that instrument they always wanted to play.

Procrastination is not a problem, regret is. The question we should be asking is not “how do I stop procrastinating” but how do I start procrastinating the right things. In my case, I should start procrastinating rushing into academic projects. For the last five years, there never was a time when I was not very aware of the next deadline. There is a long list of things that I will do “after the deadline” but I am beginning to understand that there is no “after” because there always already is a deadline after the deadline after the deadline. Procrastinating life is ok for a time, after all, it might lead to mastery but there has to be a time when you re-evaluate your priorities and find out about and actually do all the other things you meant to do. Since I handed in my funding application yesterday, this is what I am going to do in the next two weeks. The same is true for the other kind of procrastinator, the one who does everything else and struggles to meet deadlines. Sit down, re-evaluate when you should be procrastinating what. Sometimes cleaning instead of writing an essay might actually be a good idea and even necessary for your overall happiness. It only becomes a problem when it starts causing regret. In that case, procrastinating cleaning your room, or calling your friend might actually be a good idea. The amount of things we can do in a day, a week, or a life is sadly very limited. Instead of regretting the things we  did not do, we should pit them against what we actually did do. We might find that we value writing Nobel-prize winning work more than sending a parcel, or conversely that spending time with friends, making music or learning Italian comes actually closer to fulfilling our life-goal than writing yet another paper.

What do you procrastinate? What should you be procrastinating? And how do you go about achieving the right kind of procrastination?

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About Oxford DPhile

I'm a doctoral candidate in English at Somerville College, Oxford. My thesis, tentatively titled “Just Literature: Evil, Victorian Narrative, and the Problem of Theodicy”, explores the interplay between literature and theodicy – the justification of a good God in light of the existence of evil – in the works of A.H. Clough, J.A. Froude and George Eliot. I teach English Literature at the University of Würzburg, coach academic writing in English at Oxford, blog about the tricks and pitfalls of thesis writing, and love to collaborate. My novel "Das Unglück anderer Leute" was published by Galiani Berlin in August 2016.
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