Great Procrastination Shame-Cycle

October 30, 2014


You.

Yes. You. You write all your papers the night before they’re due, which you hate, and every time you promise yourself that the next paper will be different, and you won’t put it off again, but you always do and it sucks.

You.

Take heart and read on. You already feel bad about your pattern of putting work off until the last minute, and I’m not here to make you feel worse. I’m here to help you out. What I’m going to say won’t apply equally to every one of you, but some of it, I hope, will ring true. Here it goes.

First, let’s clear up why you procrastinate. It isn’t because you’re irresponsible, or lazy, or because you don’t care about your classes. In fact, you procrastinate because in some ways, you care too much – about your grades, about what your professor will think of you, about the kind of paper you know you’re capable of writing. Every time your professor hands out a paper assignment, you think ahead to how you’ll start it ahead of time, about the opportunity to show this professor, this time, what you can really do.

Then, at some point ahead of the deadline, awash in the fuzzy flow of good intentions, you sit down to work on the thing, and ... it’s hard. You have some ideas about what you want to say, about an argument, but you find it hard to take that great paper you’re imagining and put it into words, and sentences, and paragraphs. You don’t know where to start, and you can’t spend ten minutes working on one paragraph without getting distracted thinking about the other parts of the paper, writing the body but wondering if you should be working on the introduction first, that kind of thing. You get frustrated, and take a break from it (intending to come back later, when you’ve cleared your head), and before you know it, it’s the night before the thing is due and the great procrastination shame-cycle has begun again.

If you don’t know what I mean by “great procrastination shame-cycle,” then this little column might not be for you. I’m sure this edition has lots of other things for you to read. Look! Over there! A photo! If you’re still with me, brothers and sisters in putting things off, keep reading.

From what I’ve learned about the great procrastination shame-cycle (henceforth GPSC) from myself, students and reading books about this kind of thing, it happens for a few reasons, and being more aware of what’s going on in your noggin can help you deal with the GPSC just a bit more effectively. For one thing, those early good intentions – that great, amazing paper you planned to write when you first got the assignment, are part of the problem; when you start writing, and see your early efforts fall short that imagined ideal, it’s easy to feel disappointed and frustrated. The same things goes for that great, amazing plan you had for getting the paper done ahead of time – virtuous hours in the library! A productive visit to your professor’s office hours a week before the due date!  Nary a Facebook visit from start to finish! Then, when you don’t do it perfectly, every time you start working on it, all you can think of is the ‘should’ve’s’ – that you should’ve started earlier, that you should’ve come up with a better argument, that you should’ve read the source material more carefully and understood it better. Once you start feeling like this, your brain has a harder time focusing on the actual work instead of focusing on feeling guilty. And given the choice between feeling guilty and feeling entertained, your perfectly sensible brain chooses a “Vampire Diaries” episode every time. (Or whatever your chosen vice is. As a mature, grown-up professor, I know nothing about these “Vampire Diaries.” Nope, not me.)

I don’t have a magical cure for the GPSC. Instead, all I can really give you are some suggestions, based on what seems to work for me and what seems to work for students. First, recognize it for what it is, and recognize that these are common problems. (You are not the world’s lone GPSC sufferer, no matter how much it feels that way.) Second, you have to let go of the perfectionism. The more pressure you put on yourself to write something great, the more self-critical you’ll be as you work, and that’s only going to hinder your progress.

Third, and this proceeds from letting go of the perfectionism, embrace early-stage crappy writing. When you sit down a week before the deadline to start working, that’s not the time to get all caught up in doing things perfectly. That’s the time to sit down and write a really, really bad draft that’s about the length of what you’ll have to hand in, but is otherwise random ideas, bad sentences, hastily-chosen quotations, and an ‘argument’ in only the loosest sense of the word. It’s far easier to transform a crappy draft into a good one than it is to sit down and write a good paper from scratch. Really.

Fourth, lest I contradict myself: stop thinking of it as writing ‘a paper.’ (Thinking of it this way is part of the reason why your brain will want to jump back and forth between the different ‘paper’ sections or tasks. Don’t feed it.) Instead, break it up into small, manageable, imperfect pieces. (I’m going to write just a crappy draft of just this paragraph about this specific thing.” I’m going to just write doing my thoughts and ideas about this one source, or this one question.”) If you haven’t discovered the pomodoro technique, allow the Googles to point you in the direction.

Lastly, if you start second guessing what you’ve decided to argue in your paper, and wonder if your argument is wrong, or if you’ve inadvertently written something completely off-base even though you really tried to understand the material, allow me to confirm your fears. I promise you that by the time you graduate, you will have written something boneheaded in a paper. I promise that you will construct a flawed argument or two, and that you will occasionally misunderstand something, even though you worked really hard on it. I also promise that if you forget about writing the perfect paper and focus instead on just writing better ones, that GPSC will get a little more manageable. And you’ll find a way to have a real, successful, grown-up career despite having written a few bad papers in college.

After all, we did.