While I can’t say that I perfected perfectionism, I can state that I truly perfected procrastination. I was a master at finding other things to do rather than working on my dissertation. I had two things in my favor. One, I typically procrastinated with fairly productive tasks -- like cleaning the kitchen floor or taking my dog for a walk (and he was always up for a walk). The other was that I was in graduate school prior to Facebook, LinkedIn, online newspapers, eBay, and Edmunds.com.
Perhaps the biggest factor in my favor was that I stumbled upon Robert Boice as my dissertation adviser, and so for the first time I was taught how to write. Well, I knew how to write. What I really mean is how to write a long piece over months and years and how to make it focused and well-organized. How to overcome my tendency to put off my writing until the last minute and then pull an all-nighter, followed by extreme writing aversion. And he taught me how to have a sensible approach to writing and to even enjoy writing. And as many of you know who had read my columns or my book, my ongoing commitment to pass along the techniques for writing fluency reflects my gratitude to him and is my pay forward for his patience and support.
As I have worked with doctoral students and new faculty, I have been amazed at how creative we can be about procrastinating. I suppose that isn’t all that surprising. We are a pretty smart and creative bunch. The immediacy of prepping for teaching, reading the latest articles or books, and the ongoing siren call of e-mail can make getting some good writing done all the more difficult. In our wired world, opportunities for distraction and procrastination are endless.
Procrastination can occur at any point in the process of writing. Thinking of sitting down to write? Not yet – have to get a cup of coffee or make one phone call before sitting down. Are you sitting down? Now you notice that your desk is messy and you can’t get anything done before you clear it off. OK, the computer is on and all ready to go, but wait, perhaps you received an urgent e-mail notifying you that you are the latest lottery winner, can refinance your mortgage for a pittance, or can get the latest performance enhancing drugs for pennies (you choose the performance to enhance … although, I’ve never seen an e-mail for a writing-performance-enhancing drug — not a big money maker, I guess). OK, all set, you are sitting at your computer, fingers on the keyboard, ready to write, and you realize that you are not sure what you are going to write. Blank screen syndrome. So … you either opt to return a few more e-mails or you pick up an article to read it instead. Whatever you choose, the final result is that another day has gone by and you haven’t done any writing.
Procrastination occurs when we get distracted rather than working on what we need to work on. But what triggers procrastination? As I have worked with writers, it seems that procrastination is triggered when the anxiety of writing overrides the consequences of not writing. The thought of writing begins an anxiety reaction, and to lower it, at least in the short-term, you distract and put out of your mind the thoughts or goals that are triggering the anxiety reaction. OK, that is fine. But then why does writing trigger an anxiety reaction? Writing triggers an anxiety reaction because writing is a creative experience and any creative experience can open us up to self-exposure. The creative experience is more likely to trigger an anxiety reaction when it is linked to our core being, goals, and dreams. As a result, engaging in the activity can trigger the anxiety associated with not being good enough, feeling like a fraud, or not living up to the standards that we hold for ourselves. The level at which we want to work may not be the level at which we are currently working, and we don’t want to admit that to ourselves or to others. I know that writing as a creative experience triggers those reactions in me. My writing reflects how I think and what is important to me. In short, my writing reflects me.
In contrast, when I was taking a painting class in São Paulo (which I referred to in an earlier column, and which resulted in a lovely painting of two winged lemons resting on a table), the act of painting did not trigger any anxiety at all, even though it was a creative experience. For me, it was sheer fun. The reason for painting wasn’t to paint a masterpiece (thank goodness!); the reason for painting was to spend time with a group of women who were fun. The tea after our painting session was as important as the time we spent putting globs of oil paint on canvases. The outcome didn’t matter. My internal critic was bored. No danger of procrastination occurring.
In addition to procrastination being triggered based on engaging in a creative activity of great import, procrastination is also triggered when the transition into that activity, such as writing, is too great. What I mean is that you are living your life and then before you can write, you have to transition into this other, very special space, where extraordinary things happen. You have to psych yourself up to write. You have to have a large block of time; otherwise all the effort to start the writing process just isn’t worth it. The stars have to be aligned, your muse has to be cooperative, your mug has to be filled with a lovely beverage.
Then once you start to write, you have to think about what you are writing, the structure of your argument, the evidence to cite, the words to use, the order in which to place the words, applying grammatical rules properly and managing to use the correct punctuation in the right place … phew! That is a lot of work! The stars better be aligned. And I don’t know about you, but it makes me want to run and pull out my mop and some Anderson cleaner and start polishing the kitchen floor.
The remedy for procrastination is to make the transition into and out of writing less of a big deal. Ho hum, I’m reading and taking notes on my dissertation. Oh look, I’ve written out a focus statement and I’m expanding it into an outline. Hey, I have a few minutes free; I’ll place citeable notes in my long outline. A spare half-hour? I can start writing from where I left off yesterday and write the next two or three paragraphs. Writing my dissertation? I want to write a good dissertation, not a great one; I’ll save the greatness for later.
If the transition into writing is a big deal and once you start writing the drain on your cognitive energy is great, then anxiety is likely to spike. If the transition into writing is a normal part of life and you have broken down the writing process sufficiently into separate activities, then anxiety, and the resultant procrastination, is much less likely to occur. The goal is to tamp down the anxiety, tamp down the stress. Reduce the warm-up time and transform writing from an event (tad dum!) into an ordinary, everyday habit. And as I regularly tell my students, "Make it as easy as possible for you to write."
Simple? No. You have spent years practicing procrastination; I know that I had. Possible? Absolutely! You have a track record of excelling at what you have been taught. If you have never been taught habits of fluent writing, I don’t know how you would stumble across the techniques on your own. In fact, I am hoping that eventually every doctoral program will offer a seminar where students are taught how to identify a doable dissertation topic, to prepare a useful long outline, and to develop a regular writing routine. In this seminar, I hope you would learn the value of sharing your ideas early, in the form of focus statements and outlines. I hope it would be a safe place where you learn how to provide constructive criticism on others’ prewriting and writing and where you learn that you are not alone; many doctoral students struggle with identifying a dissertation topic and bringing it through to fruition. Your courses cover most of the other skills or topics you need to know; why not also cover writing a dissertation? And, if your program does not offer such a seminar, perhaps when you move into an academic position, you can start offering such a dissertation writing seminar for your students. At least that is what I hope. Ah, but I digress; this is my professional mission after all: to make the teaching of dissertation writing an accepted part of the core courses for all doctoral programs.
While conceptually the remedy for procrastination is to make the transition into writing as smooth as possible, what does it look like? I will go into the specifics of interventions for procrastination in my next column. But I can ensure you that it will include some of the four elements used by every fluent writer I have ever met: prewriting, engaging in a regular writing routine, holding oneself accountable, and being part of a fellowship of writers. The emphasis may be a little different depending on the writer’s block, but the four underlying concepts remain the same. For instance, if you deal with procrastination, to help you develop a regular writing routine, I suggest strongly that you have a designated writing space. Why? Because otherwise the act of clearing off the dining room table each time you need to write may be just enough to make the transition into writing more difficult than necessary, and just enough to trigger a procrastination response. In my next column, I’ll provide additional specific interventions for procrastination.
Please remember that establishing highly developed habits of procrastination did not happen overnight. Overcoming procrastination will not happen overnight. But as you focus on developing habits of fluent writing, eventually you will notice that writing starts to change. Eventually you will sit down at your desk without going through that whole ritual of procrastination. When it happens the first time, you won’t even notice it; you’ll only notice it in retrospect. You will transform yourself into a writer who sits down, spends adequate time on your project, perhaps fields a call or two, easily returns to your work, and then closes up your project to work on it the next day. Sound appealing? It is. And you can get there.
Until next time, be well. As always, I look forward to your comments, suggestions, or questions. Thanks to Phred’s comment on my last column, Perfectionism II, which I would like to reproduce here because I found it useful: “Any perfection is in the editing, not the writing.”