I read my previous column  online and I immediately saw a few changes that I would have made. I realized, and I’ll admit, that it was one of the hardest columns for me to write (my column on Felix  was also hard to write, but for very different reasons). Procrastination is a tough one, and while I have managed to keep it in check, I do struggle more than I like with wanting to pull out that mop and clean the kitchen floor, or to spend my mornings on e-mail. Then as I was thinking about writing this second column on Procrastination, a bit of serendipity came in. I had a knee procedure for a torn ligament and so I moved my laptop downstairs and worked at the dining room table. I will mention later that I don’t recommend this as a normal course of action, but for times like this, it was helpful.
When I moved back up to the desk in my study, I noticed how cluttered and claustrophobic my desk was. Oh sure, I have plenty of room to sit down and type or to work, I have an L-shaped desk, but after a few days of sitting at a big dining room table and looking out the window at the neighborhood, I viewed my desk in a new way. So, I took items that were on my desk or pinned to my corkboard and moved them to the bookshelf, while resisting the strong temptation to sort through it all very thoroughly rather than writing this column. Why was it so important for me to de-clutter my writing space? Because even though I could sit down and work, clutter to someone who has struggled with procrastination means one thing and one thing only: distraction.
In this column, we’ll start to discuss some of the practical interventions that you’ll want to try if you struggle with procrastination. Some of them you will have heard before, and if I offered them as the only suggestion or intervention, I wouldn’t blame you if you threw tomatoes at me. At least that is what I tell the faculty members and doctoral students during my workshops on writing. I tell them that if the first thing I did was to put up a schedule and tell them to block out their writing time, if they didn’t throw tomatoes at me, they should. Why? Because I know they, and you, have all done that before. Only after we have discussed some of the techniques that will make your writing time more effective and that minimize the transition time into writing, will I then ask you to review your schedule and block out those regular, but moderate, blocks of time within which you’ll be able to write, or prewrite, or rewrite. These brief daily sessions, as Bob Boice calls them, can be very effective uses of your time, but only if you know how to use the time well.
First, I would like you to think about your professional mission. I originally got this idea from Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Other terms for a mission statement you may have heard include choosing your north star or identifying your career purpose. And while I know it has gotten quite clichéd and a bit hokey, the popularity of engaging in this type of practice has grown, and it really can be an effective tool. I have found it useful to think through what I want to accomplish in my professional life. Then, when opportunities arise and I am faced with many more opportunities than I can take advantage of (ah, the disadvantages of living in three-dimensional space), I use my professional mission as a sieve to help guide my decisions. If the opportunity doesn’t align with my professional mission, I can pass on the opportunity with the full knowledge that other opportunities more aligned with my mission will arise.
If you have been reading these columns for a while, you’ll know that one of my missions is to have doctoral programs offer dissertation writing seminars for their students. I want to see the techniques of writing a dissertation taught in formal settings. And I don’t mean seminars that tell you the elements of a dissertation or focus on research. I mean seminars that teach and train techniques associated with the process of writing that will move you into being a fluent writer. I think these types of seminars should be taught during the first year of doctoral programs so that students have the time in their core courses to try out new writing techniques, which will prepare them to complete successfully a doctoral dissertation. And this column is one of those opportunities that presented itself to me, which I readily accepted because it so closely aligned with my professional mission.
When I was the director of faculty mentoring or graduate student mentoring programs, I had many graduate students, new faculty members (being mentored) and senior faculty members (serving as mentors) write professional mission statements as part of the mentoring program training. And this may shock you, but for all the years that I have had students and faculty members do this exercise, not once, I’m not kidding, not even once did someone write down that they wanted to be known for responding to emails in five-seconds flat. Nor, for that matter, did having a shiny kitchen floor ever end up in any one of my professional mission statements. So, as you can guess, I happen to think that writing a professional mission statement is important for anyone who is working in an unstructured, self-motivated work environment, but particularly important for those of us who have propensities towards procrastination. Please work on your professional mission and put it someplace on your desk or work station so that you can regularly read it. I promise you that once you take this exercise to heart, it will influence positively the choices you make in terms of projects, commitments, and using your time wisely.
I’ve already foreshadowed the second thing I want you to think about, especially if you struggle with procrastination. If you do not already have a designed writing space, please find yourself such a space. The dining room table is typically not a good choice. Wherever you end up, please make sure it is somewhere that you can sit down and get right to work, not somewhere that you have to clear off in order to get started. Mind you, some of my friends and colleagues have become very productive by taking their laptop to the local coffee shop. Others sign out a carrel in the library. Whatever space you choose, remember the underlying concept. Find a place that will make it as easy as possible for you to get some good prewriting, writing, or rewriting done; a place with minimal distractions, because distractions are a hazard that could trigger your whittling away a perfectly good writing session.
Those two prior activities are necessary but not sufficient. The most important thing you can do to prevent procrastination is to engage in adequate prewriting. If you decide not to try any of the other suggestions in this column, please consider this one. Let me back up a little to my previous column. Procrastination occurs when you have overload and uncertainty. You are supposed to write, but you don’t know what you are going to say. Instead, you expect to be able to form what you want to say, reference it properly, engage in word retrieval, apply grammatical and syntactical rules properly, and move your fingers on the keyboard at the same time. If you are trying to do this, of course you are experiencing overload, which may trigger anxiety, resulting in your finding something, anything, as a distraction -- and you end up researching the latest AWD cars rather than writing. The antidote to procrastination is doing one thing at a time. So in a practice sense, the first thing I have my students do is to not consider their time as writing time, but to consider it as dissertation time. By doing so, they acknowledge that the actual writing is only a small fraction of the time that they will be putting into the dissertation. The time prewriting and rewriting, along with the time on research and analysis, will dwarf the time spent putting that first draft down on the page.
There is great value in identifying some times as prewriting time. Even if you are actually writing, you set up the situation where you lower the stakes. Give yourself the freedom to play around with ideas, either others’ ideas as you take notes on them or your own ideas, as you are formulating your focus statements for your dissertation or formulating a focus statement for a particular chapter or section. Here, allow me to provide you with an example from one of my readers. To my last column, but in response to earlier writings on establishing a regular writing routine, Fred commented that he now uses his commuting time on the El as writing time -- he used to use it as reading time. As he mentioned, the bumps may make his handwriting hard to decipher – but that is part of the beauty of it. It is a situation that is already regularly scheduled and a fairly moderate amount of time.
Also, and this is the important part if you struggle with procrastination: the transition into writing isn’t such a big deal. You are not expecting yourself to scale any mountains or write perfect prose. You give yourself time to play around with ideas, get pre-formulated ideas down on the page, with the intent of reading through them later. As a result, your internal critic will continue snoozing. He may awaken and look at what you are doing, notice the scratches on the page, quickly realize his services are not needed, and then go back to sleep. When setting up some writing times like this, the likelihood of censoring yourself is minimized. The act of getting thoughts down on the page now gives you something to work with. Once you have something to work with, getting back into writing is not such a big deal. And that is the whole point: transforming writing time from being a big deal to dissertation time that is not such a big deal.
Well, I am not all that surprised that writing about Procrastination will spill into a third, and, I think, final column. In the next column, we’ll discuss prewriting and how the process of prewriting, which results in a long outline with citeable notes, makes the transition into writing comfortable because you have bifurcated the thinking and the writing. Then, and only then, will I ask you to pull out your schedule and start to think about how you can get productive dissertation times (as opposed to scheduled, but never realized, writing times) into your schedule. Until next week, please do work through a professional mission statement, or at least start one. It will evolve over time, so no need for perfection. Also, do take a look at your writing space and make sure it works for you. If it doesn’t, then think about making those changes that will make it work. Sometimes these mean going to the library. Sometimes they mean turning off Internet access for a year. Whatever you need to do, you’ll have your professional mission in front of you to help you make decisions that will help you to fulfill your professional goals.
Until next time, be well. As always, I look forward to, and read, your comments, suggestions, or questions.