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When the Abyss Looks Back: On Procrastination

April 28, 2013
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Rappelling down a cliff in Israel.

Looking over my Google calendar for the next three months is like looking out over the side of a precipice.  I stare at color coded assignments and deadlines, and feel the rocky crag of the edge of oblivion under my feet.  I look down over the lip of the mountain.  Rugged, jagged rocks stick out from the sheer sides of the cliff.  I have to make it down into this abyss, somehow, without dashing myself to bits.  It will happen soon, whether I like it or not.  In three months, I will be on flat land once more.  The question is merely how I will get there.  Through falling, to land hard, bruised and battered, with broken bones?  Or an easy rappel into soft air, gliding through the work and time with a careless grin and a strong harness of support?

So does the end of term time- with its unique blend of studying for final exams, taking said exams, preparing for a trip to Africa, and researching and writing a dissertation while worrying about the same- appear to a weary student.   And miles to go before I sleep…  Touché, Mr. Frost.

The desire to procrastinate and self sabotage is overwhelming, and yet sanity must prevail.  Apparently, procrastination is addictive, and the same thought process of ‘this time, I’m really gonna quit’ prevails.  People who routinely procrastinate are statistically less happy, wealthy, and soi-disant ‘successful’ than their more active peers.  And the energy expended in procrastination is enormous- it’s not cognitively easy to continually put off a task you feel you must do.  But I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.  You are reading this instead of anything with productive merit, after all.

The fact that it is in English is also suspect.

A sign on a coffee shop window in the Netherlands. I started to laugh.

At least you aren’t looking at LOL cats lusting after cheeseburgers or watching this video of a puppy falling asleep on a staircase.

Now that I have you back from watching the puppy falling asleep on the staircase, let’s get serious for a second.  Why do we do it? (We all do.)  Some psychologists think it is a fear of failure, of trying one’s hardest and then still not succeeding.  Another explanation is ironically enough the fear of success.  It’s important to identify what holds you back from completing a task- by staring into that abyss of work and inchoate motivations, it becomes easier to tease out what leads to procrastination, and thereby, how to prevent its insidious influence.  I, for instance, no longer fear the consequences of not doing my class-work.  The rub is making myself care… until the last thrilling moment, when the adrenaline rush kicks in, and suddenly writing that paper gives me the same high of rock climbing, getting lost in a bad part of town, or kissing a cute stranger.  Realizing you have a procrastination problem is apparently the first step towards the cure.

Then there are the constructive mind games you can play to battle the desire to procrastinate.  There is the classic advice of breaking up large tasks into bite sized manageable pieces- a good start for sure, but hardly enough.  One needs to create an entire structure of success, an edifice to fall back upon when self determination and will fail to carry the day.  This is one of the reasons there is the backlash against working from home.  It is important to have a place of work to go to, wear ‘a uniform’ for (whether suit or dungarees) and be at promptly at nine.  Having a work space distinct from play or leisure spaces creates a structure that habituates one to work.   Essentially, working becomes the ‘default’ option when at that office, or wearing that suit, or at that time of day.  Hence, working becomes increasingly incentivized, and therefore easier to do than procrastinating.  The path of least resistance and state-dependant learning for the win.

Amsterdam!  Taken in January 2013.

Live without dead time. Word.

That’s all well and good when you have an office to go to, but how is the student to carve a similar rote time and space for herself in order to prevent procrastination?  The home is right out: comfy beds and bookshelves full of mystery novels are not conducive to academic writing. (When that bombshell blonde broad walked into that conflict zone in Sudan, she carried a chip the size of my copy of Edward Said’s Orientalism on her shoulder and a gun the size of a child soldier on her hip.  No?)   Maybe the library, with its dry tomes, is a safer bet.  But, LSE’s library is terrible: not only too crowded, it engenders flashbacks to undergraduate all-nighters, the cloying taste of RedBull on my tongue and having binder ring marks on my cheek from falling asleep face first into my French notes.  Coffee shops do well sometimes, but finding new ones takes time, and the old favorites lose their luster if I go too often.   Plus, three or four cappuccinos a day add up, emptying wallets and bladders with a frustrating regularity.

What’s the diehard student procrastinator to do against such monumental odds?

Stare into the abyss, I guess.  And when the abyss looks back in stern admonishment for tasks incomplete, smile insouciantly.  Breathe deeply.  And prepare for the drop off the edge of the world.

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