Geetanjali Mukherjee

Friday, August 24, 2012

Procrastination: A Familiar Beast Rears its Ugly Head

I have been struggling lately with some work deadlines, and the recurrent beast of procrastination keeps rearing its ugly head. I don't know if my modus operandi is familiar or totally different from what others experience, but faced with a task that is complex, usually writing a paper or report, this is what I do:

I start a word document, then I make a cup of coffee. Then I create a semblance of an outline. At this point I usually have most of my research, but an idea will trigger in my head, and I will chase off after it on Google. 45 minutes later I have downloaded 10 relevant reports, and feel very satisfied with myself. I have loads of great new research - how exciting it will be to add all this to my paper.

At this point I have written a sum total of 20 words - the outline. I reach over for my cup of coffee, untouched. Its gone cold - so I go to the microwave to heat it up. And maybe look for a biscuit - to get my mental juices flowing as it were.

Now I decide to tackle one of the reports I found, and reading through it add a few sentences to my paper. This process feels like torture and a lot of work. I start to panic that my outline is all wrong, or that I have misunderstood the mandate altogether. Or else that I am missing out on an entire section of research that I don't know how to find or what it is, but anyone reading my paper will instantly spot the missing element. I have pysched myself out sufficiently by this point where I cannot handle working on it anymore, and I need a break. I find I am surprisingly hungry and must eat. I find a very interesting movie or program on TV, convince myself that breaks are very important to the creative process, and spend the next couple of hours doing anything but sit in front of the computer.

This pattern repeats itself over the next few days. I spend that entire time hating myself, the project, and every sentence I type into the computer. I also obsessively check the word count or page count, and focus on reaching some target that will prove that I have put in the requisite effort. All that new research I found earlier, now I want to just press the deleter button, its simply more opportunities for me to get it wrong. In the space of a few days, I have gone from excited about my project, eager to put my best effort, to reduced to praying I reach the word count and wanting to turn it in, convincing myself that how it is perceived doesn't matter or that really its quite good.

This is terrible isn't it? I bet this happens to others too, although hopefully not in such a neurotic manner. I spent most of my years in college dreading papers, and I still get all stressed about writing a paper, or doing anything that might reveal how stupid and incapable I really am, underneath. Thus, my procrastination really is about fear, of criticism and judgement. And the belief that there is no better way for me.

I have been reading a lot about this topic lately, and while I don't have any magic solutions yet, and haven't woken up raring to go, I read something that seemed to calm me down a lot. A lot of the fear of writing comes from feeling that I need to control the reaction to my paper, or the effects from my writing. My paper must get me an A+, or get published in a narrow list of journals, or prove to my boss that I should be promoted overnight. No wonder, under the burden of such strong expectations, my writing clams up. The advice I read was to decide to control only what was in my power, and let go of the rest.

I interpreted this in the context of my writing to mean the following:
-To commit to writing what I know, what I have researched, and not to worry about what I don't know
- To commit to make that writing as polished as I possibly can
- To ensure that I proofread and edit the writing that I have done, so it reads smoothly
- To ensure that all the references are correct, in the correct style
- To put in effort on the presentation, so that my work comes across as professional.
- To let go expectations of what happens to the work after I have done my best

I know these sound obvious, but in the past I am ashamed to admit that I have procrastinated so close to the deadline, that I barely have enough time to put it all together, and have not put in enough time on the references, presentation, etc. Usually this is because by this time I am sick of the negative feelings engendered by my fears on the project, and I just want to be rid of it. I am hoping that with the letting go approach, I can calmly work on all that is in my control, probably even raising the quality of my work while reducing the anxiety that usually goes with it.

Do you have any strategies for combating procrastination?
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