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May 05, 2011

Procrastination: On Writing Tomorrow What You Should Have Written Last Year

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by Paul J. Silvia

Paul J. Silvia is an associate professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and the author of How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing, available in paperback and on Kindle.


Knowledge never sleeps, but it has been known to waste a lot of time on the Internet. The process of sharing knowledge via the written word ought to be easier than it is for the overeducated scientists, scholars, and practitioners who create psychology’s body of knowledge. But procrastination is deeply rooted in human nature—alongside the capacity for reflective thought, the ability to acquire language, and the love of deep-fried desserts—so it’s a vexing problem for academic writers.

It’s easy for psychologists to understand procrastination, particularly because searching PsycINFO for research on procrastination lets them avoid the many manuscripts hanging over their heads. Based on my own deep experience with procrastination, the following are the main reasons for putting off writing.

1. Writing is unpleasant.

2. When the paper is done, you’ll probably feel discouraged relief (“Finally, the wretched thing is finished”), not elation.

3. Your paper isn’t really done—you’ll need to revise it after the reviewers thrash it.

4. If you have a backlog of writing, finishing one paper means that you must start on one that has been put off for even longer.

5. When you send your paper to a journal, some of the reviewers will dislike it, and a few of them, I have found, will toss it into a deep fryer.

Procrastination is a creative force in its own right, and it can be sublime to observe. Professors rarely say “I’m not working on that paper because I feel discouraged” or “I’m checking my Facebook because opening Microsoft Word makes a small part of me wither and die.” Instead, we see “I’m reviewing the recent literature—there’s a lot of new work coming out in Australasian Journal of Computational Animal Husbandry these days that I’d like to work into the Intro,” or “The ANOVA I ran was okay, but I want to dig into Bayesian Marcov Chain Monte Carlo simulation methods before I write that up.” Normal people procrastinate with TV; only professors procrastinate by reading articles and running analyses.

So how can procrastination be vanquished? It probably can’t. Unless you have the determination of a ragtag band of youngsters determined to save their summer camp, it’s probably better to shake hands with procrastination. A lot of things in life and in work get put off until the last minute, and that’s often the best time to do trivial tasks. But the big stuff—our articles, books, and grant proposals—shouldn’t get put off, so here are a few practical ways to prod yourself.

1. Shame goes where willpower fears to tread. People do weird things to avoid looking bad in front of their peers. This is why weekly writing groups work. In How to Write a Lot, I described agraphia groups, a structured writing group focused on concrete writing goals. In a typical agraphia group, the members meet and set specific goals for what they’ll write before the next meeting. The group’s record-keeper writes the goals down for posterity, and the next week’s meeting starts with checking off which goals were met and unmet. You might get good feedback about your writing from your agraphia group, but the best thing you’ll get is anxiety about being the only one who didn’t meet his or her writing goal.

2. If you are beyond shame, contingency management goes where lab rats fear to tread, that is, the electrified side of the shuttle box. You can turn your office into your own private shuttle box—it might be about that size anyhow—by establishing rewards for your writing goals. Psychologists know how to pull this off: identify a behavior (writing a certain number of words or finishing a section of manuscript), identify a reward (listening to NPR, eating deep-fried ice cream), and then reward yourself if you behaved well.

3. If you lack the willpower needed to withhold rewards from yourself, the best method is habit. Habits automate behaviors so that we can do them mindlessly without spending time and thought deciding how, when, and why to do them. To make writing a habit, you need to do the unthinkable: plan time for writing—4 to 6 hours a week works well for most people—and then sit down and write during those times. To people who write in binges born of deadlines and desperation, the notion of scheduling writing sounds too obvious to work. But productive writers usually write during scheduled times. A schedule isn’t easy to get started—it might entail a few weeks of clenched teeth and shackled ankles—but it will make writing habitual, mundane, and ordinary. Writing will still be painful, but it will be merely one of the many tedious things you habitually do during your day. And your body of work will slowly grow, fueled by shame and habit and deep-fried twinkies.



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