On the verge of procrastination

Procrastination is… jumping from an idea to another.
Johnny Kelly

I’m currently procrastinating. And it hurts, much more than it should.

This post is the result of my shallow research on the topic of procrastination mixed with the desire to avoid doing something else (like writing my dissertation).

Counterproductive, needless and delaying tasks

This triad of adjectives is the constant companion of college students. You try to focus, but an invincible foe keeps pushing you against a wall. Nothing works. You realize you should’ve studied more for that test, and to all the other ones you had since your freshman year.

Inside this whirlpool, you begin to wonder why you were allowed to continue. And then you get anxious because the job market is fucked up and no one is there to help you besides yourself. Competition against your peers. Mostly unfinished tasks multiply. And you miss your first deadline, then you have to talk to a bad mooded professor without a drop of consideration.

Finally, you begin to do something entirely different. Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr — those islands of pure ego — or anything else, really, in order to avoid what you ought to do. At this stage you’re writing lists, large lists, gigantic lists, and then you realize none of them is going to get completed. Ever. And panic strikes.

You feel weak. Now you’ve graduated, and no better situation awaits. Your naïve notion of perfectionism attained nothing but frustration and sleepless nights.

What should you do?

Some researchers1 suggest that counterproductive, needless and delaying tasks are the necessary and sufficient conditions to categorize some comportament as procrastination. I disagree. Sometimes, it’s necessary to “procrastinate” (by doing these tasks) in order to create interesting things. So, when is it bad?

Misery

A common attribute among procrastinators is perfectionism.

Generally, one is taken as a perfectionist if s/he “tries to do everything right”. A more descriptive set of variables3 include: high standards, orderliness and discrepancy between her/his achievements and standards. The last item is mostly responsible for the problems attributed to perfectionism.

In fact, people who rate high on our discrepancy scale also rate high on scales measuring depression, shame, anxiety, and other negative psychological states.

Robert B. Slaney3

So the troubling situation is if you want to achieve more but can’t actually do it. Then you begin to realize that if you do nothing until the last minute, you won’t be blamed for not having skills, but for being lazy. And you begin thinking this is alright. “I feel more productive doing it the night before, overloaded with coffee”. As far as coping mechanisms goes, this is bullshit.

Can someone escape from this spiral after entering it? Or s/he is condemned to a life of self-hatred, unsatisfied in every waking hour? That’s… a good question. The answer might be in identifying what kind of “mindset” typically generates procrastination.

Losing yourself in doubts

With important and potentially negative outcomes linked to procrastination, why would a student choose to procrastinate?

Jeannetta G. Williams et al2

I and most of the procrastinators I know of are students, so restricting this discussion to this group isn’t so bad an assumption. (as a matter of fact, we’re pretty good at it).

There are two opposite mindsets2, each very (negative or positively) correlated with procrastination tendency. The first, called mastery-oriented, is defined by a strong desire of learning for its own sake, unconcerned with grades. The second, performance-oriented, is marked by studying to “win”, as the name implies. The latter is obviously much more afraid of failing than the former.

This situation is unsustainable. Getting anxious over the fact — an immutable one, considering a student — that you won’t understand or be good at something is painful.

Another problematic factor is the “big push effect” before a deadline: if you have a semester to do it, why the heck did you wait until the last week?! Coffee, awful nights and a constant fear of not being able to finish, all this due to some afternoons and nights on the Internet, doing nothing.

On the other hand, doing things for their intrinsic value is so much better that there’s a whole area of research devoted to it — the so-called [Optimal Experience or simply Flow](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flow_(psychology).

Conclusion

My first impulse to write this article appeared right after I finished “What are BLAS and LAPACK“. Considering that I still have to write lots of things for my senior dissertation, I was procrastinating by writing about procrastination. Wonderful.

I don’t have much to say before turning this into an autobiographic “I was a much worse procrastinator, now I’m just an average one!” or a self-help post. However, I’ve learned a good deal about the subject and it might be useful in some parts of my work. I hope you learned something as well.

During my research, one of the best resources I found was the video below. While not scientific, its rhythm, images and words are stunning.

Procrastination from Johnny Kelly on Vimeo.

It’s unsettlingly precise.

References

  1. Schraw, Gregory; Wadkins, Theresa; Olafson, Lori. Doing the things we do: A grounded theory of academic procrastination. Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 99(1). link.
  2. Jeannetta G. Williams et al. Start Today or the Very Last Day? The Relationships Among Self-Compassion, Motivation, and Procrastination. American Journal of Psychological Research, Volume 4, Number 1. October 20, 2008. link
  3. McGarvey, Jason. The Almost Perfect Definition. Seen on 08/24/2013. link.

: http://vimeo.com/9553205

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