Just when you’ve figured out a way around one time waster, up pops a new one – it’s like the world’s worst game of whack-a-mole.
At present, I’m struggling with what I’m dubbing “anxiety-tasking,” a special form of procrastination that pops up when I’m working on writing that’s particularly new and scary. By new, I don’t just mean a new essay or article, but a foray into a new genre or field of study, a place where I feel not at home and newly uncertain of my abilities.
In my case, I’m starting work on my next academic book, which will include chapters on new research areas. This is exciting, but in a way that shades into panic inducing every now and again. At the end of the summer I’ll present a very small, initial paper at a conference. The paper will be short, not more than 5 pages or so, and at conferences in my field, it is not uncommon for people to write things days before presenting and to seek feedback on relatively raw new work.
Thus far, I have produced something like 20 pages of notes, none of which are in the shape of the conference paper, and I keep adding films and books that are adjacent to my topic to my reading and viewing lists. “If I’m talking about X, it would be fair for someone to ask me about Y,” “If I’m presenting on Z, I should double-check to make sure no one’s already written on Q.”
Some of this is good scholarship, due diligence. But some of this is “anxiety-tasking,” an avoidance of the main task by way of what Eric Hayot calls “virtuous procrastination.” It’s a kind of charm or hex against future pain, one I see frequently in more novice writers (“once I’ve read everything, then I can finally start drafting my dissertation”) and the more experienced.
Anxiety-tasking is sneaky because it feels like doing the task at hand, but it’s really just another clever subterfuge for avoiding scary new work.
One way to overcome this anxiety-tasking may be to promise your scared self that you’ll indulge in this behavior later on. When sitting down to write, allow yourself to write sentences like “insert qualifying language here,” or “add defensive research here,” or, to sound less freaked-out to your future reading self, instruct yourself to show the tip of what Hayot calls the research “iceberg.” By placing these spaces for anxiety-tasking within your writing, you may be able to reassure the scared, procrastinating self enough to be able to move on for the time being and say what you need to say. Then, later, your calmer revising self can come in and add what truly needs to be added (hint: it’s probably not everything that’s ever been written on the topic).
For the curious, here’s a link to Eric Hayot’s excellent book: https://cup.columbia.edu/book/the-elements-of-academic-style/9780231168014