Sometimes forms of procrastination are so varied that I’m tempted to think of procrastinators (myself included) through a revised version of Tolstoy’s famous line: “each procrastinator is a procrastinator in her own way.”
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
Two things that are true:
1. I like lists and planning
2. I hate budgeting and am bad with money
In my marriage, I am a spendthrift and my husband is what I will charitably call, “frugal.” As the years have passed, it’s become important to me to change my ways, both for marital harmony and because I’ve come to realize that I am still paying for fancy jeans I bought in 2003 even though the pants are long gone.
As a part of coming in to grown-up financial responsibility, I have a new, recurring task that I try to complete each week: “read something about money.” I’m now reading the personal finance classics, listening to a podcast about money, etc.
Last week, I had my annual meeting with the wonderful TIAA-Cref representative for my campus. We talked retirements, Roths, college savings for my daughter—real-deal grown-up financial stuff. I took notes, we made plans, I came home with goals and a new commitment to work through the budget.
But this meeting wasn’t a book or article, and, like some weird to-do list originalist, I kept my “read something about money” on the calendar.
By the end of the week, I had not successfully completed this task as literally described by my plan for the week. As a result, the predictable bad feelings.
But while I hadn’t met the “letter” of the law, I had far exceeded the spirit of the thing, doing a lot more for my family’s finances than a reading of Rich Dad, Poor Dad would have gotten me.
Upon reflection, I think it’s worthwhile to not be too much of originalist (whether that comes to the to-do list or other matters….though that’s a topic for another day). The founding author of the document (the me of a week ago), couldn’t foresee all that would happen across the course of the days as they unfolded.
Too much rigidity can be its own form of both procrastination and workaholism, a way of filling one’s schedule with tasks present for their own sake rather than their real importance. Better, at least in the case of the to-do list, to be a bit more open to interpretation, treating it as a living document that should reflect the needs of the person it serves.
Get a Life, PhD
The Professor is In
The Thesis Whisperer
Tenure, She Wrote