The Lure of Procrastination

Why do you procrastinate? Since most people are guilty of this failing at least some of the time, few readers are likely to say ‘what me, I never do!’ I believe the reasons are many and various but I must admit I hadn’t thought the remedy lay in taking on a mentoring role. But apparently there is some evidence to suggest that, by mentoring someone more junior, it is possible to rebuild confidence and the author of that article believes it is a lack of confidence that often provokes the procrastination itself. That makes sense.

But it isn’t just a lack of confidence that means getting started on a job can seem so hard. One may have confidence that the job can be done and yet still not know quite where to start. If I were asked to identify what the underlying causes of my own procrastination are this would be near the top of my list (along with sheer boredom regarding the task in hand, which happens only too often too). You know that feeling when six months ago you were asked to come up with some enticing title for a seminar or talk but when you sit down actually to write the thing a few days before you have to deliver it you have no idea what you had in mind? Why did you call it something as interesting as ‘The amoeba in me’ or ‘The joys of the REF’? (These are for illustrative purposes only; I have not used these titles myself but you get my point).

That is the sort of task I find it only too easy to put off. I can try to fool myself by saying that I’m ‘mulling’, that I’m trying to work out all the key points I want to cover under that mysterious title, but the reality is almost certainly that I have no idea how to get going and it is only when time pressures really mount that some sort of creative juice kicks in. Of course many a seminar turns out not to live up to its title, so if push comes to shove as the date gets ever closer and I’m down to the last 48 hours to produce something, it is sometimes possible to divert from the stated title after a few slides and morph into something that feels closer to home and therefore safer (or indeed, to mix and match from previous talks. I try never to give identically the same one in more than one venue.) I have never yet failed to produce a talk to give, although I did once write a talk and fail to deliver it. High winds brought the cables down so that the trains were massively disrupted and I only turned up for the rather nice dinner afterwards: very frustrating having, on that occasion, managed to write a totally new talk I have never yet had occasion to give – or reuse.

The other reason at the top of my own list of procrastination drivers is one I remember well from student days when faced with revision. As so many of us do, I would set myself targets in advance: 4 hours on topic A in the morning, a break for lunch and then 3 hours later in the day on topic B. However, if I failed to get started promptly – some much appreciated distraction such as a friend dropping by or the siren call of a further cup of coffee – then it felt as if I couldn’t start at all, that I hadn’t left myself enough time to do what I’d set out to do so I wouldn’t even begin. Is that a feeling others recognize?

That distraction tactic of making a cup of tea/coffee/ toast/ urgently going in search of a bar of chocolate (whatever your pet vice may be) is one that works wonderfully well as a procrastination tactic. Sitting down at the computer thinking about that tricky email or start to a section of thesis or paper, a blank page can be enough to drive one away to the kitchen. It doesn’t help, of course, that blank page still stares resolutely back at you when you return whatever length of time you’ve managed to waste. But time and time again I find it is possible to go off to seek that inspiration in the kitchen only to find it doesn’t arrive and the challenge of whatever composition you’re trying to do still confronts you upon return.

It would be a mistake to omit one of everyone’s ‘favourite’ procrastination tactics, the sink of time that is the internet and twitter. Be it following the horror of US politics (or indeed some of our very own politicians’ actions) or merely watching the recent infamous video of the bear cub trying to get up the snow-covered rocks to its mother, there is always a ready-made way of wasting time that my student days way back when was not hampered by. Sitting at a computer attached to wifi the temptation to peep at a favourite news-site, blog or social media platform can be very strong. That way hours can be dissipated with nothing to show for it. The wise, no doubt, turn off their wifi connection.

This post was inspired by the idea that lack of confidence can sit at the heart of procrastination. Perhaps that really is equivalent to my saying not knowing where to begin is one of my own drivers for putting things off and off, although the emphasis is placed a bit differently. And confidence – or lack thereof– is undoubtedly also going to underpin a reluctance to commit thoughts to paper (as in my own third reason) although I’m not sure confidence issues entirely feed into letting the internet devour one’s time. That, I suspect, is more a case of succumbing to easy temptation.  We all have our own bad habits that stop us being endlessly productive. Perhaps sometime it is helpful to pull them out of the dark and dissect them to see them for what they are – and then to stuff them back again and head off to make a cup of coffee.



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