Supposedly at least 95% of people procrastinate at least occasionally. Given it’s popularity what better topic to choose for my very first blog post!
Procrastination - We've all been there [Illustration by FrenkieArt]
Procrastination is defined as the habit of “putting off or delaying, especially something requiring immediate attention” (dictionary.com – Yes I reference everything, but then I am a PhD student). This definition, and most of the discourse surrounding procrastination, frames it as a bad thing. You have a task you should be doing, but you’re not.
But what if procrastination could be a good thing?
Just like bacteria, moral philosophy, or eggs it seems plausible to at least consider that there might be good and bad forms of procrastination – if not many forms of somewhere-in-the-middle procrastination. Bad forms are obvious. These are situations where not doing the thing you should be doing has serious negative impacts – i.e. death, destruction, loss of a job, etc. It thus follows that there must be times where not doing the thing you should be doing has positive impacts.
As PhD students the thing we “should” be doing is our PhD. For me the PhD involves reading, writing, talking, thinking, and fieldwork. This isn’t an exhaustive list but it’s enough to illustrate my point.
So how can we make sure that our procrastination positively contributes to the “doing” of our PhD? i.e. achieving those tasks. Here are my suggestions for promoting positive procrastination:
1. Stop beating yourself up about procrastinating.
We all do it, feeling guilty about it is only going to make you procrastinate more or demotivate yourself from doing the task you should be doing. Give yourself a break, at the minimum a PhD is three years, you can have five minutes off. Honestly, I promise.
2. Embrace procrastination!
As soon as you accept procrastination is just another activity you do you can start to control it. You can schedule it into your day and use it as motivation. For example, you could write down what you want to be doing, i.e. reading a news article, and agree with yourself that after you’ve done 10 minutes of the task you should be doing you can go back and read that article. Chances are after ten minutes you may have forgotten about the news article, if not, that’s OK (see point 1). Setting a time limit is important, you want to build it in but not let it take over. Egg timers may help here.
3. Sneak useful outcomes into your pre-existing procrastination habits.
We all have things we often do to procrastinate. If you don’t know your common habits then keep a procrastination diary for a day or a week and you’ll soon find them. However some of those tasks you can sneak productive outcomes into.
For example Facebook/The Coffee Break. You’re in the middle of a task but your attention is drifting, you can smell the coffee/see the facebook notifications. What do you do?
You take that break to reflect on what you’ve just been doing. Facebook is my favourite way to reflect on reading. It’s a great way to summarise all the information you’ve just taken in. You don’t have to write a post on Facebook, you could just think while drinking your coffee. The point still stands. You’re not doing the task you should be doing but it’s having a positive impact.
I’m going to share a secret with you. For me setting up this blog was a procrastination project. I’ve worked on it, or thought about it, when I should be doing other things towards my PhD. But really I’ve tricked myself. Why? Because writing in blogs is a great way to improve your writing! So while I’m wasting time on this I’m actually gaining positive outcomes towards the larger goal, i.e. in the long run I’ll be a better writer. And as we all know as PhD students we’ve got to be good writers.
These points aren’t ground breaking revelations, but to me they do suggest the possibility of positive procrastinating. Without wandering thoughts we wouldn’t have any creative insight. Was Newton in the lab furiously working away? No he was sitting outside when the apple fell. [Note: he wasn’t outside all the time, but that spark came while he was in essence procrastinating.]
After all as J.R.R. Tolkien pointed out “not all those who wander are lost”. So I invite you to wander, and to embrace positive procrastination!
How do you feel about procrastination? Have I convinced you? Either way leave me a comment as I’d love to hear about your dealings with procrastination.
P.S. If you do want to “beat” bad procrastination do this survey and read their tips.