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VI. Overcoming Procrastination

Oct 07, 2014 by Amy Benson Brown

Procrastination—delaying or avoiding doing something that you need to do—is so common that it seems part of human nature. Academics, of course, are no exception. And, too often, the work of developing research into publications is what gets put off for another week, another semester, another year.

In his seminal study on the writing habits of faculty members, psychologist, Robert Boice, found that only 10 percent of the new faculty he studied tackled their writing projects in direct, steady, and effective ways (Procrastination and Blocking: A Novel Approach, 1996). The other 90 percent needed to publish just as much as their colleagues. They all faced the same requirement to publish to retain jobs and secure promotions. But procrastination about writing prevailed, Boice found, because faculty members lacked a habit of daily work sessions devoted to their research projects. The fears and anxieties that, as you learned in the last blog in this series, often accompany writing for publication further fuel procrastination. In the two decades since Boice’s study, the temptation to prioritize the many other tasks required of faculty over writing probably has only increased as, ironically, has the pressure “to publish or perish.” 

Much has been written about how to avoid procrastinating about writing by making changes in behavior and attitude. It’s critical, for instance, to make work on your research project a priority in your weekly schedule. Faculty members produce more publications with less struggle and turmoil when they have a daily habit of writing and a social network that keeps them accountable for sticking to this commitment. For excellent advice on how to establish those habits, check out Sally Jensen’s ACW blog series, Nine Steps to Becoming a Highly Productive Writer.

Knowing the practical steps that lead to successful production of manuscripts is not always enough, though, to keep procrastination at bay. In my work with a wide range of authors, I’ve noticed how a nagging doubt can drag even brilliant scholars into the swamp of self-reproach, resentment, and regret that comes from procrastinating.

Who Am I to Do This?

You might reasonably assume that writers’ doubts about their own qualifications and ability to accomplish a project would surface at the beginning of the project and lead to procrastination about starting. Though that indeed may occur, I often hear these doubts from writers very close to completing their research.

After years of diligent work on a project they’ve been excited about, just as they approach finishing that dissertation or book, they are seized with angst. Does the argument really hold water? Some even confess they no longer are sure, at all, that their project has any real value. Thus, they put off finishing writing to reconsider the foundations of their work, a process that tends to lead to circular thinking and an increased sense of feeling “stuck.” Though these concerns ostensibly are about the project’s merits, they often have deep roots in the author’s doubts about the very thing that makes their work unique and valuable: their own distinctive perspective on their topic.

If you’ve hit this wall in your own writing process, you may be, deep inside, wondering: Who am I to do this?  Is it possible the ideas that have won praise from advisors and sparked interest from peers are mere smoke and mirrors? Have I somehow fooled my colleagues and myself into believing I have something unique to add to the scholarly conversation?

This kind of gut-twisting self-doubt is so common that it has a name: the Imposter Syndrome. Many academics, at some point in their careers, worry that that on some level they are frauds—that they haven’t truly earned their place at the table of experts. To learn more about why these feelings arise and how to overcome them, check out the webinar, Managing the Imposter Syndrome in Academia by ACW Director of Coaching Moira Killoran.

What’s fascinating to me in my work with writers is that I see this crippling self-doubt often arise, ironically, when the project is close to being done. The timing, I think, is no accident. It suggests that something more than personal insecurity may contribute to these feelings. I suspect this self-doubt is sometimes triggered by the very nature of the process of finishing the writing of a substantial manuscript.

Moving from Magnifying Glass to Telescope

As you enter the last months of writing a long work, you are at the apex of your awareness of every aspect of the complexity of your argument. At the same time, you must try to articulate the big picture in introductions, abstracts, or book proposals. At this stage of the writing process, it is as if you are moving back and forth in looking at an object through two lenses: you may peer first through a magnifying glass and then through a telescope. This flip-flopping of perspective can be very disorienting. Under the magnifying glass, every small crack or possible vulnerability appears as though it may be substantial enough to skew the whole structure, to destabilize the larger argument. So, when you look through the telescope to see the project as a whole, you well may wonder if its appearance of coherence is as solid as it seems.

Realizing that this doubt can stem more from the kind of tasks you must do to finish a project (rather than from an inherent, fatal flaw in your ideas or training) can relieve much of the pressure that leads to procrastination. In other words, you can breathe easy, feeling reassured that you are not actually an imposter.

But even if you indeed spot gaps or weaknesses in your argument, that awareness need not stop you from writing. I often encourage writers to turn the flaws they notice at this time into additional material to write about. You can enhance your credibility by putting potential problems with your argument on the table for analysis. In journal articles, the section devoted to discussion of limitations of the research offers a perfect niche for this discussion. In books, concluding chapters offer a wonderful space for discussing how limitations inherent in your argument point to directions for future research.

This being said, procrastination remains a slippery and many-sided problem. The next blog in this series relies on some new research on how people approach work towards a big goal to examine a phenomenon that may well be related to procrastination—precrastination.

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