The Truth About Grad School, Part 5: Procrastination

First, I start this post with the recognition that the best, most useful thing about procrastination has already been written.

When I was an undergraduate, I dabbled in the procrastination arts, like most of us do. The thing about procrastination when you are in college, especially if you are living in a dorm or with other college students is that, at some point, you kind of have to stop procrastinating. There are only so many ways to rearrange dorm room furniture and when it comes to crunch time like finals week, you eventually lose your procrastination buddies as the quiet simmering panic of deadlines overtakes everyone at the same time.

As a grad student though, especially once you are out of coursework, you don’t really have deadlines, other than the impossibly far seeming seven years before your coursework expires. You may be in a cohort through your classes but then you are released into the wild of research and writing and everyone scatters. There are some people who will plug steadily away and be defending a tidy six months after they get approval to start their dissertation. There are others who will find themselves six months out from coursework without having made an inch of progress.

This is the scary thing to me about being on the cusp of the dissertation: it is SO easy to not make progress. I have a job and kids and a sweet husband and a stack of books that are not about qualitative research that I would love to read. I know that I could very well not write a word for six months and nothing bad would happen to me. At least not in terms of school or my status as a graduate student.

But I also know that it is easy for six months to slide into a year and a year to slide into two and that road leads to a place (ABD land) that I do not want to go.

So, I’m trying to think critically about the why and when and how of how I procrastinate. For me, I procrastinate when I don’t feel like I know how to get started. I am a terribly linear writer. I do not write the third chapter first or start in the middle and then write the second paragraph. I start, always, with my introduction and write straight through. I also procrastinate when I feel like I am not organically comfortable with a task, like formatting. Every time I write, I have to double check my APA style guide and re-learn how to do my running header. I will zone out on the internet (my preferred procrastination activity these days) for hours when it is time to do formatting or work on my works cited list.

I’ve found, so far, a few things that seem to help me get moving when either panic has set in or my Twitter induced self-disgust has finally kicked in:

1. Eat the frog: I don’t know where the expression comes from, but idea goes that if you knew you had to eat a live frog tomorrow, would you wait all day, thinking of the disgusting crunching of frog bones awaiting your mouth? Or would you, instead, eat it first thing in the morning and get it over with? Eating my frog means doing all my formatting first. Before I have a single word on my rough draft, I have a title page, a table of contents, a running header, all of it, done. After that, writing feels easy.

2. Long hand it: Tonight I was working on my dissertation proposal and was also watching Beyonce videos on YouTube and obsessively checking my email to see if I got a reply about a Thing that I really want a reply about. After about 15 minutes and barely three sentences written, I finally got smart and went to another room with a legal pad and a pen and wrote out three pages. Writing by hand almost always gets me unstuck and moving.

3. Embrace the Shitty First Draft: Anne Lamott talks a lot about the importance of the shitty first draft and it is an ongoing struggle for me to not try to self-edit as I type but I fight on, sometimes literally repeating (out loud if I have to) “editing is the easy part, editing is the easy part”. And it is true. It is far easier to get to 50 good pages from 60 pages of crap than it is to get to 50 good pages one perfect paragraph at a time.

4. Create a deadline: This past summer, I got accepted to present at a national conference, as one of the highlighted sessions, about a topic related to research I hadn’t quite done yet. Next month I present a dissertation proposal that I’m not quite finished with yet. It may be a cheap trick, but it works for me: schedule deadlines (that involve other people) before the work is done to make sure the work gets done.

I’m about three weeks out from finding out if my tricks are going to work for me this time around. Wish me fast typing fingers and a really crappy first draft!

Next time: Having it all in grad school: myth or damn, dirty lie?

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