Putting Procrastination to Work
Instead of fighting your natural creative process, use these tricks to harness your bouts of midnight inspiration.
By Tim Philbin, College of the Holy Cross
College students face deadlines all the time.
There’s always papers to hand in, tests to study for and majors to declare, and if you’re at all like me, your timeline for approaching deadlines goes something like this:
First, you form a plan of attack. After the deadline is announced, you make a systematic, logical timeline of what things to accomplish on what days. Your plan is foolproof. It cannot possibly go wrong (or so you think).
But, the deadline is still far away, so maybe you don’t have to get started right this minute.
Day one of your beautiful plan is spent on YouTube watching compilation videos of people falling off boats.
The next time you decide that you should work on your paper, the sudden realization strikes that you are remarkably ignorant about the results of the 2014 Winter Olympics. You decide that this must take precedence over your paper, and so you read the entire Wikipedia article on the Sochi Olympics, in addition to the articles on the bid process, the Olympic games in general and downhill skier Lindsey Vonn. You finish this important research feeling edified, but far too tired to consider working on your paper.
The due date is fast approaching, but you haven’t yet put pen to page. Anxiety begins to well up in your chest, and so to quell it you do what any professional therapist would recommend: You shut yourself in your dorm for a day and binge on Netflix. Episode after episode flickers by on your computer screen. Though you are now up to date on the various escapades of Walter White, your paper remains pitifully unstarted.
It’s now the night before the deadline. Panic sets in. With no more time to waste, you guzzle down a cup of coffee and get to work. You frantically crank out page after page, each one sloppier than the last. Finally, sometime in the wee hours of the morning, you finish your paper and go to bed, too exhausted to even see straight.
In case you haven’t already figured it out by now, I am a serial procrastinator. Despite my best efforts to avoid it, I always seem to put off to tomorrow what I should be doing today.
Until fairly recently, I always thought of my procrastination habit as a character flaw, something I should try to counteract. I tried to impose rigid discipline on myself; I figured that if I made a highly detailed and logical plan, I could prevent myself from procrastinating. I soon discovered, however, that I was very wrong. In fact, the more detailed my plan, the more extreme my procrastination became.
It became abundantly clear to me that my procrastination is not something that I can “fix.” It is a part of who I am and how I think: water is wet, the Pope is Catholic and I procrastinate. Given this fundamental reality, the challenge before me changed. Instead of trying to figure out how to stop procrastinating, I had to figure out how to live with my procrastination, or even use it to my advantage.
So, without further ado, here are a few concrete suggestions for all you procrastinators out there for living with your procrastination:
1. Don’t beat yourself up.
Let me be clear: I am all for introspection.
As humans, we all have the responsibility to recognize and overcome our demons. The problems come, however, when you beat yourself up over something you can’t control.
Procrastinators are often seen as lazy, but this simply isn’t the case. They just work differently. It is nothing to be ashamed of. So remember, you’re not lazy, you’re just predisposed to a different style of productivity.
2. Embrace spontaneity.
Learn to think of that final burst of work right up against a deadline not as a frantic, panicky word vomit, but rather as an explosion of creative insight.
The truth is that all those hours you spend berating yourself for avoiding your paper is actually time spent working on your paper.
Your mind is quietly simmering below the surface, dissecting the topic you’re going to write on.
Even though you only put words on the page at the last minute, you’ve really been writing the whole time, you just didn’t know it. Because of the temperament I happen to have been born with, my paper comes out stilted and awkward if I plan things out too much. Undue preparation forces me to decide which ideas are good and which are bad on the page rather than in my head, whereas when I procrastinate, most of the thinking has already occurred beforehand, which makes my writing more insightful.
3. Set your own pre-deadlines ahead of the actual deadline.
In order to allow time for the revision process, set a deadline for yourself in advance of the one set by your professor. This way, the procrastination timeline is pushed back by at least a few days, allowing you some time to fix any errors you made in the first draft.
4. Make yourself accountable to someone else.
This one goes hand in hand with my pre-deadline suggestion. Tell a friend, parent, professor, etc. that you’re going to give them a draft to read at a specific date.
This way, you can’t procrastinate right up until the night before the due date for fear of inconveniencing your reader. It’s also always a good idea to get another set of eyes on your writing.
5. Make it interesting.
No matter what you’re writing about, find a way to make it interesting for yourself. You could connect it to something you already like, go to your professor’s office hours—whatever works for you.
If you’re interested in what you’re writing about, the creative outburst yielded by procrastination will come more naturally and be more enjoyable to read.
I wrote this article specifically for procrastinators because I am one, but hopefully its lessons are not just limited to them. No matter what your temperament or preferred working style is, don’t fight it. That can only end in pointless self-denial. Rather, embrace it. Figure out how to make it work for you. I promise, you’ll be pleased with the results.