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Disarming Procrastination

Procrastination is a common problem for many graduate students. Dr. Joe Talley, psychologist and assistant director at Duke’s Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS) offers tips on managing this “thief of time.”

Divide your work and non-work settings. If you have access to two computers, have one that you do your work on exclusively, and use the other for all internet browsing, internet surfing, non-work-related investigating and emails, etc. Identify places where you will work and places where you commit to only using for resting, relaxing, or socializing.

Affirm that what you are doing is a choice you have made for you. You have chosen the program and course you are in and you always have the choice to lay it down or walk away from it. You even have the choice of accepting a lesser grade in the course by not doing this work. Choice is always at hand and must be affirmed in order to access motivation. In order to truly feel that you are free enough to choose to do something, you must also affirm and realize that you are free enough to lay it down or walk away from it.

Acknowledge that there can be a self-esteem payoff in procrastination. It allows one to always say, “I could have done better if I had only put in more time.” In order to overcome procrastination and to fully invest yourself in an effort, you must be willing to risk your self-esteem by putting it on the line with your best effort. To do this, you probably need to believe that your entire sense of self-worth is never on the line in any one action or in any one event and thus you can “take the hit” in any one event if something doesn’t work out as you wish it to after you have tried your best.

Procrastination is often connected to perfectionism, especially in writing. This occurs when a critical editor in the mind interrupts the creative generating thinker. To begin writing, your mind needs to be in a more freewheeling mode to simply sketch out the outline and then fill in some details in an uninhibited fashion. Procrastination often results when you worry about the final outcome, and the “editor” enters too soon. Once you get started in creative mode, you put the content in for each section of your outline, along with new creative ideas that emerge in the process. The editor can come into play anytime later, after you have a good start. (Remember, most of the time, procrastinating relies on having that blank page.) Experts in the creative process realized long ago that the critical or evaluative voice must be kept outside the room until the generating of possible ideas is done. This can apply to writing as well as thinking.

Avoid merely appearing to be productive. For example, be mindful of sitting with a book open in front of you when you are actually not reading it. This may be a way to “feel” as if you are working and appease part of the mind when in fact you are actually not doing so.

Do a time and task analysis of your workload. Breaking down your workload to a daily or every other day dosage of numbers of pages to write, numbers of pages to read, and numbers of problems to solve in order to complete all assignments by the end of the semester will be useful in keeping the overall workload manageable. Then, the actual estimates of the time it will take to do this can be made based on continuous revision estimated by actual past performance. In other words, if you can only read ten pages of a given book per hour and that’s what you have been doing then you must estimate that this will be your likely pace in the future for that book. With your time and task analysis in hand, you can view your days and notice possible times when you can do this work while retaining some element of choice in which slots you wish to do it in.

Examine how you spend your day. Notice how many hours a day you need to spend analyzing the work you must do: the thinking part, the actual working part, eating, playing, being in transit, eating, maintaining where you live, sleeping, etc. Then, schedule your days, in blocks of hours according to what you know is needed for each of these. This will not only increase your work productivity, but often scheduling or planning allows the true involvement in play time when actually doing that because it’s understood that the work has been planned out and can all be done. So, then you needn’t feel distracted or preoccupied with work while playing, and likewise you needn’t be wishing to play when you are attempting to work.

Use your imagination to enhance focusing. For some, certain images or scenes that serve as a metaphor for the work you must do can increase motivation by creating dramatic urgency that can help you maintain images and focus. Images that some like include:
—“I have just been helicoptered to the top of Everest and I must climb my way down as there is no other way out or off.”
—“A saber-toothed tiger is approaching me, and I have a sword. I must concentrate my energies on the best way to slay it.”
—“I have just been conscripted to serve in the army of some foreign country and dropped in the midst of a battlefield where my option is to shoot my way out or get shot.”

Dr. Talley’s special interests include the use of imagery, hypnosis, Jungian Psychology, technique in brief and very brief psychotherapy, and the interface of spirituality and psychology.