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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

On Procrastination: The Evil One

It'll come as no surprise to anyone that I have a procrastination problem.  As you may well know, I'm working on my PhD in English, which requires me to write a 200-250 page dissertation.  My dissertation is mostly pretty awesome:  my first few chapters explore the work of Tobias Buckell, Nalo Hopkinson, and Karen Lord; the last few chapters explore early Caribbean writings in dialogue with contemporary Caribbean science fiction (particularly Michel Maxwell Philip's Emmanuel Appadocca and Mary Seacole's Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands).  Needless to say, I'm actually stoked about the project as a whole, even if I'm having the hardest time actually writing the bloody thing.

Part of the reason for procrastinating stems from the difficulty I have with getting started.  I'm currently working on the second chapter of my dissertation (the Hopkinson/Lord chapter, it turns out), but this comes after years of trying to get to the writing phase and many months of trying to actually think about how to write any element of the dissertation.  I'm sort of in the "I hate this dissertation with a passion" phase, which makes sitting down to actually write anything extremely difficult.  Some days, I sit for hours watching YouTube videos instead of doing much of anything, which makes the mountain of work I have to do even greater.  As stupid as it sounds, I feel so guilty when I don't want to write my dissertation, that I sometimes put off all the other things I'd rather be doing anyway because I don't feel I have a right to be doing them.  If I can't do my dissertation, I can't do any of that stuff.

That's the case with last night's desperate attempt to do dissertation work.  Instead of dissertating, I watched hours of YouTube videos or ate dinner (well, that's kind of important, so that gets a pass, right?).  And that means that as of today, I'm behind on grading, behind on website stuff, behind on blogging, behind on emails for my podcast, and so on and so forth.  And I haven't written much more than a paragraph of fiction in probably two years (OK, maybe a short story, but that's about it).  Don't get me started on how pissed off I am about that...the word "failure" comes up in my brain a lot.

Needless to say, this is all incredibly frustrating.  It means I'm constantly late on my work or drowning in emails or just feeling like crap when I go to a dissertation meeting and I have some mediocre paragraphs to hand in.  And that makes things worse.  Crippling even.

Thus far, I don't have a solution.  One of my colleagues forces himself to write for an hour to get the juices flowing, but I find trying to force myself ends up increasing the distaste I have for the whole process.  It's not that I literally dislike my dissertation; rather, I'm so frustrated with the process that I'm sort of stunned into silence when I sit down to right.   And I don't think it's helped that when I actually go to work (teaching), I'm not always pleased with what I'm doing, either because I have grown so disillusioned by the university system or because I'm teaching something that I honestly don't care about and yet have to do it because that's the only way I can pay my bills.  I'm clinging to the hope that things will get better -- that I'll get a better job, that I'll find the love of teaching I had a year ago, etc.  Maybe in the fall.  I'm teaching a course on Modern Science Fiction then...

In so many ways, I'm happy with my life.  I love podcasting with my friends, and if there were some way to podcast about movies or books for a decent living, I'd probably drop my teaching work to do that instead.  But in so many ways, I'm not happy with my life, too.  And the older I get, the less satisfied I am with where I'm at right now as compared to where I want to be -- and even more dissatisfied by the prospect that where I want to be may not even exist anymore.

So I'm procrastinating.  I'm putting off things I need to get done because it's tied to things I just don't want to do anymore, or I'm just so frustrated with myself or whatever that actually putting words to the page hurts.

And I don't have a solution.  I'm just stuck.  Inching my way forward, but always unsure of myself.  Always behind.  Always feeling like I'd rather be doing something else.  Because in so many ways, I really would rather be doing something else right now.  I'd rather take a walk (can't, because I have a pinched nerve in my lower back) or go to a movie (shouldn't, because I have bills to pay) or write more fiction (see above).  I'd rather get in a spaceship and leave this planet behind.  I'd rather travel Europe.  I'd rather visit South Korea or Scotland or the Arctic or Rio or Nigeria.

But I'm not doing any of that.  I can't do most of it (or all of it).  I'm just stuck.  Procrastinating.  Lamenting it.  Hating it.

How do you get over the procrastination spiral of doom?  Any tips?


And, yes, I'm aware that this post is kind of ironic.  How could it not be?

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  1. I've struggled with this a lot, and I still do, but here are a few tactics that I use to try to get going:

    Try to start each day as a clean slate -- don't think about what you didn't get done yesterday, think about what you can do today.

    Break it down. Think about little pieces instead of the whole thing. Write a list of questions that you want one section of one chapter to answer, and pick one, and tackle it.

    Give yourself a little treat after you complete a small task, or work for an hour. That way you'll associate the diss with happy things, not just frustration.

    If you're procrastinating, try to do it in a positive way:

    Good luck!

    1. All good suggestions. Thanks! And thanks for the website. That might be quite helpful :)

  2. After reading this, I'm so thankful almost all of these social media/internet distractions weren't an option for me back in the mid/late 90s. That being said, here's a technique that I used in writing my longer-length seminar papers: I would identify a central question, write about that, then explore each branching part, before pruning it and putting it all down on paper (literally; I hand wrote the initial drafts of all my papers back then), mixing and cutting as I transferred the written words onto a school computer.

    Then again, it's likely easier doing that in a field like history than English lit. But maybe you could write out a vignette or question that you're exploring with one of the authors and see where it goes? Maybe post it in altered form if that'll make it feel more communal and less like an exercise in solitary confinement?

    1. Larry: I think some of that would probably still work for English, particularly since my dissertation is partially embedded in fields that aren't strictly "English lit" (cultural studies, anthropology, and history, for example).

      As for solitary confinement: I probably deserve it :P

      I actually have memories about school before social media was really a thing. I think I started attending college right around when Myspace became super popular and you could be called weird for not having a Myspace page. We still had the Internet, of course :)