PhD Procrastination: What Would Yoda Do?

Sometimes doctoral students want their advisors to just get off their back.

As Luke Skywalker found out during his doctoral studies with Yoda, changing habits is not a simple undertaking. With writing habits, there are numerous conditioned patterns of behavior that need to be altered, and if you’ve ever tried to change other long-standing habits, such as how you eat or exercise, you know it’s not a trivial challenge. Here are a few ideas to experiment with.

1  – Work daily on your writing, even if it’s for short periods of time. Incremental work adds up.

2 – Decide if the scope and topic of your project are the problem. If so, consult and adjust; even if it means throwing out previous work or having uncomfortable conversations with your advisor.

3 – Decide if advisor interactions are the problem. Evaluate options carefully, and consult where you can do it safely and confidentially. Take steps that will allow you to make progress without harming your professional future.

4 – Develop support. Find or start a dissertation support group that meets regularly. See if a university counseling office has services that will help with anxiety, depression, relationship, and procrastination problems.

5 – Make a plan for the entire project with estimated timelines. Make weekly and daily plans that fit into the larger scheme. Chart your progress even if you are falling short of goals.

6 – Examine your work avoidance patterns, reduce exposure to distractions, reinforce  positive changes, eliminate reinforcement of unproductive behavior.

I’ve written previous posts that address some of the issues of advisor problems and dissertations. My book, The Blocked Writer’s Book of the Dead, addresses habit change for writers more thoroughly. Continue reading

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Ritter as Writer

John Ritter chases bottoms, then hits bottom, on the way to resolving his writing block

In Blake Edwards’ Skin Deep (1989) the late John Ritter portrays a narcissistic, alcoholic, sex-addicted, emotionally stunted, blocked writer  who repeatedly pays a heavy price for his personal failings. This might not sound like a super-funny premise, but Skin Deep is, in fact, a farce.

When movies employ the “blocked writer” theme, the protagonist is frequently someone who possesses remarkable talent that is being ignored or squandered through some self-destructive means or another. Booze is frequently involved. Ritter stays true to this formula in his portrayal as a successful, Pulitzer Prize winning author who has stopped writing and descended into a swirling vortex of alcohol abuse, promiscuity and wisecracks.

In his journey to wholeness, Ritter endures extreme marital strife, ex-girlfriend gunfire, several incarcerations, fiery automobile collisions, angry girlfriend house arson, enraged ex-lover electrocution,  female body builder extreme copulation, and jealous heavy metal guitar player phosphorescent condom assault. As bad as Ritter’s suffering is, the viewer must endure Ritter’s piano playing and singing of jazz standards, which is an even greater suffering. He finally hits bottom, and through the interventions of an elite treatment team (comprised of his laconic shrink and a bartender), the drinking, womanizing, blocking and singing all comes to a halt.

Parents should be advised to pre-screen this film before allowing young children to view it. It contains nudity, adult situations, foul language, violence and some absolutely terrifying hairdos. The flic is dated (Ritter uses an electric typewriter) but the theme is timeless, and it ends happily with an unrealistic marital reconciliation, sobriety, and the publication of a new best-selling (of course) novel.

Does Skin Deep offer anything useful to blocked writers in the 21st century? Well…let’s just say that if the prospect of writing seems like the worst torture you can imagine, try watching Skin Deep.

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Words have power. Writing can be risky.

A writing block sure beats the chopping block.

Numerous writers were executed during the French Revolution. This is just one of many historical examples of writers being targeted for capital punishment. Printed words are powerful and most governments seek to control them.

Even a free speech country like America has an interesting history with its writers. Psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich’s books were burned by the American government in 1956 because of his controversial ideas. During the McCarthy era many authors, playwrights, and screenwriters were prosecuted or blacklisted because of their writings or alleged association with the Communist Party. Henry Miller saw his books banned for years in the land of the free, and could only publish in Europe.

Salman Rushdie went underground and had bodyguards for years because of the Iranian government’s fatwa death threat on his life following publication of The Satanic Verses. I have met lesser-known writers from other countries who have been persecuted and even tortured for their writings. The list of authors and journalists who have been persecuted in modern times and presently is extremely lengthy, and in fact, there is even an organization (ICORN) that exists to offer them refuge.

Thinking about this is enough to give you a nasty block. In fact, fear of much less drastic consequences is often enough to put the chill on a writer’s output. It could be that you’re worried about how your grandmother will react about your op-ed piece or erotic novel. You can’t always know for sure how the public, the government, our community, or your family  will react to your work (if they react at all) but your fantasies about these reactions may control your ability to keep writing.

If your fantasies about people’s reactions are just that – fantasies, or the stakes aren’t too, too high, maybe you should push past the fear, find your voice and say what you want to say. If your words will predictably trigger a reaction by the authorities and initiate a trip to the guillotine, you could consider postponing publication until a kinder, gentler regime assumes power.

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The Titanic Hit a Block and Sank. Writers Can Do Better

The Titanic was surprised by an unanticipated block of ice beneath the dark, frigid, North Atlantic ocean. It sank like a stone into the unknown depths. This needn’t happen to your writing.

In the process of imagining, initiating and completing a writing project, we have many opportunities to observe how we deal with the unknown. Each time I begin a new blog post, I feel a combination of interest, uncertainty, challenge and angst. I wonder if I will be able to write it, and what the post will eventually be. Something always happens, and I’m always surprised.

The unknown might be a sentence not yet right, a mountain of information not yet organized, an argument not yet developed, a problem not yet solved, or a story line not yet worked out. We know something more needs to be accomplished, and we don’t know exactly how we will do it. This moment of contemplating the unknown is fertile territory for spawning sinking feelings like anxiety, self-doubt, confusion and the dread of failure. The experience of ‘not knowing’ may also make a person feel that something internal is lacking: intelligence, creativity, or other unnamable attributes that “real” writers supposedly possess. It can make you panic that the whole project will go down.

What is your characteristic mode of responding when you don’t know how to proceed? During the writing of my dissertation I repeatedly confronted new problems and Continue reading

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In Ancient Egypt, Writing Blocks Were Made Out of Granite

Even Thoth, the inventor of writing, probably neglected his papyrus every now and then

The earliest writings included in The Egyptian Book of the Dead were originally chiseled in stone in the tombs of deceased pharaohs and royalty. Tomb size, quality, furnishings, and decoration were all considered critical for determining the spirit’s fate in the afterworld, so careful consideration and planning were involved. The scribes responsible for carving the hieroglyphics had considerable status in their culture, but they undoubtedly endured adversities such as poor lighting, lousy ventilation, annoying co-workers, ergonomically incorrect work stations, and repetitive stress injuries. Their writing blocks were made out of granite. (No wonder their daily word count was so low!) We are fortunate to live in an age when more amenable settings and tools for writing exist.

Egyptian mythology names the ibis-headed god Thoth as inventor of writing. Whatever his role was in the creation of the written word, I suspect that Thoth blew off his hieroglyphic invention duties every so often and just hung out on the shore of the Nile, watching the barques float by.

I named my book for writers The Blocked Writers Book of the Dead   because the Egyptians revered and held holy the art of writing, and because books of the dead were the world’s earliest self-help manuals.

It also did not escape me that The Egyptian Book of the Dead is thousands of years old and still in print.

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Balzac, Coffee and Writing Productivity

This painting makes it look like Balzac suffered from heartburn. Maybe it was the coffee.

Will you be a more productive writer if you drink more coffee? Honore de Balzac knocked back countless cups and he wrote prolifically from midnight to dawn, night after night.  In his article entitled ‘The Pleasures and Pains of Coffee,”here’s how Balzac described the effect of ingesting strong coffee on an empty stomach:

“From that moment on, everything becomes agitated. Ideas quick-march into motion like battalions of a grand army to its legendary fighting ground, and the battle rages. Memories charge in, bright flags on high; the cavalry of metaphor deploys with a magnificent gallop; the artillery of logic rushes up with clattering wagons and cartridges; on imagination’s orders, sharpshooters sight and fire; forms and shapes and characters rear up; the paper is spread with ink – for the nightly labor begins and ends with torrents of this black water, as a battle opens and concludes with black powder.”

Many writers have told me that coffee is an essential aspect of their writing practice. Perhaps not in the same dose or with the same dramatic impact that Balzac prescribes, but enough to give the brain a boost as it prepares to tackle the empty page. Why not absorb a bit of caffeine? It’s legal and seems to do the trick for many.

Many procrastinators also enjoy their daily cup of coffee however, so I don’t think the brown liquid is a panacea for writing blocks, or a reliable genius drug. Balzac was aware of the limitations of the drink. In the same article he also wrote:

Many people claim coffee inspires them, but, as everybody knows, coffee only makes boring people even more boring.”

I quit drinking coffee because it gave me headaches, and I mourn the mild buzz it bestowed. Balzac’s use had more severe side effects – his early death is hypothesized to be linked to his extreme habits with the bean. But he sure did write a lot of words in those 51 years.

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The ‘Ice Water Plunge’ Writing Block Cure

The little known, 2009 rom-com indie flic, Feed the Fish features a protagonist wrestling with a gnarly writer’s block.  He had a very good response to his first book, but has been unable to get started on the second of a nine-book contract. His publisher has paid him a hefty advance, and after 6 months without any hint of the sequel, they are asking for their money back.

As is typical in writer block movies, his cure occurs as he resolves personal and romantic issues, but this one also includes an impulsive escape from LA into the bitter cold of the northern midwest, live goldfish frozen in their bowl, Tony Shaloub as a bitter, gun-happy sheriff, insane ice water plunging rituals, exploding sheds, nearly-naked snow-rolling, multiple head injury hospitalizations and badger-inflicted genital mutilation.

If that’s what it takes to get writing again, I guess it’s worth it. Not all block cures are simple or easy. There are some good scenes in the beginning of the movie that illustrate how a bad writing block can harm a romantic relationship as we see Ross’s girlfriend’s mounting discontent while she watches him do nothing as the weeks go by. When her anger erupts and she flushes his favorite goldfish down the toilet, Ross’s will is finally galvanized into action by his anger.

Ross pulls a geographic intervention and goes off with his friend to the icy midwest. He shakes up his usual habits to see what will happen. I have seen this approach work with writers who are stuck. Just change something in your life and maybe a shift will happen with the writing. Sometimes it’s as easy as changing your place of writing to a new cafe, Continue reading

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