Spinning on the Procrastination Wheel: Part 1- Unrealistic goals, delay start.

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Let’s take a spin around the procrastination wheel and examine the issues.

1. Unclear, Unrealistic Goals; Denial of the Problem

Even when there has been a consistent, enduring pattern of work avoidance in the past, it is common for procrastinators to be naively hopeful and optimistic before embarking on a writing project. It is a form of denial about the problem. In your mind it seems that it should be fairly easy to tackle the project, and you dismiss any inner voices warning you about long-standing avoidance patterns. You might say to yourself, “This time I’ll just write every day and stay ahead of the deadlines. No more of that procrastination wheel for me!”

This denial has the consequence of interfering with the need to be thoughtful about managing your behavior.  So you get out of the gate poorly prepared to meet the predictably difficult challenges that lie ahead.

It helps if you can acknowledge that you have a problem. If you accept that your patterns of work avoidance will always recur, then you can realistically put some plans in place for diminishing their impact.

2. Delay Start

Time seems plentiful at the very beginning of a writing project. There seems to be no big problem with letting things slide a bit. “What’s the hurry?” There is usually some physical and emotional comfort connected with this postponing, and it is easy to quiet that tiny voice of truth inside that is encouraging you to get started, because there is seemingly such a large cushion of time. “I’ll get to it soon enough—don’t worry!” This is the top of the slippery slope, and without knowing it, you are setting up the dynamics for the rest of the project, which is the pattern of avoiding writing.

It helps at this point on the wheel to remember the benevolent command, “Write first!” This means that no matter what your inner dialogue is telling you, the best way to proceed is to do the more challenging task (writing) before you do anything else. Even if you work for only five minutes, you will start the project by writing rather than postponing, and this is the right formula for improved productivity. Beginning this way will also make it easier to start work the next day and the day after.

 (to be continued)

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Many a blocked writer languishes on the “Procrastination Wheel of Suffering”

The self-perpetuating dynamics of the procrastination/writing binge cycle

Above is a visual depiction from my book of the process of procrastination. It is a summary of the patterns I frequently see in blocked writers, and based loosely on the Buddhist “Wheel of Samsara,” which depicts the cyclic, self-perpetuating nature of human suffering.

While everyone’s style of procrastination is unique, several common features are included in this wheel. The point of presenting the issue in this way is to highlight how we unwittingly create and maintain behavior that we don’t like, and then feel unhappy and controlled by it.

The more times we go around the wheel, the more we reinforce the pattern. The steps become grooved and automatic, and the wheel eventually spins without our conscious awareness. If this cycle seems familiar to you, you are not alone.

In upcoming posts I will address several different aspects of this cycle and discuss how a writer can stop spinning around on it.

The Buddha is sometimes viewed as kind of a buzz-kill prophet because he declared that all life is suffering, but don’t forget that he also said there was a way to end to the suffering. Same goes for writing blocks.

(to be continued)

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Full-Prefrontal Writing Avoidance

Writers must manage the strain of full-frontal brain pain

Wikipedia describes the functions of the prefontal cortex thusly:

The most typical psychological term for functions carried out by the prefrontal cortex area is executive function. Executive function relates to abilities to differentiate among conflicting thoughts, determine good and bad, better and best, same and different, future consequences of current activities, working toward a defined goal, prediction of outcomes, expectation based on actions, and social “control.”

In short; many aspects of the writing process (decision making, delaying gratification, organizing thoughts, working toward a goal) rely on the effective functioning of this small, miraculous lump of tissue. The prefrontal cortex is truly awesome, and it does a lot, but it has it’s limits as well.

If you demand too much of the prefrontal cortex, the circuitry can’t keep up, and a brain fuse may be blown. When you try to think about too many aspects of your writing at the same time (perfect word selection, punctuation, sentence structure, paragraph structure, chapter organization, deadlines, etc) writing might feel excruciating because your brain is straining and can’t keep up. The executive function refuses to function. This is felt subjectively as “overwhelm.”

Overwhelm is a common feature in the blocked writer’s profile. You tend to avoid writing because this uncomfortable feeling is attached to the process. Your prefrontal cortex becomes too full and your brain screams for relief.

A useful approach to consider if this rings true for you is to break down your writing tasks. Resist the urge to solve all problems at the same time. Learn to tolerate the gradual pace of a writing project, and trust that you can fine-tune and polish in successive drafts. No need to do everything at once. Choose a piece of the whole and work on that.

Writing can be a process that brings you your answers as you let yourself engage in it. Let the prefrontal do bits of work at a time, so there is adequate energy and capacity. And when you notice that overwhelm feeling arising, take a deep breath, then pick out one section or problem and just work on that.

Your brain will thank you, and your writing will become more enjoyable.

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Drop off the lab key, Lee: Fifty Ways to Leave your PhD Advisor

There must be fifty ways to leave the Muppets too

Paul Simon will assure you in his song that there really are fifty ways to leave your advisor, but I only have space in this blog post to discuss four of them. Forgive me – at least it’s a start.

PhD students sometimes get stuck in their dissertation writing process because of a problematic relationship with their academic advisor. There is a significant power differential built into academic advising relationships, and a lot of pressure on the graduate student in terms of getting a good recommendation to pursue an academic career.  When things go badly it can be extraordinarily stressful and challenging to find a good solution.

Sometimes it’s clear to the student that a situation is either so hopeless or stressful that a parting of the ways is necessary.  At this point the issue becomes; how do you do that and incur the least amount of career damage?

1) Try to transfer to another advisor in your institution. Factors to consider with this option include: Is a discussion with your advisor about your plan to leave possible? If not, why not? Who can you talk to safely about this idea? Is there a confidential resource like an ombudsman at your school? Are there other faculty who support you (preferably tenured) and who would also be willing to actually do something in your behalf? What are the departmental politics that may influence your chances? What institutional and departmental policies and practices are relevant? What are the funding and financial aspects of a transfer? Can you keep your research and publication focus intact, or will you have to start something new? What will be most upsetting to your advisor about your departure(ego, money, friendship, sense of betrayal, loss of control, their reputation, lab staffing, etc.)? Can you mitigate any of these issues in ways that would ease your exit by appeasing your advisor?

2) Transfer to a different institution. This option will usually not be as sticky politically because the faculty relationships are not as close. Challenges with finding a program to accept you, finding funding, and losing time because of starting somewhere new need to be considered. There is still the question of “Why are you leaving your current program?” that will raise it’s head, and you’ll need a strategy for responding to that question and getting recommendations, etc.

3) Take a leave. If the stress level is high enough, it may make sense to take a leave to Continue reading

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“Someone takes over and you just copy out what is being said…” Henry Miller

When your writing comes to you as if you are receiving dictation, you might have to transcribe some four-letter words.

In the book Henry Miller On Writing, Miller describes both his struggle with agonizing writing blocks and ecstatic writing experiences when words came to him as if he was being dictated to. He discussed this dictation in an article in the Paris Review, saying, “Well, it happens only at rare intervals, this dictation. Someone takes over and you just copy out what is being said.” 

We can wonder about who is doing the dictating upon hearing a report like this, but I don’t think it’s essential to figure that out in any absolute sense. This is one way to experience writing, and other writers have reported similar experiences. The human mind (and perhaps all writing) is part mystery.

The trap in hearing a report like this is to come to the conclusion that writing that comes in this way is better, more true or the best way to write.  We mustn’t forget that a lot of great writing has come into being through hard work, confusion, rewriting and angst – including much of Miller’s.

If you are blocked or have to really struggle to find the right words, you might envy someone who writes in a way that sounds like so much less effort. But your envy would be a waste of time, and would ignore the fact that immense effort and profound struggles also characterized Miller’s writing life. He was fortunate to have some moments of grace thrown in to the mix, but he laid the groundwork for that to happen through his ongoing commitment to his work.

If you are wishing for your very own inner dictator to show up, be careful. The muse that arrives may turn out to be crappy writer.

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The tyranny of perfection and the blocked writer

If I need this blog post to be perfect, I’ll never get it done.

I prefer the “It can’t be awful” standard over “It must be perfect.” This feels more humane to me and allows for greater freedom and creativity, though maybe I’m aiming too low.

It is important for a writer to have an internal editing function that evaluates whether the words on the page communicate effectively. The seeming permanence of the written word naturally leads you to scrutinize your written symbols with an different intensity than is applied to most verbal communications, which normally disappear politely with the wind.

I experience the internal editing function as a complex system of judgments, impulses and decisions that concern multiple aspects of the writing project. It’s amazing that we can do this, really, and these capabilities are essential in order for us to write at all. But when one of your inner editors becomes too loud, harsh, critical, insulting, deprecating or fear-inducing, you end up spending more and more time evaluating and cogitating, and less time producing words. At the extreme, the result is to lock down the writing process entirely.

I often see this problem with writers who apply intense, microscopic scrutiny to their words even during writing of first drafts. There is an inability to allow their initial, roughly hewn sentences to exist without trying to perfect them right off the bat. It is very hard to simultaneously generate ideas, write them down, and do final editing at the same time. It slows the writing process considerably, exhausts intracranial resources and leads to cognitive overwhelm, a distaste for the writing process and work avoidance.

If your psyche is inhabited by a ferocious, perfectionistic, inner editor, see if you can train the beast to hold off on all the advice-giving until you’ve had the opportunity to let your ideas flow onto the page and develop a bit first. The obsessive talents of the tyrannical perfectionist are very useful during the final draft editing stage of the project, but can devour your desire and energy for writing if allowed to run amok too soon.

Lighten up!

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How much attention should a blocked writer pay to “Time’s winged chariot?”

Andrew Marvell’s recommendation is, “Let’s get it on!”

In his famous poem “To a Coy Mistress,” Andrew Marvell wrote the following lines in the mid 1600’s:

But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.

Marvell was evidently an early incarnation of what we would call a ‘motivational speaker’ in the twenty-first century. In this poem we see him creatively harnessing his literary skills to try to get his girlfriend into bed. And even though I wouldn’t want to equate sleeping with Andrew Marvell with writing a novel, he does raise the valid point that time is limited, no matter what you are hoping to accomplish.

As a writer, this means that there will come a day when the universe will actually put the ‘dead’ in your deadline. Can we use this stark existential reality to assist us with overcoming writing blocks? Maybe.

Everyone is different, but it is true that a bit of time pressure works for many people who might otherwise dilly-dally and fritter their time away instead of writing. If the deadline is in the distant future, however (as death might seem to a someone contemplating writing a novel) it might not generate the necessary adrenaline discharge to bring resistant hands to the keyboard.

Doctoral students often struggle with motivation and productivity problems because they tend to have a long-term, uncertain deadlines for their dissertations. Writers who have no external deadlines at all must learn to utilize motivational resources that are not connected with the fear of missing a deadline. Perhaps if we knew with certainty that we only had a couple of months left on the planet more of us would get cracking, because deadlines with definite negative consequences in the near future seem to work best.

On the other side of this coin, I’ve also known writers with the reverse problem. They were so acutely aware of the passage of time that they lived in a state of constant anxiety and guilt about not producing enough. This inner turmoil then made it harder to write. They needed to relax and get the fear of ‘Times winged chariot’ out of their minds so they could concentrate on the task at hand. One might imagine that Andrew Marvell’s coy mistress may have been less coy and more responsive to his amorous advances if he wasn’t going on and on about her impending death all the time.

So, where does this leave us regarding utilizing alarm about deadlines and death to assist with encouraging the flow of words? ‘Different strokes for different folks’  comes to keep in mind, but a general rule of thumb is that deadlines that are close at hand, and that involve meaningful consequences, work best for motivating writers to write. Long term deadlines that are vaguely defined are less effective, and generating excessive deadline pressure can induce overwhelm or rebelliousness.

We may never know whether Andrew Marvell eventually got lucky with his mistress  by employing his carpe diem argument, but at least he got a good poem out of it. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, we mortals don’t generally know when Time’s winged chariot will pull into our driveway, so just in case, it might be wise to work on your coy writing project today.

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