Psychologically Speaking

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Getting Back to Work

I have to come clean about something. I’ve been avoiding my next post like an ex at a party – much worse than the plague. Every time I resolve to write, all I see is a blank computer screen. I tentatively begin to type, but only to retreat moments later until I’m right back where I started. Fingers pacing along the keyboard, desperately searching for a place to start. It’s been one week and I’m already a one-post wonder.

What’s the hold up? I could easily provide a respectable array of excuses about life as a grad student. The spring semester is upon us. We’re already being slammed with reading, we want to reunite with friends, the kitchen floor needs Swiffering. But the veritable cause of my dawdling is rooted in one universal emotion – fear. The truth is, I’m scared. I’m petrified to move from idea to execution and have my friends bear witness as I work out the kinks in this experiment. I know I’m not unique in these waves of panic. This is the same barrier that holds us back from talking to that cute girl across the room, or entering your artwork in a contest. The common thread in these seemingly disparate experiences is raw vulnerability.

So, what did I do? I procrastinated. I let other obligations take precedence under the guise that I’d get back to this after I felt on top of all my other projects or commitments. Well, that doesn’t sound so reckless. Where’s the risk in that? The insidious harm in this logic is that there is no meaningful end point to that excuse. We’re never actually on top of everything we need to be doing. When do you actually get back to work?

In the midst of all this procrastinating (yes – procrastinating itself can become an activity), I was introduced to Merlin Mann and his blog 43 FoldersThrough his writing and speaking, he seeks to combat the most pernicious threats to our time, attention, and productive potential. I was immediately smitten with his biting wit and honest dialogue about a number of behaviors for which we often make excuses or manage to overlook. But what really sealed the deal is his penchant for accents and 80s metal. I’d like to think we’d be friends.

I decided to listen to one of his talks on procrastination, Wait, what? I listened to a talk? That it clearly not writing, so how can it help? I think that when you’re listening to a lecture, reading, or even talking with your friends, these are all opportunities to test out and develop your ideas free of consequence. It’s a romp through your own mental playground. This is sometimes referred to as generative play. You might think that doing something beyond the immediate scope of your task is nothing more than a waste of time. Breaks are for the weak, right? Not quite.

Even though you’re not crossing something off your to-do list, you are accelerating your capacity for creative output when you do get back to work. It’s an enjoyable way to get out of your head, consider other perspectives, and reenter your own work with vigor. Even more important, these mental exercises are the types of activities we should be doing regularly, not just when we find ourselves stuck in creative inertia.

 After days of delay, I simply started to write. My thoughts were messy and imperfect, but they were alive. My takeaway point from Merlin’s talk is that we procrastinate when we forget who we are and what we care about. We forget the meaning of our work. I’ve never thought about it like the before. In fact, I’ve never really thought about procrastination at all. I was all too familiar with the results of the behavior, but I hadn’t yet figured out what it means for me. That is, what does procrastination represent? It is not merely an end state in which we often find ourselves. There has to be a why.

I think procrastination does happen when we lost sight of who we are and what we believe in. Moving one step down the causal chain, I think it happens when we lose confidence in ourselves and in the integrity of our ideas. We succumb to the uncertainty that is an inescapable part of any meaningful idea, project, or goal. Following through is a daunting process. I don’t even think I was breathing when I hit the “publish” button for my first entry.

Today, I’d like to build on this idea of following through. I can still hear my tennis coach of five years bellowing at me in his thick eastern European accent, “Emily! What is WRONG with you?! You must follow through. It is the most important part of your swing!” I hadn’t realized this until now, but he’s absolutely right. Without the follow through, your ideas, just like your stroke, completely lose steam. All you can muster is a blunt shot that lazily arches over the net, bounces high, and gives your opponent all the time in the world to get into position and ram that ball down your throat. One thing I noticed from my years on the court was that when I got nervous, the follow through was the first thing to go. My strokes became meek, tentative, and unsure. I no longer called the shots. I merely reacted to them.

I think the same lesson applies to how we assign meaning to our work. When projects get real, they can get overwhelming. Anxiety can wreak havoc on our resolve. We start to question the value of what we’re doing. We fail to keep going with an idea in which we once believed. We bail on promises we made to ourselves. I think that’s all procrastination really is – it’s the failure to follow through.

So how do we get ourselves unstuck? Unfortunately, there’s not a single antidote for everyone. But I do think a smart first step is to understand how and under what conditions procrastination manifests in your life. Like any bad habit, we have to figure out what the behavior means for us, and why we think we need it. We all fall prey to procrastination at times. But instead of dismissing it as an inevitable peril, I think it’s important to push ourselves a little harder and figure out what we’re scared of. 

We have no way of knowing how an idea is going to take shape. The only thing you can really trust is your own competencies, your motivation, and your resolve to see an idea to fruition. The key point here is that we not lose sight of who we are, what we’re doing, and why we’re doing it. Procrastination is a waste of time. But figuring out why you do it, that’s definitely time well spent.

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