Musings on Procrastination

It’s Memorial-weekend Sunday, so I should be allowed to not think about work, right? Well, it sort of… worked. DH, Smurf, and I spent some time at a local attraction, slathered in SP-50 Coppertone and working on our vitamin D reserves.

But, I have been thinking about procrastination today.

Why do I procrastinate? I see Eldest, who is a really conscientious kid when in comes to doing his school work. He has good study habits, which will serve him well in college.

I remember being very focused and not procrastinating in high school, doing my work and getting good grades. I also had  several extracurriculars that took a lot of time, but I was able to get everything done and still reliably got 7 hours of sleep each night.

Fast forward a couple of decades, and I have to will myself to fill out forms for my kids’ summer camps (in my defense, these forms are inhumanely extensive). I won’t be late, but I will fill them out only a day or two before the deadline.

There is a response to the referees and the associated manuscript revisions that I should have worked on since early last week, but I keep avoiding it.

What has changed?

Part of it is that I am perpetually starved for both sleep and rejuvenating alone time.  When I was younger, I really had no obligations to anyone except myself; these days, I am expected to be things to people (parent, spouse, teacher, advisor, emergency contact, principal investigator). I am finally catching up at work in terms all the papers that have to go out or get revised and resubmitted; I cannot just drop work for weeks  because the summer is not endless and I don’t want to get into the proposal writings season with a backlog. As lyra211 says, “It’s terrifying how quickly it feels like academia can pass you by! Some of that pressure is self-imposed, but not all of it.”

Another part is that the work I do these days ranges from mind-numbingly boring to intellectually and possibly emotionally taxing. I didn’t feel work being taxing when I was younger possibly because I was my own sole focus. Now everything I do (or avoid doing) has repercussions on someone else.

Then there’s the clarity of goals. When I was younger, doing work was more like rock-climbing. You could see the pinnacle, you could see where you needed to put your foot next in order to get closer to the goal. (I originally misspelled “goal” as “goad”; what would Freud say about that?)

Working today is more like trying to not drown in a muddy swamp. You seem to recall that getting out of the swamp was the original idea, but you are not clear if that’s true any more and don’t remember which way the exit is supposed to be. Your limbs get tangled in vines, which pull you down and make it harder to move. So not sinking below the surface of the muddy water turns out to be the real goal on any given day.


  1. I will comment on this, but first I have to go watch a cat video and send an email and look something up…

  2. I feel this.

    Also right now I have a high stakes high reward project with confusing results as a whole (clear results in parts) and I don’t know how best to package it to aim for the top. If I were just aiming for my standard top field journal it would be a lot less stressful because I could just pick one and not second-guess myself.

    The cleanest results aren’t “of general interest” but the “of general interest” results are only clean for one of the samples, and not the most externally valid sample. But the most externally valid sample has a lot of stuff going on and I don’t have enough observations to get into the weeds about what is making things different. However, these results are even cleaner for the “not of general interest” findings. So… it’s hard and requires a lot of hard thinking. And I’m afraid of new results because they contradict the theories from the old results which means I have to come up with yet another set of packaging. Because top general interest journals want everything packaged with nice results. Can’t just have the package and not as nice results. And there’s the layer of me being female and not at a top school which means everything I do has to be even cleaner. *sigh*

    On top of that I have 4 or 5 other projects with deadlines that are distracting me but I really need to work on this one. Which means I spend more time with analysis paralysis => procrastination.

  3. The clarity (or inclarity) of goals…this is exactly it for me. When I know the next step, and why I’m taking it, and where its going to get me, its motivating in a way that this murkier “progress” isn’t.

  4. I procrastinate so much less as a PI than a grad student because I am less overcome by feelings of failure all the time. As a grad student, I always worried I was letting my adviser down and that I was too stupid and slow. I feel like I’m serving my trainees okay. Even when I’m tired, there’s always some dumb administrative thing I could be doing. All that said, I know I procrastinate on some of the “hard thinking” strategic contemplation I need to do about which lines of investigation should be highest priority.

    nicoleandmaggie, I think I know what that’s like. Swing for the fences and iterate with feedback. Good luck.

  5. Hmm, I guess I procrastinate on filling out camp and after-care forms, too. But as you say, that is because they are pointlessly painful. They need to go electronic and allow me to copy most of the info from the prior year!

    I’ve never been much of a procrastinator. I do find myself cutting things closer these days than I used to, but that is generally because I’ve been overly optimistic in what I signed up to do. It is one of my biggest time management challenges! My kanban board helps, but I still occasionally end up overclocked. I just squeaked an article submission in under the “end of the month” deadline this morning, for instance.

    @Nicoleandmaggie, I feel you pain. I have no advice, but am sending “good decision making” and “smooth data analysis ” vibes your way!

  6. nicoleandmaggie, I am of two (or more) minds on this one. Do you have some sort of deadline on this paper? E.g., does a student graduating or your grant submission depend on this paper being out? If not, I’d say aim high. If the worst thing that can happen is that you lose some time, and you aren’t pressed for it, then I say go for it. You can always put it in the sure-thing journal later.

    But if you think just a review and potential rejection at a top journal would alert others to what you are seeing, so they might not only reject but shortly thereafter scoop you, then I’d say sit tight on your general interest story. Publish the sure thing and hold cards close to chest, and collect more data, then strike with a more complete story a little later.

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