verb; procrastinate – delay or postpone action; put off doing something
I hate writing full-blown grant applications. The thought of sitting down with a blank page in front of me, and justifying why I want to do the research, saying how well it fits the remit of the research council, demonstrating how great I am (track record of applicant), articulating my hypotheses, outlining the work packages, writing an impact statement, getting costings to draw up a budget, justifying the resources requested, and so on and so on, and all with the knowledge that there is an about 1 in 5 chance of getting funded, does not fill me with any great enthusiasm. It also takes up a huge amount of my time and to do it properly you really do need to sit down and exclude all other activities.
I also find it difficult to start writing a paper from scratch, or get to work on a new presentation; I should, for example, be getting my plenary lecture for ENTO15 ready, but as it only May 11th and I am not speaking until September 2nd I am finding it difficult to get started on that. This is despite the fact that it was only by a superhuman effort before Christmas I got the written version submitted to Ecological Entomology on the required day (now available on Early View if you are interested). Of course I am steadfastly ignoring the fact that I will be on holiday from July 24th until August 17th and that on my return I will be marking several MSc project reports!
I have several delaying (apparently according to Microsoft Word, procrastinatory doesn’t exist) tactics, or low-hanging fruits, that I can pick
when faced with things I don’t really like doing; I can tidy my desk,
I can go to check my aphid cultures (a very useful 800 m walk to the glasshouses), I can walk to the Postgraduate Office to check applications (450 m from my office), do a sweep round the PhD offices (also 450 m away from my office) to see how my students are doing, check my email (again and again), accept a request to review a paper, although this then necessitates writing a report 😉 , and as an Editor, I have the very useful excuse that I need to log on to the journal site to check what is happening; the list is long and can certainly fill my day.
In our defence, procrastinators are actually very useful for the academic community; we are the people who agree to review papers, agree to be external examiners, sit on internal and external committees, do a lot of teaching and generally act as good citizens, although perhaps not as altruistically as our colleagues might think, after all we do have an ulterior motive.
Is there a cure?
There are things that we can do; a colleague of mine, does not open her emails on a Monday, I don’t have the will power to do this, I find it difficult enough to ignore my email for two-hour periods, which is my attempt at giving myself a chance to get really into doing some writing. Some people (those who are sociable and find it hard not to go to coffee or chat with colleagues) work from home; again this does not work for me as I then find household chores to distract me. I once went on a time management course in which the use of a daily To Do List was suggested. I dutifully began one of these but found that because of reactive tasks my proactive list just carried on to the next day and never seemed to get completed so that didn’t work for me either, but perhaps I should have said no to the reactive tasks or been less ambitions with the number of things on my To Do List? If anyone has further suggestions please let me know.
So how is that I complete anything substantial? For external tasks this is easy, I promise to deliver, and because I take my solemn promises to other people very seriously indeed, the task gets done, no matter how much I would rather not do it. Unfortunately, promises to myself I find much easier to break, so things that I regard as non-life or career-threatening, do tend to fall by the wayside.
All in all, I’m very lucky as my procrastinatory (it does exist Microsoft – see here) habits are relatively mild and surmountable, and I have managed to get this far in life without any serious failures.
There are, however, some people who procrastinate because of fear of failure, they set themselves the impossible goal of perfection (unless of course you are a gymnast or diver). This can lead to some very serious failures; for example, students who don’t answer any questions in an exam because they are afraid that their answers will be wrong and hand in a blank answer book, despite having it pointed out to them that if they don’t write anything they will definitely fail. I have also known students who find it almost impossible to hand in written work because they are afraid that it won’t be good enough, despite being told that unless I can see something I can’t help them improve it. To a non-sufferer the solution seems incredibly simple, just get out there and do something, how difficult can it be? It is, however, not simple at all, it can actually be a serious psychological problem that needs very sympathetic and supportive handling, ranging from sharing the task with a friend, colleague or even a suitably sympathetic supervisor, to professional counselling. It is not something to be dismissed lightly as an exasperating foible. Please, please remember this the next time you come across a colleague or student who persistently fails to complete tasks on time. They are not doing it on purpose. Talk to them about the problem and address the issues sympathetically and with compassion and recommend them to seek psychological help if you feel it is necessary.
Apropos my latest attempt at writing a major grant proposal, the closing date is 17th May and given that I am writing this on the 11th May and I have, so far only written the opening paragraph of a ten page proposal, I fear that the elephant is about to arrive and trample me 😉
Post post script
It amazes me how many times you hear or see, people using the word prevaricate when they mean procrastinate; they are very different in meaning and not something you would want to own up to in public. Prevaricate means to act or speak in an evasive way (for great examples listen to a politician being interviewed), which to me at least, implies dishonesty.