Excelling at procrastination


Procrastination – sometimes I excel at it. When it comes to focussing on the daunting process of writing a data analysis chapter for my PhD thesis, I have developed many honourable distractions: checking emails, doing an extra load of washing, walking the dog, planning events,  …even writing a blog! It’s not that my material is engaging. In fact I’m finding the results truly interesting and can see how useful they might be in my future work. The issue is that the effort and focus required to do the hard work of academic wiring is hard. It’s simply not much fun.

I need to coach myself to achieve the target I’ve set myself for the day. I need to remind myself of how I will have let myself down if I don’t give priority to the task. My energy needs to be purposefully directed to this responsibility that I have chosen to take on. I have to own the task.

My helpful husband regularly reminds me to just plough on so I can put it behind me….somehow this kind of irritates me; but I get where he’s coming from and appreciate that the last 6 years of part-time research have impacted him by my reduced availability.

The effort to stay on task when it is not instantly rewarding is a marker of maturity. Such capacity is largely dependent on how much we were expected to see through a difficult task as children and adolescents. The degree to which we depend on external structure and relationships to pull us through a challenging project helps to reveal the amount of maturity we have emotionally inherited from our family experience. Not that external time frames, relationship approval and external accountability isn’t helpful, it’s just that our dependence on these motivators helps us to see how much solid self we have developed.

As I’ve been pushing myself to keep writing my thesis, my mind has drifted back to a memory of my mother encouraging me to write down my stories when I was a 7 year old. As a school teacher I’m guessing my Mum was impressed by the imaginative stories I would construct (I’m sure a mother’s bias came into play). The world of my childhood imagination was rich and full of narratives I constructed to entertain myself; but the idea of writing them down was not the least bit appealing! My persistent mother actually found a tape recorder -1960s technology, and suggested I might like to record my tales. I recall that the more she tried to coax me, the less interested I became in honing my naïve fiction writing skills.

Decades later, this memory reminds me that it’s up to me to choose whether or not to maintain the effort with my current writing project in the absence of immediate gratification. There is no one to outsource it to and I must find the motivation from my internal principles and goals. At this point in the project I can just see some promising light breaking through at the end of the passage and this certainly spurs me on.

Questions for reflection:

  • What do I observe of myself when I’m confronting an unappealing task?
  • How much am I able to muster motivation from within versus rely on others to push me or do for me?
  • What principles and personal goals can I set to lift the self- regulation needed to stick at a challenging task?
  • How do I respond when important people in my life are struggling to see a project through? Do I acknowledge their challenge or do I try to push them?

Relevant Bowen theory quotes:

People in the higher levels of maturity (differentiation) “have more energy for goal directed activity and less energy tied up in keeping the emotional system in equilibrium.”

Those rare people in the upper levels of maturity are “principle oriented , goal directed people who have many qualities that have been called ‘inner directed.’….they are sufficiently secure within themselves that functioning is not affected by either praise or criticism from others. “  FTCP p 164

At lower levels of maturity “Major life decisions are based on what feels right or simply on getting comfortable.” FTCP p 162

For a less mature person  “ so much life energy goes into  loving and seeking love and approval that there is little energy left for self-determined goal directed activity…success in professional pursuits is determined more by approval of superiors and from the relationship system than the inherent value of their work.” FTCP p 163

Excelling at procrastination‘- Jenny Brown