There really is something graceful and flirty and coy about procrastination—a way of dancing with time, coming in close, and backing away. The inner weasel frolicking in the deadline woods.
And there is also something desperate and shame-inducing and crazy-making about procrastination.
The image I have of myself a lot of times is not the clichéd “flying by the seat of my pants” (because I don’t actually know how to picture that, other than some kind of Tin Tin caper in which a giant hook grabs my belt loop and I fly through the air, papers trailing after me). Instead, I picture myself trying to cross a rising stream on slippery rocks that are spaced just far enough apart I have to leap a little each time. Sometimes the rocks turn out to be giant turtles that are rising and submerging randomly. And then sometimes it’s snowing. There is peril involved and palpable relief when I meet a deadline.
It’s an exhausting way to live, panicking and somehow succeeding and sucking up the adrenaline rush and then crashing. I think part of my chronic tendency toward burnout comes from depleting my adrenaline stores. The book Tired of Being Tired claims that adrenal burnout is what results, and that our bodies replace adrenaline with cortisol (which does all kinds of toxic things) after a while. I don’t know enough to evaluate the science in that book, but at least on a metaphorical level, it made a lot of sense to me.
But I had a lot of years of not being comfortable with how much I procrastinated before I started seeing any real changes. I can’t really account for why all the efforts finally kicked in Fall 2010 semester, and I can’t really account for why I’ve been able to maintain. All I know is what I’ve done, and what I’m going to keep doing.
More than 15 years ago, I read Procrastination: Why You Do It, What to Do About It Now by Jane Burka and Lenora Yen. This book helped a lot, even though it didn’t help me grade papers faster when I first read it. It did help me start to recognize that something’s going on if I’m procrastinating really badly or consistently, so I’ve been able to analyze the causes over the years and say no to some things.
In terms of student papers, the progress began (slowly) in Fall 2007 when I was in therapy and trying to figure out how to stop feeling overwhelmed all the time. Being behind at work was a big part of why I felt overwhelmed, and being behind in grading was a big part of that. So I started brainstorming all the reasons I don’t like grading student papers, and tried to figure out if I could change any of those things (writing better assignments helps some).
Then I started keeping track on an Excel spreadsheet of all the assignments I was grading—when they came in and when I returned them. I’d always told students I thought it was important to return things “within a couple of weeks,” but I doubt if my average was ever “within.” It was typically on the other side of that, the fat side. Fall 07, my mean was 16. Sheesh. Just to be glaringly, mathematically obvious, if that was the AVERAGE, then there were times I took longer than two and a half weeks. Sheesh. The standard deviation was 7.94, so not only was it taking me a long time, I was wildly inconsistent. 2008 was better, with averages around 10 and 11 days, and then I didn’t keep very good records for a few semesters.
More information helps account for the change that was coming—I took a survey in April of 2008 and asked my UW Colleges English Department colleagues about how long it took them to return student work. It bothered me to see myself at the slowest end of the scale. I had assumed (based on no evidence whatsoever) I was sort of the slowest of the middle of the pack. I could maybe have waved to the middle of the pack from where I was, but I was bringing up the rear. In a Scooby Doo episode, I’d have been the first one picked off.
And then, Fall 2010, everything came together. My mean, my straight average, for how long it took me to return student work, was 5.28 days and the standard deviation was way down, 3.59. Spring 2011 was good, but not as great—my mean was 7.25 (an increase for which I totally blame Scott Walker). I had a good summer semester, and then this past fall I was below 7 again: the mean was 6.0872, the median was 6, the most often occurring number was 7, and the standard deviation was 3.2186.
What accounts for what I was suddenly capable of Fall 2010 and after? Here’s the best list I can come up with.
× I turned 45 and just felt tired of having the same problems. I wanted to at least have different problems.
× I’ve been diagnosed as an adult with A.D.D. I’m ambivalent about the diagnosis, except that it has helped me understand a little better what comes to me naturally and what strategies I need to adopt to compensate. A.D.D. is supposed to fade with age, and it feels to me as though I am generally less distractible. (This is something akin to saying that the ocean is a little dryer some days, however.)
× I also started swimming two times a week. I had more energy for EVERYTHING.
× My son was a little older, needing me in different ways. My husband and I started taking turns reading to him at bedtime, whereas for his first five years, I was almost always the one getting him to sleep. That gave me an extra hour at night, or an earlier bedtime so I could get up earlier to grade.
× My teaching schedule changed. I began teaching a late class, 3:30 to 4:45. This made it easier to have a grading block on campus.
× I set up good rewards for myself and actually had the discipline to WAIT for them (can’t explain why I had the discipline last fall—I haven’t had it before).
The Glorious Glory of an Excel Spreadsheet:
Keeping track of assignments on an Excel spreadsheet was a lucky stroke of accidental genius on my part. Record keeping is crucial—instead of some vague sense of how well I’m doing, I have really precise numbers. Somehow just seeing the assignments that are coming next also helps me get to work on the current numbers—I know I’m not going to get a break, that if I’m procrastinating, I’m just delaying the inevitables.
I also pledged to go public with my numbers. This REALLY helps. I tell students how well (or poorly) I’m doing, and I even post the spreadsheet itself on D2L for them a couple times a semester. Ultimately, of course, I’m trying to return student work faster because students will learn more and feel less how-did-I-do? anxiety over the course of the semester. However. I somehow really get off on driving those numbers down. And I seem to have a lot of friends, family, and colleagues who understand how hard this is for me and give me lots of positive reinforcement when I post good numbers.
Being organized doesn’t come as naturally to me as some things, but I’m learning, and I’m happy to say that if you’re interested in procrastinating less, it is possible to make progress. I have some thoughts on the spiritual dimensions of procrastination and I plan to write about them. Soonish. For now, I’ll just finish with this quote from Pema Chodron: “It’s painful when you see how in spite of everything you continue in your neurosis; sometimes it has to wear itself out like an old shoe.” For some reasons I can understand and articulate, and some reasons I can’t understand or articulate, my procrastination is wearing itself out. I look forward to donating it to Goodwill sometime soon.