Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Remedying Procrastination

Tibor R. Machan

One problem many of my students—actually, even colleagues—have is that they are procrastinators. So many of them miss deadlines for papers—in class or for journals, conferences, and books—that it’s a wonder they manage to pass courses or get published. Certainly many get to their tasks at the last minute. Thus, even though over the decades I have offered all my students to look over drafts of their papers provided I received them three days prior to the due date, very few of them take advantage of this mostly because they get down to doing their papers at the last moment.
Once I was a procrastinator too. I used to think of ideas to work on and write about but would say, "I’ll get to it later," or as that old song has it, "Manana, manana, manana is good enough for me." But then I wouldn’t get to it because some new thought would crowd out this one and then that got postponed.

In time I got into a bit of panic about this. After all, I was embarking upon an academic career and if you don’t publish, you will perish! One day I was sitting watching the Huntley-Brinkley NBC Nightly News and in the middle of the broadcast I got an idea and, sure enough, was about to postpone doing anything about it. But this time I took a hold of myself and with some trepidation turned off the TV set and went to work on the idea and it turned into a nice little essay that later became part of my doctoral dissertation or something—I no longer recall where exactly it ended up.

What I do remember is that henceforth I virtually never postponed going to work on the idea that I thought of, if I thought it worth working on it in the first place. I would get up in the middle of the night if, while dozing, I thought of something that needed working out. I would carry notepads with me everywhere I went, even in my car, so that if something interesting occurred to me, I’d at least be prepared to make a brief notation that would later bring it back into focus for me.

Of course, none of this guarantees that what one thinks of is actually worth much but that can be dealt with later—editing is always important and sometimes leads to discarding ideas that seemed worthy at first inspection. Still, if one is careful enough in formulating ideas, these will often turn out to have some merit, at least for some purpose.

In time I not only parlayed many of the ideas that I thought up into essays, articles, editorials, papers, and books but started, back in the fall of 1966, to write newspaper columns. At first these appeared mostly in The Santa Ana Register, but later they made it all over the place, including The Chicago Tribune, The Boston Globe, The New York Times, The LA Times, and many other places. Again, not all of them were sterling pieces but most managed to catch the eye of some editor or other and ended up seeing the light of day.

I write this up only because so often I am told that it is amazing how prolific I am. Well, I am not amazed at all. It took some initial discipline, yes, but in time it became a habit, so by now it is nearly routine for me to immediately pick up pen and paper—or its electronic equivalents—and make some kind of notation so I can turn a glimmer of an idea into a substantial product.

Is there a lesson here? Well, yes and no. Certainly the approach I took may not suit everyone. Some folks depend on the Muse, as it were; others require a set time of day to do their writing or whatever creative activity they like to embark upon. But one thing seems to make sense to me based on my own experience: Routinely postponing projects can become a habit and lead to the dreaded trait of procrastination.

Over the years I have shed other habits by means of a bit of concentration or focus, or what some call resolve, and in time found that after some fairly difficult effort the practice I wanted to take up became more of a habit or even character trait. Be this about smoking or drinking or exercise or other kinds of conduct that I decided would be best to cultivate—or to discontinue—the process seems to me not all that difficult, once on puts one’s mind to it.

There is one serious source of procrastination I have not found a remedy for, although it afflicts some good friends of mine: perfectionism. Perfectionists want to produce the Platonic form of whatever they embark upon creating and that is simply not in the cards. They do not wish to take the risk of getting anything even possibly wrong. I don’t know what to advise such folks. Maybe they need to accept that not everything they will do will end up completely flawless.

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