I’ve had more than one client recently worry about their inability to get down to their writing. This is not a minor problem. It can lead you to question your ability to do the work you are doing and to question your own identity. If you aren’t an academic and a writer, who are you?
Procrastination is neither a congenital defect nor a moral failing. You are not lazy. You do not lack a work ethic. Procrastination is a clue.
This post is part of a series. In Part 1 I write about procrastination as a clue that there is something important that isn’t getting enough attention.
In Parts 2a and 2b I write about procrastination as a clue that you are worried you will fail and look like a fool.
Is the cat on the keyboard a “no” in disguise?
I was reminded recently that procrastination can also be a clue that you really don’t want to do whatever it is. You are having trouble concentrating on a task. You keep seeing this task on your list, recognizing its importance, but not doing it.
Everything on your list seems more important than this one thing.
If the item on your list is “Get back to X about Y.” then this is a big sign that your response is “No.” If you are procrastinating that much about responding, just imagine how much you will procrastinate about the task itself.
Even if you don’t really have an explanation for why you can’t do it, procrastinating about even committing to it is a huge clue that it is not a priority for you right now. X doesn’t need any explanation anyway. X needs an answer.
Like most things, it takes practice to notice the disguised “no”. I am getting better at noticing when I’m doing this but I still miss some. Hence my recent reminder.
You can renegotiate
If you said yes and then notice, you can go back and renegotiate. The sooner you do this the better. Give the editor, conference organizer, committee chair, or whoever a good chance of finding a good replacement. And give your replacement a decent amount of time to complete the work.
Don’t over-explain. All you really need to say is that you have realized you are overcommitted and cannot complete this project. If you must, apologize for taking so long and/or suggest possible alternatives.
Ask any colleague who has ever edited a book or organized a conference, and you will learn that pulling out at the last minute is incredibly common. You are not alone. Retreating with grace earlier in the project will earn you respect.
But someone’s got to do it!
Every job has things about it that, taken in isolation, are not enjoyable. No parent actually loves changing poopy diapers, for example. But it isn’t really a deal-breaker for most of us either. Sometimes the stuff you really dislike can be reallocated to someone else. People vary. What you dislike will be someone else’s idea of a really easy (if not necessarily fun) job.
In academic life, service and administrative jobs can usually be allocated to play to people’s strengths. If the thing you dislike so much you are procrastinating about doing it is something someone else could do, extract yourself and take on a task you actually like and are good at.
Spend some time identifying your strengths and identifying opportunities to use those strengths to make a contribution. Then you can respond to requests more easily (even when you turn people down) and do things that will make it more likely you will be asked to do things you actually want to do.
What if the thing that is really a “no” is a core part of your job?
This is scary. Take some deep breaths. It’ll be okay in the end.
This is hard to diagnose. And it can take a long time to be sure. You will want to experiment with changing things to see if that helps the situation first. You definitely want to experiment with getting support. You do have options, even if you don’t know what they are right now. And there is support out there.
It is okay to quit. Although you don’t want to act rashly, you also don’t want to wait until you are dealing with serious physical and psychological effects (like depression, anxiety, and various physical illnesses) either. You need to do a bit of research both about yourself and about the possibilities.
There may also be options to change things within your existing institution, make a lateral move into a different position, change your workload allocation, or something else to align better with your strengths.
If you are experiencing symptoms of anxiety, depression or physical illness speak to your doctor and/or seek counselling from an appropriate professional. Don’t wait until you have a crisis.
Check if your employer provides access to counselling through an employee assistance program. If they do, this is usually organized in a such a way that your confidentiality is guaranteed and the provider is a separate organization. Also, see what support your union provides, especially if there are bullying or other issues involved.
If you need help figuring out whether this is just a problem of not having figured out how to do this part of your job effectively, I can help you with work strategies and provide support while you experiment. Again, your employer and colleagues will not know.
I hope your procrastination is just a clue to some fairly minor problem that we can sort out easily. But if it’s not, I’ve been there. Transition is mucky and doesn’t feel that great but you are not alone. It’ll be all right in the end. If it’s not all right, it’s not the end.
Edited March 8, 2016. Additional links added July 3, 2017.