01 February, 2015

Procrastination vacation

"Procrastination is the practice of carrying out less urgent tasks in preference to more urgent ones, or doing more pleasurable things in place of less pleasurable ones, and thus putting off impending tasks to a later time, sometimes to the "last minute" before the deadline." (Wikipedia)

Well, that sounds about right.

I spent about 24 hours this weekend in New York (visiting friends and wrestling with Finn over a $500 tiara...long story, I'll save the rest for another post) and ten hours on a train to get there and back. On the train, I daydreamed about vacation. Not a lie-around-on-the-beach kind of vacation - I'd never go the beach, except that it is usually between me and swimming in the ocean. I have this fantasy of renting a house somewhere for a month or two, maybe Skye, maybe Italy. Somewhere quiet, with good food and wine (of course, I imagine someone is doing all the cooking for me, too - it's MY daydream), mountains to hike and climb, lakes with cliffs to jump from afterwards. What makes it really a fantasy is how I imagine spending my days - not relaxing, but writing. I envision hours of productivity with everything else the reward for having accomplished so much. Feeling exhausted and satisfied and brilliant every day. Finishing a book.

Of course, the question is, if I really had a month "off" and the perfect place to spend it, would the rest follow? Or would I end up idling away the time until my vacation was over?

This post is proof-of-concept, I think - I mean, I'm writing about procrastination instead of doing actual work (the downside of my chosen career path is that it seems like there is always something I could be working on, whether it's 11 AM or 11 PM) or even writing fiction. Or studying for the boards (50 days to go - I programmed my phone to remind me of this every day, because guilt is obviously working well as a personal motivator).

I found this on PhD Comics last week. It basically describes my whole life, from about tenth grade until now:

And if you, personally, are in need of new and interesting ways to procrastinate: check out PhD Comics and #OverlyHonestMethods on Twitter/Facebook. I think of #OverlyHonestMethods like #TextsFromLastNight for science geeks. It's also been compared to PostSecret - which I also love. Although...I think the kind of procrastination where you'd be okay with crying for awhile is a bit different from the kind where you just really need to laugh...

...at things like this: 

Last Week Tonight is really good for this purpose too.

Last week, I met with my department's new research assistant to talk about how she might be able to help me with my projects. At first, I was, like, well, my most active projects are really related to teaching/course development, and I don't know that we need any research support at this point...and then I pulled out WRKSNPRGRSS201415.docx. WRKSNPRGRSS201415.docx is an extremely messy, intelligible-only-to-me Word document with tentative titles, notes and half-written paragraphs on every topic that has seemed worth exploring in the past six months (since a badly chosen file name permanently corrupted its predecessor). And no, I don't know what happened to the vowels. 

Different perspectives on the Cassandra C. case. Can social media help ground the physician-patient relationship in a sense of community? The intersections of adolescence, sexuality and life-threatening diagnoses. The best idea to emerge from my anthro dissertation (which was on hope and uncertainty in treatment choice for pediatric cancer), except that I can never seem to finish the paper to my satisfaction.

And because submitting new work to a journal usually doesn't have a hard deadline - unlike giving a lecture or turning in revisions - I could theoretically procrastinate forever.

But I won't. I promise.

Incidentally, here's an #overlyhonestmethods about revisions:

I just have to trick myself into thinking there is a time crunch. It's more than a trick - a lot of the things I want to write about are important right now, and I need to get them out there while they're still relevant.

I thought this would get better as I got older and more disciplined, and yet I think it's actually getting worse in some ways. In college, it was sort of expected, and hey, sunrise in Charlottesville is really pretty! In med school, I had a great study partner who kept me on track - for three days before every exam, we moved into our favorite coffee shop and did practice questions from old exams together. (One of the best compliments I've ever gotten: "When I took the exam, I heard your voice, explaining things.") The guys in the coffee shop knew us so well that they once changed my tire for me - without asking, while I was taking a dinner break. When I switched over to grad school, I remember finishing my first essay for a tutorial at 4:30 in the morning, and thinking, This is terrible. I feel terrible. I will NEVER let this happen again. (Unclear if that was the exhaustion or the stomachache from eating my body weight in Haribo gummy bears talking.)

Famous last words. That was before I started giving a lot of talks - no matter how early I create a PowerPoint file or how much time I spend debating the merits of light vs. dark background (of critical importance), somehow these talks are never final until the wee hours of the morning before I'm supposed to speak. I know some people practice their transitions and timing well in advance - I usually don't know exactly what I'm going to say until I'm saying it. Somehow, the panic I feel beforehand dissipates as soon as I start talking.

But I could spare myself all that anxiety if I just didn't procrastinate so much! What is wrong with me?

I've tried everything I can think of to boost my willpower. For instance:

(1) The reward system - read or write a certain amount and then I allow myself to read something fun. That seems to work better for studying than for writing, and it usually falls apart after awhile. The balance eventually tips from work (listen to a one-hour webinar and do 15 practice questions for one chapter of a novel) to play (read one 3000-word article for 16 chapters of that novel).

(2) Self-bribery - with dark-roast pourover coffee and nice glasses of Malbec, just to persuade myself to sit still and start typing. That only works insofar as probably nothing would ever get written with caffeine (because I'd still be recovering from all those all-nighters). (More would probably get done with less wine, but dinners wouldn't be nearly as enjoyable.)

At its worst, I'd rather do anything but what I most need to be doing. Paint the trim in the hallway. Relearn how to play chess. Scan in family photos stored on 5000 slides ('cause my dad used slide film from 1986 to 1996). Obsess over Serial. Oddly, the more I've procrastinated in the last few months, the more disciplined I've become about other things. This is just another mental tactic - I've convinced myself (3) that taking a break to practice playing the piano or go for a run will clear my head and help me focus, and then I'll feel more creative and energized to write better.

It's totally possible that it's partly true, and I am smarter/more imaginative/whatever. I have certainly written whole pages and scenes and arguments in my head while running. And to be fair, there is a ton of research on the cognitive benefits of both music and exercise.

But to know that it's working for me, I'd have to...actually write something afterward. <sigh> Maybe I should try to (4) combine it with the reward/bribery approaches. For every ten minutes I spend playing the piano, I have to write 500 words. With wine. (No gummy bears though.) I could make it into a drinking game.

And now, I've tried one last strategy:  (5) writing honestly about my problem. Do you think it will make a difference?