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Academic Coaching & Writing

VII. Are You a Pre-Crastinator?

Oct 14, 2014 by Amy Benson Brown

Have you ever been surprised after a full day of work to realize that you haven’t made any real progress toward the writing goal that was uppermost on your mind when you started?  Where did the time go? You toiled dutifully at your computer all day, and at many of your activities related to your writing goal. But at the end of the day, you have no more paragraphs written than you did at the beginning. Why did your efforts not add up to a satisfying sense of progress?

Part of the problem probably lies in the tasks you chose to tackle that day. An oft-heard bit of advice on productivity claims that if you can take care of a task in two minutes or less—through a quick email or call—you should. Clearing your desk of these small tasks will make you more efficient and productive. However, that advice may not always work best for academics who are pressured to juggle multiple tasks but whose career success depends most directly on getting one major task done, that of publishing their research.

New research also raises questions about the logic of most people’s decision-making process about the best way to get a big job done. A series of studies published recently in the journal, Pscyhological Science, examined a pattern of behavior the researchers dubbed “precrastination.” The bottom line is that rather than taking the most efficient route to our goals, many people actually take paths that demand more effort because they seem easier and give the illusion of productivity.

Working in the digital era may be making it even more difficult to discern what tasks need to be addressed first. We have vast amounts of online research at our fingertips. Chirps and pings punctuate our concentration, as our email, cellphones, Twitter, or Facebook accounts announce new messages that seem to demand immediate attention. The researchers involved in the precrastination studies hypothesize that you may choose less direct paths to accomplish your big goals (or even take on more work than is necessary) simply to reduce the strain of information overload on your working memory. I know I feel a little lighter whenever I cross several little items off my to-do list or toss a series of sticky notes into the trash because I’ve accomplished the seemingly urgent things they were nagging me to knock out.

At first glance, it seems like promptly taking care of tasks is the opposite of procrastination—the delaying of doing something that needs to be done. But, when it comes to writing, I suspect precrastination may actually be a subtler form of procrastination. It’s all too tempting to make a habit of working on simpler or less intimidating writing tasks as a way of avoiding more difficult or daunting ones. Thus, at the end of a busy day—or even several busy months—you still don’t have the full draft of the manuscript that was your primary goal.

So, how should you structure your writing habits instead?  Begin by taking time to reflect mindfully on that long list of items on your to-do list for completing your research and submitting it for publication.

  • Consider what nonwriting tasks really must be addressed immediately. For example, it makes sense to get the approval process started with your university’s Institutional Research Board (IRB), if your topic requires it, because that process takes time. Similarly, if your research requires designing and administering surveys to augment your analysis, it makes sense to get that work going before drafting. Like getting IRB approval, those tasks take time. And the insights you gather from that work likely will impact the argument you ultimately make.
  • Check in with your gut, though, to discern if you may by be stalling on addressing difficult or messy topics in your research by focusing on less critical issues. Do you really need to do more research, for instance, or track down more citations before drafting those tough parts of your argument?
  • Prioritize the hardest or more daunting aspects of your writing in your daily schedule. You’re likely to make more progress if you take on those difficult tasks when you are fresh and thinking most clearly, rather than when you’re fatigued.
  • Ask yourself if you may be focusing prematurely on editing your writing before you have worked out more substantive or structural challenges in your argument. If you find yourself rereading and tweaking the same passage in your draft in multiple writing sessions, you may be moving too soon to the editing stage. Are you trying to jump to one of the last stages of the writing process as a way of avoiding the work necessary to the stage your argument is actually in? No amount of time finessing the prose will help you convey an insight or argument that you have not actually formed yet.

Both procrastination and precrastination are habits that can delay progress on writing and leave authors feeling frustrated or even demoralized. Other common challenges to a smooth and efficient process arise less from habits we have learned than from innate glitches in cognitive processing. Thus, the next blog in this series explores how to cope with two of the most common of those problems: dyslexia and ADHD.

  • Tanya Dodge says:

    Apr 19, 2015 at 8:12 am

    Yes, this article describes me to a T!

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