Procrastination versus Process

Image: “Busy” CC-licensed by Flickr user AJC1

One of my favorite things about being in residency at the Fox Center this semester is the weekly lunches. Each Wednesday, the entire center — PhD candidates, administrators, and faculty fellows — meet together for lunch from 12-1pm to discuss a topic of common interest. Last week, I led a talk on the job market. For the first half hour, we discussed practical considerations — formatting job letters, what search committees look for, common mistakes. During the second half hour, we discussed bigger picture concerns — what are the ethics of encouraging students to apply for academic jobs? What about applying to graduate school in the first place? How does the changing job market reflect the changing landscape of the academy?

The information we share is great, but so is the scheduled opportunity to take a break from being “busy.”

This week, our lunch topic was “How to Get the Most Out of Research Leave.” One concern was whether people get distracted by all the tasks they don’t have time to do when they are teaching or taking classes. The FCHI administrators expressed concern that those tasks are not what research leave funding is for. At the same time, they understood that it is impossible for academics to fully leave these tasks behind and that getting these tasks out of the way might make focused writing time possible.

The most important thing that came out of this talk for me was a comment about the importance of process. Several people said that having a schedule helps them to get their work done. For example, one senior fellow mentioned that she does not check her e-mail until she has started her writing for the day. Another fellow stressed the importance of making a schedule that takes into account your process rather than an imagined ideal. This was really helpful to me. I have written here before about being told that my habit of writing in big chunks — I completed final drafts of two dissertation chapters during a single week set aside for that purpose — is “binge writing.” This characterization of what I do makes it sound negative and connects it to bad behavior.

In reality, this process is deliberate and carefully thought out. I need time to think through my ideas and if I don’t have a clear picture in my head, writing can lead my in circles. It’s not magic…if I have a deadline, I can get that picture working quickly. But even in a constrained time frame, skipping that part of the process and deciding “I’ll just write or I’m wasting time.” is actually counter-productive. I always need that time, even if it just a day where I draw diagrams on one of the white boards in my office in between reading random short stories online or watching YouTube videos.

Yes, it’s true. I watch a lot of YouTube and Netflix. I’m not ashamed. Recently, Mindy Kaling was quoted on NPR‘s “Fresh Air” talking about what her parents taught her about telling people that you are busy or tired:

And one thing my mom and dad raised me believing is that everyone is busy, so it’s not really a good conversation topic to talk about how busy you are. And it’s a little narcissistic, in fact, to talk about that, because everyone is stressed out no matter what job you’re in. Nobody is like, ‘Yeah, I’m doing really well — work is just a total snooze and so easy.’

Recently, The Washington Post published a related piece titled “No, Exhaustion Is Not a Status Symbol” that I found via a colleague’s Facebook post.

I think the flip side of this issue where everyone says they are busy is that no one talks about when they aren’t busy. As easy as it is to talk about stress and being busy, it’s hard for people, in my experience, to talk about not being busy. How often does someone tell you that they spent their day watching Netflix movies, cleaning the house, or reading a completely non-academic novel? If someone does talk about these activities in an academic setting, it’s often phrased like a confession.

I think that being open about not being busy is just as important as trying to be more aware of not saying you’re busy all the time as a default. Everyone is busy, but everyone also makes choices about how they spend their time. One of my professors in college had a catch phrase: “you make time for what’s important.” The first few times he said that to me when I told him that I couldn’t make a research meeting or a campus event for whatever reason, I heard it as an admonition. I felt guilted into attending that event or making time for that lab meeting. Eventually, I came to understand that his phrase didn’t necessarily mean that I was expected to always make time for the things others asked me to do. Instead, I should be aware that responding to these opportunities with the information that I had something else to do was not an excuse but a choice.

It’s one of the most important things I learned in college.

So, I’ll leave you with one of the ways that I am both busy and not busy as I write my dissertation. As I mentioned, I watch Netflix when I need a way to distract myself from my work and clear my head. I would consider myself “not busy” during this time. Still, this type of activity is essential to my thought process. Now, I’m willing to share with you my groundbreaking secret of how I make this work. Because I watch Netflix streaming, I fill my queue with only a few movies or TV shows at a time. The rest of the content is accessible, but this way I can use the queue — specifically, the number of unwatched shows left in it — to monitor how long I’ve been “not busy” and kick myself back into gear on the dissertation project.

According to Mindy Kaling and The Washington Post, you shouldn’t be telling people you’re busy all the time. For the most part, I agree. But please, tell me, how are you not busy? I won’t judge.


One thought on “Procrastination versus Process”

  1. Pinterest…all the time. Oh, and have to check out all the Gossip. Real Housewives of (insert any city except Miami)…you should see if Netflix carries these. Thanks for the reminder, much needed inspiration for my papers this semester…

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