How to Cure Deep ProcrastinationJuly 15th, 2011 · 60 comments
The Deep Procrastination Crisis
Above is a snapshot of my blog e-mail inbox, filtered to only show e-mails from students struggling with deep procrastination. Notice that there are close to 60 such messages. If I include blog comments in the search, the number jumps into the hundreds.
Deep procrastination is a distressing affliction. Students who suffer from it lose the ability to start school work. Deadlines pass and they hand nothing in. Professors provide special extensions, but the students still can’t bring themselves to do the work. And so on.
As evidenced by my inbox, this issue is surprisingly common, especially at elite colleges. Yet it’s also almost entirely off the radar of traditional student counseling, which is why I dedicate time to it here.
In my previous post, I introduced a dubious evolutionary explanation for an otherwise very real phenomenon: procrastination, in my experience, is not a character flaw, but instead evidence that you don’t have a believable plan for succeeding at what you’re trying to do. In this post, as promised, I want to apply this evolutionary perspective to help better understand, and therefore better combat, the deep variety of this common issue.
The Question of “Why”
Deep procrastination usually strikes students later in their college career, when the difficulty of their courses ratchets up. At this stage, their work load gets harder and harder, and at some point some powerful part of their brain says “no more!”
An evolutionary perspective on procrastination helps explain this reaction. The student is asking his or her brain to expend lots of energy (from a biological perspective, studying for an orgo exam is an expensive thing to do). One way to see this process is that there’s an ancient part of our brain that has evolved to evaluate any such plans — a filter, of sorts, to prevent the wasting of precious energy.
“Why are we going to expend so much precious energy?”, it asks.
The more modern, abstract-reasoning, rational part of the student’s brain is quick to respond: “Because we need to expend this energy to pass the test which we need to earn our degree!”
“What the hell is a ‘degree’ and why do we need one?”, the ancient brain counters.
“Because that’s what you’re supposed to do,” the rational brain responds.
And this is where the problem occurs.
The rational part of the brain is promoting an abstract societal value. It knows that for a middle class American, earning a college degree is an expected milestone on your path to integration into the middle class economy
But the ancient brain doesn’t do well with abstract societal values, which are a recent addition to humankind on the scale of evolutionary time. One way to understand deep procrastination, therefore, is as a rejection of an ambiguous, abstract answer to the key question of why you’re going through the mental strain required by the college experience.
(As in my previous post, I’m using an evolutionary explanation metaphorically — as a way to help explain a concrete phenomenon I’ve observed in my research and writing on this topic. Whether the evolutionary explanation for the phenomenon is strictly true is somewhat beside the point and beyond my expertise.)
The good news is that this understanding provides a clear strategy for combating this scourge: form a more concrete and personal answer to the question of “why.”
Combating Deep Procrastination
From my experience, an effective answer to this question of why you’re at college can be constructed through the following process:
- First, devise a (tentative) answer to the following question: What makes a good life good? This is the foundation on which everything else in your life will be built. Your goal is not the identify the “right” answer, but to instead identify a working hypothesis. This answer will evolve along with your life experience, so this is not a time for perfectionism. If you’re religious, your starting point for finding this answer is obvious. If you’re not religious, you could jump into philosophy — as this question has been at the core of human thinking since the time of the Greeks — but I’ve found it’s more approachable to start with biographies of people whose life you admire, looking for evidence of their own responses to this prompt.
- Second, decide how your experience at college can best be leveraged to support this vision of a good life. If, for example, you decide the key to a good life is to master something useful to the world, this might lead to you to see college as an opportunity to master a hard skill while exposing yourself to examples of people applying this skill in useful ways.
- Third, identify the set of specific student tactics that will help you succeed in this leveraging. In our above example, this thinking might lead you to the concrete strategies I espoused in my romantic scholar series.
This process provides a more personal and concrete answer to the fundamental question being posed by your ancient brain.
“Why should I expend all this difficult energy?”, it asks once again.
“Because it’s part of a well-thought through plan for leading a good life,” you now respond.
“Sounds good,” it agrees while you head to the library.
As I noted in an earlier post on this subject, this self-reflection is not an easy process. But college really is a fantastic time to face these basic questions. Deep procrastination, once you understand its source, doesn’t have to a Jobian affliction. It can instead be seen as the prompt you need to get your internal shop in order.
If you’ve had success combating deep procrastination with answers to these basic questions, please share your experience. Concrete examples help deep procrastinators commit to a way out.