The Mysterious Love of Procrastination

Brian picProcrastination usually doesn’t show up with things we love but with things we don’t. An image comes to mind of a task that is too boring, too long, too difficult, too confusing, or too bothersome—at least that’s the perception.

If the task can be bumped off the to-do list, great. With assignments, that’s not likely. If anything, instructors would like to pack more into a course. They are in the field of their pleasure, and they would like to pass on to students the joy of the subject at hand.  procrastination1

How well I remember the mathematical truth, “The sense of foreboding increases proportionally to the delay of a task, until its exponential spike before an imminent due date.” Foreboding requires a lot of energy. Dread doesn’t come cheap.

procrastinationThen there is the scientific principle, “A task procrastinated upon increases in mass until it becomes unexplainably bigger than it really is.”

This all calls for a state of mind that has weighed up foreboding and increased mass and decided that pleasure is often defined by misery avoided. The amount of displeasure in getting started and knocking out the task is far less than the cumulative displeasure in procrastination.

It is even possible to stop thinking, “I am not enjoying this” and to just do a task, with the mind freed up for the task without having to click the like button or the dislike button. Suppose neither is particularly useful to consider.WWS-Procrastinate1

Of course we like or dislike lots of things. That will not change. However, the like-dislike paradigm does not have to receive so much attention. It can be starved. A person won’t die by not majoring on liking or disliking certain tasks.

The mysterious love of procrastination turns out to be more easily resolved that had been supposed. Life does have its unsolved mysteries, but procrastination need not remain one of them.procrastination-flowchart-2

Tackling Large Tedious Tasks

Brian picNo one much likes large, tedious tasks. They feel overwhelming. Even the thought of them starts to drain energy away. If you cannot get someone else to do all or part of the task, or if not thinking about it does not make it go away, a good start is chocolate, caffeine, or some other legal perk that brightens the onset of the dreaded task.

When I was a new ensign in the navy, I had to take a week course on managing time and tasks. The instructor introduced the “Swiss Cheese Method.” As a food lover, this got my elbow off the desk and my head off my cradling palm. He proceeded to say that picking a small part of the task and accomplishing it is like making a hole in the cheese. Each new bit of sustained effort knocks another hole in the cheese. swisscheese

This has stood me in good stead ever since. After the shock of a big, new task, it is not so hard to start dividing it into smaller parts. Ten minutes here, twenty minutes there, even a half an hour or more, make a huge difference. Spread over multiple parts of a day, or multiple days, a large, tedious task can become a series of modest parts done one at a time, until—no cheese is left!

procrastination_7Advice is tricky. It sounds good but is more easily talked about than expedited. The hardest thing is getting started because procrastination is as mean as the devil himself. It provokes dread, feelings of oppressive weight upon the mind, and erosion of self-respect. It must be faced with sword and fire at times. However, once you make that first thrust through the cheese and knock out a precious bit of the looming, fearful task, it is easier to make the next thrust, and then the next. Pretty soon, you start not only doing this, but telling others about it as well—because it works!

Say Cheese Say Swiss Cheese

BrianThe oddest things stick in one’s mind—for decades. As a young navy ensign whose uniforms had hardly been through the washer enough times to knock the new off, I was assigned to take classes on time management. The instructor, a nerdy LT, began to present. All I could think of was how his hair looked too perfect because every hair was locked in place with cream or gel, and how he epitomized the total antithesis of being spontaneous.

This portended to be a dull class, and I would soon lose interest in observing his demeanor and grooming. This is all tacky, but my wife tells me all the time that bored students find the oddest things to look at, so she gives me a grooming check, even after 42 years of marriage. I’m a slow learner because I assume students will be listening to my point, when she assures me that they will notice wiry hairs coming out of my ears or that my belt buckle is off-center from my cheese

Anyway—to my point. The LT introduced a segment called “The Swiss Cheese Method.” I thought scornfully, “Right, this oughta be good,” and my mind zoomed to images of Swiss cheese I remembered eating and playing with, for you see, the pleasure of Swiss growing up included pulling it apart and trying to get unusual shapes made possible by the random holes.

procrastination_7The instructor pointed out how large and burdensome tasks are easily relegated to the procrastination bin because their tedious and lengthy aspects tire us out before we start. Therefore, we don’t start. Then the task’s weight hangs over the consciousness with ever increasing dread, followed by scenarios of making resolutions, followed by guilt, followed by paralysis, followed by more and greater loathing of the task and self.

The instructor explained how the Swiss cheese method means getting a start, even if just a few minutes to punch that first hole in the task. Next time, another hole can be punched, and eventually the task is a Swiss cheese—and then finally no cheese because it’s all holes, which is a good thing: you’re done.

bf5430df62ba3bc2c5171220f90f1b54-d491vr9Countless times, I’ve mustered up the will to the Swiss cheese method, thanks to the LT even though he struck me at first as someone who would cross my horizon one time, briefly, and then disappear forever out of mind. Yet he was the one to catch a mouse with a piece of Swiss cheese and make a memory going back to 1971.

Curious, I Googled “Swiss Cheese Method.” Yes—it’s there. You can pick your link on it, tracing it back to Alan Lakein’s book How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life. I’ve never remembered all these years his name or even that there was such a book, no insult intended. It’s the LT I remember, with his Swiss cheese.

Managing The Brat: It’s All About Time

I opened my mailbox this morning to this “Moment of Happiness” sent by Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project:

One lives in the naive notion that later there will be more room than in the entire past.”

              —Elias Canetti

The Brat

The Brat (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sigh. Guilty as charged. The ever-growing self-help section of my personal library has several volumes disputing this fallacy. There’s Do It Now. And Overcoming Procrastination. And The Now Habit. And The Seven Habits of…..Well, you get the picture. I once owned a T-shirt emblazoned “MAÑANA DUCK,” featuring a waterfowl lounging in a hammock. It was a perfect depiction of my Inner Brat. Your brat may have a different name. Freud liked “id.” One of my running buddies said, “I just call mine the B______” (My mother won’t let me type that word.) Whatever we call him or her, many of us have a shadow self who sabotages the best-laid plans of our better angels.

The campus where I teach anatomy & physiology is located on a military base, and our terms are accelerated (compressed? squooshed?) into eight weeks to accommodate the very mobile population that we serve. Despite my warning that all the material in A&P “comes at ya fast,” and despite my students’ earnest intentions to keep up, the demon of time mismanagement conitnually threatens to claim victims. My own Inner Brat recognizes kindred spirits in students who believe that they can always catch up tomorrow. Since I have a few decades of practice in managing my own procrastination, I offer students a few strategies for managing theirs.

  • Just Do It. Clearly not original, but remarkably effective. It’s so tempting to defer doing what needs to be done until after *insert nonessential chore* is completed or until the moment of motivation arrives.  That moment never comes. Promise yourself that “I only have to do this for ten minutes.” Set the timer if need be; there’s one on that fancy phone. I’ve been using this bit of self-deception for the last eleven years to get myself to the gym, and I have yet to leave after ten minutes.  Why do I still have to promise The Brat that she can leave? I just do.
  • Shift work. I encourage my students to try a variation of the Pomodoro Technique. Set that handy timer that you used in the previous strategy for a predetermined interval of committed effort; then reward yourself with a few minutes of fun. The reward could be as simple as a brief stroll, reading a magazine article, or browsing the internet. I’ve been known to use household chores like unloading the dishwasher for my reward interval. (Yippee!) You can visit the Pomodoro website, which features nifty timers and strategies, by clicking here. Maybe this could be your first reward interval.
  • Eat the Elephant. You’ve heard it: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. So many of my students lead complicated, stressful lives. Deployed spouses, blended and extended families, job demands—I really don’t know how they manage as well as they do. We’ve made it a practice to create and share ways to collect the crumbs of time that fall from life’s frantic buffet of activities. Flashcards are portable and can fill the time waiting for kids’ practices to end or waiting in line at WalMart or the pharmacy.
    DSC08119 Elephant eating

    DSC08119 Elephant eating (Photo credit: godutchbaby)

    They can also be put on a phone. One student whose morning toilette was apparently time-consuming plastered her bathroom mirror with sticky notes. Students listen to taped material as they drive, work out, or fold laundry. Students come to class early and stay late. I often arrive early in the morning to find a study group taking place outside my locked door. Once I introduce the strategy of finding crumbs of time, I enjoy hearing the strategies that my students share.

OK, now that I’ve offered my students some tips on managing their time, how do I help them to avoid procrastination? I build in a lot of accountability and time-sensitive work. Given my explanation of the the challenges they face, this might seem heartless, even draconian. But, as I remind them, goals are dreams with deadlines. And I am a deadline dispenser. I share with my class that in distance races, there are volunteers who run with signs marked with times, say, 4:15 for a marathon. If you want to finish in 4:15, you must stay with the runner who carries that sign, because they’ve made a commitment to cross the line on time. I carry a sign that says “8 WEEKS.” Here’s how I move my racers along:

  • POD.  Learning a bewildering array of military acronyms has been an interesting part of teaching on a military base. POD, for “plan of day,” has become one of my favorites. When we have a day with several planned activities or multiple important topics to cover, I post the POD on the board.  I start with quitting time at the bottom of the board and work upwards, allotting time for each topic or activity. The big clock over my head makes it clear to me and the class that we need to keep moving to finish what we need to do. Once students realize that the in-class activities are a big help in mastering the material, they police themselves. Everyone wants to get a turn at all the stations.
    Keep Production on Schedule - NARA - 534497

    Keep Production on Schedule – NARA – 534497 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  • Frequent assessments. I administer 11 short quizzes and 4 longer exams during the term. Despite initial displeasure with this practice, student after student has thanked me for “making me keep up” by holding them accountable on a regular basis.
  • Reading assignments. The online teaching platform that enhances my classes allows me to require completion of a short (less than 10 minutes) reading assignment before each new topic is introduced. This simple change has resulted in dramatically improved comprehension and discussion in class.
  • Homework assignments. Students complete a longer (30 minutes by national norms) assignment after each topic or portion of a larger topic. The teaching platform allows me to enhance these assignments with videos and labs, and I can add my own items when I like.
  • Required participation in class activities. I assign points every day for participation in lab, mock practical exams, and group learning activities.  If students don’t attend, they don’t get the points. The great majority of my students have perfect or near-perfect attendance.

There are probably hundreds of ways to help ourselves and our students manage time well and avoid procrastination.  How do you help make managing time an achievable challenge? I’d love to hear your strategies! Tomorrow I’ll share a tip for moving things along during group activities.

Ending on an Up Note: Miserable or Strong?

Strong Man Bot

Strong Man Bot (Photo credit: Jenn and Tony Bot)

As a victim of CPS (Chronic Procrastination Syndrome), I’ve found some helpful strategies via, which provides an app for iPad with tools and tips and also sends a regular newsletter. Look for more about the site/app in a later post.  This week’s Unstuck offering included this quote from the late Carl Castaneda.  Castaneda was enigmatic and controversial…and that’s putting it mildly…but I think this idea is right on target:

“We either make ourselves miserable, or we make ourselves strong. The amount of work is the same.” 

True for students; true for teachers.

To see the Unstuck newsletter, click here.