Saturday, October 06, 2012

I'll Do it Later

A Google search on "Procrastination and Writing" yields over 25 million hits.  At the top are three scholarly articles, one of which contains empirical evidence that students who procrastinate on papers get worse grades than those who don't--which actually may not be as obvious of a point as one might assume. As a writing teacher, I've had a number of students tell me that they "work better under pressure."  But perhaps they think this because they lack experience with any other method.  Another article contains the findings that 95% of undergraduates procrastinate, with the primary reasons being "fear of failure," and "task aversiveness."  I've always thought there is a connection between the two.  We generally aren't averse to tasks that are guaranteed to reward us with feelings of success.

Given that an unfinished writing project has the potential for success or failure, and a "finished" writing project has no potential at all, it is psychologically easier for us to inhabit a realm of uncertainty.  And until this week, this has largely shaped my understanding of why procrastination (specifically in writing tasks but applicable to other areas as well) is such a widespread practice.

Then I ran across an article on (which, incidentally, is a good place to go if you are trying to procrastinate).  I've certainly heard the "it takes 10 weeks to build a habit" concept before, and how it takes one bad day in those 10 weeks to cause you to have to start all over again.  But this article explained (in a way I have never heard before) why this is the case:
It's not because your brain hates you; it's because your brain likes efficiency, and mindless habits are efficient. See, what your brain really wants is to shift into autopilot, to turn your life into repetitive patterns and create heuristics -- mental shortcuts that help you get through the day using the least amount of brain power necessary. Heuristics allow you to drive to work half asleep and hung over, and get there with no recollection of the trip you just made. They compel you to repeat the same little things over and over day after day, because these routines require way less energy.
But even though  it is possible to build heuristics that center around habitual writing (as this blogger apparently did), the creative process resists efficient, repetitive patterns.  I try to post on this blog every Saturday, and most weeks I am successful in reaching this goal, but that doesn't mean it isn't a struggle almost every time I sit down to type, whereas it is never a struggle for me to sit down and open my web browser and visit the same bookmarked websites every morning.

So while initiating a writing routine is an obvious way to break procrastination habits, the underlying problem still may not be dealt with.  Our brains are lazy.  What do we do in light of the fact that we are biologically resistant to creativity?  Perhaps the key is to not only initiate rote mechanical routines, but to build into our day periods in which our brains can practice being creative--that is to say, thinking about abstract things.  That need not mean that we practice some kind of isolating meditation.  Thinking can come about precisely through writing, or running, or listening to music, or any number of other activities.  But an important factor is that it should be a sustained period, free from quick fixes of outside stimulation (e.g. cell phones).  We've got plenty of practice being receptive vessels and being rote actors, but more practice at being generative thinkers will make it easier for us to be generative thinkers.  It might take 10 weeks to get into the habit, though.


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