Monday, October 1, 2007

The use for self-help books

At the beginning of last year, I bought a few books on work habits and procrastination and read them, and found them helpful, but didn't pick them up after that. The other day, I was despairing, so I picked up a 1983 book _Procrastination: why you do it and what to do about it_ and was amazed again at how its cycle of procrastination captures my private despair. I felt the same way when I went to a lecture on the "Impostor" phenomenon: 200+ people who looked bright and hard-working in the lecture hall also felt like impostors along with me. It's an amazing feeling.

The surmising about exactly why people procrastinate and what they should do about it, I could take or leave, but knowing that I'm not alone in going through these cycles of despair gives me hope that I don't have to procrastinate. Just the few pages where someone wrote in 1983 about my most private shameful experiences are the worth of the book to me.

I didn't procrastinate until I started college, and I got worse because I hung out with people who procrastinated, some of whom were proud to call themselves slackers. It's my fault for picking up bad habits, I don't mean to minimize that. It's helpful to realize that nothing happens in isolation, and if I'd hung out with premeds, I might not have increased procrastination more.

As I finish my dissertation in the same rush of procrastination that I picked up in college, I hope that I will have more discipline and consistency in the next stage of my life. One of the books on procrastination contends that people who procrastinate are addicted to the adrenaline of finishing something at the last moment. And there's something to that. But it's even nicer to come to a paper and find it already partially written. And I feel much more proud of myself to push through a block instead of despairing and deciding that I may solve the problem while checking email.

I just went through a big push to do a ton of work that I could have done literally a year ago. And I had allocated a lot of time for it. And I had lots of papers that I had gathered. When it came down to it, though, I found myself in my apartment still with no weekend access to my office, and all my papers locked in my office, and I pushed through and resolved obstacles and no obstacle took all that long to get past. The longest that I got stuck when I was insisting on plowing through snarls instead of giving up was maybe a total of 6-8 hours of work. And the 6-8 hours were somewhat frustrating, but eventually I found my way through, and finished. I don't feel a rush of adrenaline, and I don't feel particularly proud for having done so much at the last minute. I do, for the first time in months, feel competent.

I will feel even more self-efficacy to do a little every day, and assume that every day will include at least one snarl. I think at the beginning of last year I tried a little every day, and I really set my sights low, so that if I hit a hard point, I would say that's enough for the day, and give up. And then I'd be afraid to go back to the snarl that awaited me. Of course there is an absolutely glaring flaw right in the center of my chapter: it was a flaw that was pointed out in the middle of my dissertation proposal defense. My advisors had gone over this chapter with me a few times in the past several months, and they waited until the defense to tell me that the entire chapter was invalid because of the logical flaw. And they do have a point. But there's no way to resolve it cleanly, and the show must go on, so I pick up after it as best I can. But the shock and betrayal that I felt to have this flaw raised at my defense instead of an earlier time was enough to keep me from working too hard on this project. I just danced around the edges: literature here and there, but no substantiative work. Until the 0th hour, quite literally.

There's much more work to be done, but I finally have a real draft of the chapter after reworking the entire thing. All that remains to be done are small things here and there that I really can make a detailed list for, rather than one of those general lists like "Finish paper."

Most importantly, though, I feel competent.

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