If you’re filled with strong negative emotions – particularly when they don’t make sense to you, you’ll do what it takes to avoid those feelings. Hence, procrastination and paralysis when it comes to scholarly writing.
So says Gina Hiatt of AcademicLadder.com. I’ve been subscribed to the free newsletter from this site for a few months now, and have greatly appreciated Gina’s thoughtful commentary on academic life and writing, and how to achieve success. The quote above really rang true for me when I read it this morning, and I was overcome with an urge to explore these thoughts further.
Understanding my Situation
By the time this newsletter hit my inbox, I had already decided that I need to get out of academia. The above quote really helped me see why I feel so adamant about this, even if most of the rest of the advice in the newsletter is geared towards people who intend to continue in academia. I am not jumping ship quite yet though, so the advice is helpful to me as I struggle onwards! I intend to finish my thesis and defend it, because I really don’t want to feel like my five and a half years as a grad student were a complete waste.
I am currently registered as a Ph.D. student, but I was transferred up from the Master’s level without obtaining the Master’s degree. Thus, if I simply defend what I’m working on, I can get out with an M.Sc. and call it a day (or about 2000 days, not that I’m counting). I could potentially get a Ph.D. if my research is unique enough and in-depth enough, and if I take a few more courses, but I have a few reasons not to do this:
- I don’t feel ready to claim that I am competent in research, which is what a Ph.D. really means (according to my advisor, whose advice I quote in this blog entry from just over a year ago)
- I don’t feel like I can handle the intensity of the courses that I’d need to take to complete the Ph.D.
- I really feel like I need to get moving on the ideas I have for my career, instead of dragging out this degree any longer.
So, it seems my path is clear: just finish the thesis, so I can escape the madness (and fear and self-doubt and disappointment and frustration and shame…)
Despite knowing what I must do, I still find myself avoiding working on my thesis. This makes absolutely no sense to me, because intellectually, I know that the only way I will get out of this situation is to finish what I’m working on (or I could get kicked out of my program… but I don’t want to consider that a viable option!) I have been learning a lot about procrastination by listening to some excellent podcasts on the subject, and they’ve certainly helped — at least, when I think about them. However, when I sit down to work, I often end up avoiding what I intended to do (did I intend to write a blog entry today, for example? I’ll let you guess the answer to that!) and my subconscious lets me get away with it. Why? Why why why?!
Along comes Gina, pointing out that emotions that don’t make sense are the ones that people tend to subconsciously avoid experiencing. So that means I’ve just been outright ignoring what I don’t understand, and that’s why it’s so hard to just keep going on my task. Ignoring the feelings is easiest when distracting myself from the task at hand – my thesis — and this results in me not feeling that fear and self-doubt and disappointment and frustration and shame. When the bad feelings are gone, I feel better, and I’m more likely to continue avoiding the task because of negative reinforcement: the procrastinating is reinforced by the removal of the negative feelings associated with figuring out where I left off in working on my thesis and realizing how much there is left to do.
Deadly cycle, isn’t it? But which came first: feeling bad about procrastinating, or procrastinating because I’m feeling bad? For awhile I thought it didn’t matter; if I can tackle the procrastination, I should be able to start feeling better. But it seems my mind doesn’t like not having answers. Luckily, there was more understanding to derive from the newsletter I received today…
Blaming the Environment
The quote is interesting in itself, but taken in context it brings a new light to my dilemma. The newsletter focuses on the idea that a toxic academic environment can be the cause of negative emotions and diminished productivity. (There is a teleseminar on Toxic Academic Work Environments coming up on November 20th, 2008, for those interested in learning more about this notion.)
At first glance, I thought my environment can’t possibly be to blame for my situation, because I truly feel that my department is filled with fantastic and inspirational people who truly care about the success of their students. Sure, that might be partly because of the connection between students and funding, but I still find it encouraging. Except that I’m always afraid someone will ask how things are going… and they’ll find out how badly I’m doing… Wow, it seems like I might have poisoned the atmosphere for myself by being in this funk for so long! But I think there’s more to it than that, because if it was just that, I would be able to shake off the funk and just keep making progress, and thus I’d be able to give good reports anytime anyone asked.
What I realized then was that the academic environment extends beyond the department, and there are definitely aspects of the greater environment that deeply frighten me. It’s so competitive out there! I’ve seen brilliant colleagues get their research papers denied for publication simply because someone else beat them to the idea! It may be normal for every grad student to feel like they don’t measure up to their peers or mentors in brilliance, but even if it turns out I can hold my own in that respect, the concept of competition bothers me immensely. I especially hate writing grant proposals, where I have to convince someone to give me money to continue struggling through research that is already difficult enough without worrying how I’m going to be paid to complete it! I also would have to be willing to move, and soon, if I wanted to compete for a good job in the future… and I don’t feel that willingness. I want to make my own terms for my career; is that so wrong? I don’t want to have to inflate my hirability by sacrificing the plans I have for my family. Competition is simply not that important to me! And therein lies the source of my negative feelings about academia, ladies and gentlemen.
I had already decided that this was the main reason I need to get out of academia, but what is new to me today is acknowledging that these feelings are still making me uncomfortable, and thus the greater academic environment is still “toxic” to me. My therapist suggested something similar, except that she attached the toxicity to the physical location I do my work: my home may be harbouring the bad feelings. I didn’t agree at all, because I can be pretty darn hardworking at home; it’s just my thesis that gives me trouble.
Anyways, now that I know there’s some emotional mumbo-jumbo going on, I also know I can’t just apply logic to convince myself I’m over it. I may not know much about emotions, but I do know they can’t be turned off and on at will. So what can I do about them?
Overcoming the Barriers
Let’s suppose the only cause of my procrastination on this task is that I keep getting overwhelmed by the negative feelings that derail me every time I sit down to work. Since I can’t just will the negative feelings to stop outright, what can I do to ensure I make progress despite the negative feelings pulling me down?
It turns out this part is EASY, and it’s something I’ve known all along: all I have to do is START, even if I have to tell myself it’s just for fifteen minutes. In those fifteen minutes, the negative feelings will run their course, but if I stick to what I’m doing I’ll also get reminded of how much I’ve already done. Even if I allow myself to stop for a break after those first fifteen minutes, continuing afterwards will be SO much easier than the initial starting for the day!
I don’t know how I let myself ignore this easy advice for so long! And when I do remember, why do I forget to keep applying it? It seems I really, seriously, need to break this habit of avoiding and create a habit of tackling! And all I need to do for is fifteen minutes of thesis work a day, as early in the day as possible, and then let the rest of the day flow however it will flow! And then keep doing it, day after day, week after week, until my thesis is done! (And then I can apply the same concept to all the other projects I want to do after my thesis!) I am ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN this will work, and I have known this for quite some time; it’s just a matter of making it happen — NOW!
In the words of the great captain Jean-Luc Picard: “Make it so.”
If you’ve never tried using a timer to help you eat away at an elephant-sized task, why not give it a try right now? If you are already a believer, what task have you been putting off that could use fifteen minutes right now? Let the world know in the comments what YOU get done in your fifteen minute blitz!