Thesis procrastination — first lessons for the would-be professional

The procrastinator’s strategy is to delay to the last possible moment. Photo: Mark Diamond

The procrastinator’s strategy is to delay to the last possible moment. Photo: Mark Diamond

Having dithered around for the better part of a week before making a second post to this part of the blog, the topic has been more or less decided for me. Procrastination! I could tell you all the reasons for my dithering, amongst which were (a) thoughts about determining what did, and what did not, constitute procrastination, (b) discovering the etymology of the word “procrastinate” [from the Latin procrastinare, from pro + crastinus, belonging to tomorrow], and (c) thinking that perhaps I ought to tell you about Oscar Wilde. But I have decided instead on a lesson in procrastination. A brief “how to” manual for the inexperienced procrastinator.

First, however, the story about Oscar, especially as it relates to the etymology of our important word, as well as delaying, for me, the really hard work of writing! You probably know the story of Oscar Wilde at the New York Customs House saying, “I have nothing to declare except my genius,” but did you also know that he said, “I never put off till tomorrow what I can do the day after.” I have tried in the last week to find out the Latin for that whole saying, but I regret to tell you that I have been unsuccessful. However, my efforts did take the best part of two hours, which is come consolation.

I don’t want to appear boastful, but I believe that I can claim some authority in speaking about the practicalities of procrastination. From start to finish (that is, from when I first enrolled to when I handed my thesis in for examination), my PhD took me exactly 6800 days. So if you are serious about procrastinating, and not about just wasting a year or two, you can afford the extra few minutes it will take you to read the rest of this post and come up to speed on the methodology of time wasting. The following suggestions are in no particular order, and you might find that some of them don’t work for you. But worry not; there is sure to be something you can use.

  • Read blogs.
  • Check out interesting but irrelevant facts, like how many days exactly you have been struggling with your thesis.
  • A serious procrastinator must never allow herself or himself to be uncontactable, so make sure your mobile phone is turned on. If it were switched off, you could miss out on an important interruption.
  • Remember to have your mobile telephone, Yahoo messenger, email accounts and telephone answering machine all set to notify you at a moment’s notice if there is a message for you on any of the other systems.
  • Ensure that you are notified by email whenever there is a new post to one of the blogs you like to read.
  • Make a list of everything you still need to do to finish your thesis.
  • Recognize that a scrappy piece of paper is not going to serve you very well as a list. You really need a nice neat book in which to make your list of important chores.
  • Not got a book? That’s great, we’re really getting started on this time wasting. Perhaps a short trip to the stationer to check-out the notebooks is in order. But be sure you don’t do anything else that is useful while you are there.
  • Oh yes; a pen. You really do need a good pen in the correct colour to help you make the list of things you need to do to finish that thesis. Actually my own preference was for pencils, preferably one of those neat click-pencils with a 3B lead. It is important not to accept cheap substitutes, like the regular HB lead that comes with most pencils, or you could find yourself having to start that list sooner than you ought.
  • Time for another trip to the stationer.
  • You should probably also look at what research has been done on methods of overcoming procrastination before you invest too heavily in some half-baked method that has no experimental support.
  • Can you really say that you are well enough informed to start the introductory chapter of your thesis? Are you sure you are up with the latest literature in your area? I doubt it! If you honestly think you’ve already checked every journal and that you are going to have to start writing, ask yourself this, “Might there not be something published in Urdu, or Icelandic, or Swahili?” There, you see, you’re a long way off being able to begin!
  • My own thesis supervisor once remarked that photocopying articles has become a substitute for reading them, but I think he failed to recognize the enormous economic value of his observation to the professional procrastinator. It lies in this … Photocopying and reference checking are truly great activities because they can be expanded to fit however much time you need to fill, whether it be an hour or a month. And photocopying is almost effortless. Far easier than reading. And there are so many articles for you to photocopy.
  • Last, but far from least, question the value of what you are doing. This last strategy will enable you never to hand your thesis in. Ever. You will be able to get to the point of putting the last full-stop on the page, getting your thesis printed and even bound. And you will still have the opportunity to ask yourself, “What is the point of this? Am I really going to add anything of importance to the sum total of human knowledge? In ten years time, or even in a year, is one word that I have written going to make any difference to anything or anyone, or am I just chewing up the precious resources of the world?” You see, serious procrastination can lead you into some really interesting and depressing philosophical questions!

I was thinking of expanding this list, and I might do so in the future although in a different context. For now, however, I shall make a more serious suggestion, and one which I shall assume you have actually followed by the time I next post.

For one day only, keep a diary of the activities you actually do. Note down the start and finish times, and do it for everything. Reading, going to the toilet, making coffee, reading your email, visits to the library, eating dinner, watching TV, sitting starting at your thesis wondering what on earth to write, playing Minesweeper, or whatever. No activity is too small. And no, you do not need a special notebook, a timestamped leather-bound diary or a great pen. Use any large (A4 or letter size) piece of paper. Deliberately choose a rather grungy piece of paper so as to overcome any excuse about not having a “good” piece. And the same with a pen or pencil. And don’t think that because you miss out on writing something down that that will provide an excuse for not continuing the list. I already know that ploy. You say things to yourself like “I’ve stuffed up today’s list. I’ll start again tomorrow and try to do it properly!” For my next blog posting, almost any information you have collected on your activities will be good enough, even if it is to discover that you didn”t make this list.

See you in a week.

Contributors: Mark R. Diamond