You may have noticed it’s been a couple months since my last post on this blog. As a high school teacher who also writes and blogs, I always bite off more than I can chew, and feel like I’m constantly caught in a cycle of falling behind on everything. However, I know that a lot of my students are currently trapped in cycle as well, a cycle of stress caused not by laziness but by disorientation.
Last semester I had a student who didn’t come to half the quarter of online classes, and when I finally got a hold of him, he confessed to me that he was just too afraid of how behind he had fallen to try to do any of the work. I made a plan with him to excuse him from a lot of the work he had missed so he could just jump into the class where we were instead of trying to play catch up. Ultimately, I ended up using this strategy for several students on distance learning, with mixed results. Some of them do become engaged in the class temporarily, only to fall behind and have the cycle start all over again, while others find that once they have a better idea of what is going on, they can mostly keep up. With distance learning, it’s hard to really know what is going on with the students that allows them to break out of the cycle of procrastination or keeps them trapped in it. But I’ve realized that I can at least figure out what works to help me move past it.
For me, the cycle of procrastination is like stepping into a chilly lake on a warm day. At first, it feels good to take baby steps into the water, and you enjoy the fresh feeling water on your toes and feet, but once the water reaches your ankles, and then your knees, the top half of your body feels strangely overheated while your bottom half starts to shiver and grow numb. You’re tempted to just leave the water altogether, or to ease yourself by slowing inching your way further into the lake. The best way to acclimate to the temperature of the water is just to dive in, but in the moment that feels like the last thing you want to do. Then, if you get the will to do it, you dunk your whole body into the water and find that after a few seconds, your whole body feels tingly. A few minutes later, you don’t even notice the chill of the water anymore.
I think a lot of people struggle with procrastination or with writer’s block reach the point of peak discomfort, where it seems like putting in the full effort to commit to some action will be more stressful than putting it off, so they just back away from the difficult situation rather than diving in. I’ve noticed that if I start to feel bad about not writing, instead of making a plan of attack, I will just preoccupy myself with other things to do while never letting go of that guilt that I’m not writing. I will be unfocused on what I’m actually doing while not making any of the progress I want to make. The best way to deal with this situation, I’ve found, is to try to find some sort of way to reset your swirling thoughts.
“Resetting” might look different for you. If meditation works, I find that meditation can be useful to clear out your intrusive alarm bells in your mind pestering you about things you haven’t completed. If that doesn’t work, you could make the purposeful choice to do something else other than your writing or the work you’re supposed to do, something active or engrossing like working out, playing a sport, putting together a puzzle, or reading, and allow yourself to get sucked into it. While you might think this would not really help your procrastination, if you stop viewing it as procrastination and instead view it as resetting your brain so that you will be refreshed to try the hard thing that you need to do later, then you can let go of the guilt you are feeling and actually enjoy this activity.
Then once you feel refreshed, you can try again by plunging headfirst into whatever you need to work on. Of course, you might find that it’s difficult, that you need to step back for a moment and create a plan. But if you start to build some momentum by doing some of the harder cognitive work first, you might find it gets easier from there. I’ve heard from many self-help books and articles that if you are tackling an overwhelming list of things to do, you should do whatever is easiest and fastest first, so that you can feel like you’ve accomplished something. While there might be some merit to this, I usually only do this on days where I just don’t have the energy to tackle larger tasks. If you feel energized and refreshed, you should do whatever you’re dreading the most first so that you can at least chip away at it or realize that it’s not so bad after all and move beyond whatever is stymying your path.
For example, during my first year of teaching, I would put off grading longer essays as long as possible until I faced the prospect of grading several dozen essays in less than a week because grades were due. I no longer let grading pile up to that point during my second year. I try to start grading longer assignments soon after they are turned in so they feel much more manageable. It would be easier to start by grading warm ups which I just check off for completion, but I actually leave my warm ups to be graded later because they take so little effort.
In the past year, I’ve played a lot of rounds of golf. I already had a set of clubs from when I was in high school, and since golf has been once of the only available outdoor sports this past year, I’ve taken it up again. Relearning how to golf has reminded me that starting every decision fresh while letting go of the decisions you’ve taken before it is the key to having a growth mindset. It is what allows you to have a positive attitude despite failure. It might seem overly naïve to think that if you’re playing badly, as long as you really concentrate and focus on your next stroke, you’ll start to play better. But if you take this approach, you will find that you can more easily shrug off your mistakes and stay focused on each shot.
This approach applies to teaching and writing as well. Temporarily forgetting whatever went wrong the day before and trying again sometimes seems like the only way to stay sane when you’re a new teacher, or a teacher adapting to new circumstances such as distance learning. Your internet cuts out during a class? Fix it, and move on without dwelling on it. If you completely bomb a lesson, try to understand what went wrong, but don’t let it affect how you greet the next period of students. Of course it’s hard to do this. Being able to let go of your mistakes is also a skill you have to practice.
When I’m writing, I usually find the biggest mistake I have to let go of is the fact that I didn’t write as much or as often as I wanted to in the previous week or month. Procrastination is also a form of baggage. The more you dwell on your inability to get past it, the heavier it gets. While I do try to keep track of how many days in a row I meet my goals, whether they are writing, meditating, or eating well, I try not to beat myself up anymore for not doing “enough” of a certain thing. In the end it doesn’t matter if I haven’t picked up a pen in several days or opened a file of a story I’ve been working on. If I open it up today and work on it today, that is all I can control in this moment.
The hardest task I’ve taken on in the past year is attempting to write a novel, so naturally that is where I’ve struggled with the most procrastination. A year ago, at the start of the pandemic, I had not worked on my novel very much and only had about 30 pages written. Eventually, about a month into the lockdown, I realized that I was in a very privileged situation of having more time to write while still working. Of course, I wasn’t free from anxiety from the pandemic. I was lucky to be able to work from home, but I was still in constant fear of people I loved getting the virus. I completely understood why many people have declared that they don’t need to be productive during such a turbulent time, that surviving is enough. Still, I was able to use writing as a way to keep my mind off the pandemic, so I devoted myself to my novel.
At first, I dipped my toes into it by planning out the chapters, writing character backstories, doing research. Then I realized that I just needed to start writing, even if much of what I wrote would never make it into the final draft. I have taken this approach to writing before while doing NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), and I wasn’t satisfied with the results. Nevertheless, I tried to just let it out, because I believed in this story, and I knew I would not feel satisfied until it was on paper. I’m a major reviser, so I just have to keep telling myself that whatever I end up with on my first draft can be made better on the next.
My novel has come in fits and starts. I will go months without touching it, and then for several weeks I’ll find myself glued to my keyboard late into the night. Whenever I get stuck with writing it, I just try to make sure I take a break, reset, and then mentally brace myself for the challenge of writing it and push myself to do it. I accept that this doesn’t happen every day, and that it’s OK for me to work on only when I find the energy for it. It seems like an enormous task, but viewing every writing session as its own hurdle, I’ve managed to make a lot of progress.
This week, I reached 150 pages. I can’t vouch for the quality of what I’ve written, but I do feel like I have developed a better understanding of how to draft a novel from this experience. I’m not done with it yet. I am only halfway through the story I have in my head. Yet, I have confidence now that I will be able to keep at it until I reach its conclusion as long as I continue to do what I’ve been doing: keep diving into the cold water, swimming, and then taking a break to reset, again and again for however long it takes.
Molly, as always I enjoyed reading your blog. I have been a procrastinator most of my life and enjoyed your tips. I also have always enjoyed the way that you describe sensations like getting into the cold water. I can almost feel it. I look forward to reading your novel someday.