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The Upside of Deep Procrastination

April 29th, 2010 · 37 comments

Earlier this afternoon I read an e-mail from a sophomore at Yale.

“I’ve always been a good student and I know that I’m smart and capable, but lately I’ve been having such a hard time,” she began.

“I’m having trouble completing assignments, even though I have sufficient time.  I avoid seeking out help, preferring instead to just freak out alone in my room.”

This student recognized her trouble as deep procrastination — the exceedingly common student affliction of losing the will to work.

While responding to her message, I had an interesting realization: deep procrastination, though scary, represents something important and perhaps even exciting. It marks that key transition where the momentum of “this is what you need to do” — the momentum that carried you through high school and into college — begins to wane, leaving you to discover a new source of propulsion — not just new, but also more durable and more personal.

It’s important to side step the self-help cliches in this situation. It’s unlikely that you’ll unearth a burning life’s mission hidden conveniently just below the surface of your psyche. What you seek is more fundamental: an acceptance that doing things well is hard, and always will be, and that you need to spend more time than you thought was necessary deciding which such hard things gain rights to your attention.

None of this is easy. All of it is exciting.

With all of this in mind, I had no magical solution to offer this worried sophomore. I could only suggest that she take a step back and reduce the frantic Yale pace, maybe for just one semester, leaving space for her new propulsion to build a head of steam.

37 thoughts on “The Upside of Deep Procrastination

  1. Chris Fritz says:

    I’ve seen this happen to so many in college, including my fiancee. She was right in the middle of this when I met her and boy, was she crazy!

  2. Sudhakar says:

    Haha. This is so…coincidental. I myself being a Freshman at Yale have come to the exact same realization stated by Cal just yesterday, after I spent 5 hours reading Naruto manga rather than doing “important” work. That’s not saying the work isn’t important, but is it really necessary to have myself live without sufficient food and sleep to get a letter grade higher on a paper or a test? Do I really want me grades to define me as a person? I think not. But I digress. Though I didn’t think it in my head as articulately as Cal typed it, having had deep procrastination all Freshman year has now allowed me to find a new, real, self-fulfilling reason to do work for the next 3 years. I guess the quest for exactly what that reason is will be the main goal of my summer.

  3. peadarcoyle says:

    I can only say Amen to this post. There is clearly a positive side to trying to figure out what you should focus your energies on. Deep procrastination may be a sign that you should think about these things.
    Thanks for reassuring me!

  4. sanjay says:

    this article really hit home with me. possibly the most influential article you’ve ever written cal

    thats exactly how i felt in my third year of university (in my 4th and final one now, i live in the uk)

    consistent motivation throughout my life then something cracked

    i would love to hear more about the new propulsion concept you speak of.

    oh and i just deactivated my facebook (another major source of procrastination through pseudo communication)

  5. uha1 says:

    Relaxation is important. Whitehead institute has a good research on that. If you haven’t, I’d recommend you to take a look at it.

  6. Orleanna says:

    When I first started struggling with deep procrastination two years ago, I remember telling my mom that I had just run out of steam. There was definitely a feeling that “something cracked,” as Sanjay said.

    A few words of advice from someone who is finally coming out the other side:

    1) Don’t pretend it isn’t happening. I spent an entire semester hoping my lack of motivation was just a blip and would go away soon. Yeah…

    2) Don’t be afraid to take a semester or a year off. It’s impossible to get your head back together when you have the constant rain of homework, reading, tests, etc. I never took time off, and I really regret it now. I’m graduating in May, but just barely – the last year has been pretty miserable. Your parents may not understand what’s going on, but give them a try anyhow.

    3) Talk to your professors. I had a tendency to just go AWOL – ending up missing class and avoiding the professor because I hadn’t done some assignment or paper. It’s better to let them know something’s going on, even if you don’t have any concrete excuse (and don’t make one up). It’ll make you feel better and make them more likely to cut you some slack.

    4) Seriously, take some time off.

  7. Magister Mundi says:

    As someone who just spent the last 3 hours shooting zombies in L4D2 rather than doing any of 6 my astronomy or psychology labs, or even looking into those leads I need for journalism – probably 12 hours of work in total, all due tomorrow – I totally understand this post. Almost intuitively.

  8. Fernando says:

    reminded me of this image
    by DAN PERJOVSCHI.

  9. Lisa says:

    As a college teacher, the parent of a college student, and someone who has struggled with these issues myself, I really appreciate such a thoughtful response to the problem of “deep procrastination.” Best of luck to the Yale sophomore and all who face these kinds of questions.

  10. Jeff says:

    This reminds me why everyone need to find some escape sometimes.
    I know many people like this because:
    If you were stressed out, then you would not have the motivation to complete the work.
    And I bet you can overcome procrastination if you plan out your daily events carefully in a calendar and have some efficient schedule, then everything is possible.
    Right, Cal?

  11. Estara says:

    Wow. This gets me thinking. I’m going through a deep procrastination season at the end of my senior year….I can’t force myself to do work…even work I enjoy. If this is true about the “procrastination syndrome”, then I am glad I’m going through it now, so I can find that “new source of propulsion” in time to start college off well and finish well. If deep procrastination is a signal, then it needs to be paid attention to. Thanks Cal!

  12. Bob says:

    The problem is that you believe what you are doing is not going to make you happier in the long run. You can either try and force yourself to work towards less happiness (as you see it) which is very difficult, or you can find a long term goal you truly believe will make you happier. You will not procrastinate then. We all run towards what we truly want.

  13. KK says:

    It’s important to side step the self-help cliches in this situation.

    I’ve been experiencing the exact same thing for a while now and I’ll admit, I have been spending more time reading inspiring and motivating quotes than working on what I need to hoping that at least one would get me going.

    Cal, thanks for the reality check.

  14. Orleanna says:

    I bet you can overcome procrastination if you plan out your daily events carefully in a calendar and have some efficient schedule, then everything is possible.

    Respectfully, no. That sort of brute-force approach (I’ll just make myself do it) isn’t going to be much help for students facing this sort of psychological issue. For the somewhat lazy but basically motivated person, yes, great advice.

    Me, I’d spend 30 min planning out my day, only to end up ignoring my carefully crafted schedule and reading cracked.com for four hours. There were clearly some larger issues going on there.

  15. Sarah says:

    @Bob: Mostly agree, except that there will still be at least some goofing off even if you do know what you want! :) But then it’s more of a self-discipline/hard-focus problem.^^

  16. Julia says:

    This is ridiculously pertinent to my life too, as a burnt-out high school senior and a Yale prefrosh. It’s definitely been an issue in the last few months as I try to differentiate generic “senioritis” from something more complicated. I do feel as though I’ve hit a sort of brick wall because suddenly there is no clearly-defined next step. Any advice, Cal, for pre-freshman summer in terms of starting off college on the right foot?

  17. Ashley says:

    I have to say, i am facing deep procrasination, and im so lost. Lately, i have absolutely no will to do my work, i devote scheduled time in the library to do my law and math, but time just goes by and my work is still left undone. I know i need to take a step back and figure out what im doing wrong. Before, when i had work to do, i knew it just needs to get done. there was no questioning, i knew that it was due and i had to sit down and do my homework. but now im stressed, all i seee is the work in front of me, and i feel stuck. thanks cal for helpful time management tips in your book, hopefully i will get out of this slump in time to pass my finals coming up on may 18. Good luck everyone, i wish you all the best in school!

  18. jld says:

    Actually, there is a cure for procrasination.

  19. Sara says:

    New research shows that some people (and by people I really mean mice) perform better on cognitive tests when they’re in a high stressful situation, compared to when they do the same test under minimal stress.

    Maybe it’s better for some of us to procrastinate, as we will do a better job on the task. (at least that’s what I tell myself!)

  20. Swaroop C H says:

    Hey Cal, I agree on the thought you have brought up. There is a huge upside to it – it gives you scope to explore and to nurture your curiosity.

    I have expanded that at http://www.swaroopch.com/blog/about-deep-procrastination/

    Thanks for the food for thought!

    Regards,
    Swaroop

  21. Study Hacks says:

    Just a note, I’ve read every one of these comments and am enjoying their insight. I apologize for not responding yet — I’m juggling a few deadlines, but expect my thoughts soon.

  22. Siva says:

    I am RIGHT in the middle of this D:

  23. AnonPostDoc says:

    I felt like this for much of graduate school, which lasted five years, and feel this way now in the first year of my postdoc. In theory, I love my research, but in daily practice, there’s so much slog and worry about what I will be doing in two, five, and ten years’ time. (What I do does not have a counterpart in industry, so a TT position is my only “hope.”) At least those in college have their projects neatly truncated by school terms. That said, I vividly remember the pain of crunch time. Cal–can you write more about academia? I cringe at the thought of giving up this intellectual freedom, but I hate, hate, hate worrying about whether I can hack it. Too much depends on NSF and NIH funding levels.

  24. Sean says:

    Cal,

    I think you gave her the magical solution…

    “…take a step back and reduce the frantic Yale pace, maybe for just one semester, leaving space for her new propulsion to build a head of steam.”

    Life (esp as a college student, esp at a place like Yale) inevitably gets cluttered with doing things you aren’t so excited about. When it gets too cluttered your brain or your passion or your will freezes. In comes deep procrastination. The best way to thaw is to slow down, don’t do too much and reconnect with what made you passionate.

    Thanks for the great blog Cal.

  25. Tyler says:

    Definitely a good point. After returning to college, I was motivated by “I need to get straight A’s.” However I fell into deep procrastination during my second semester as I began to question why exactly I was motivated in the first place. It wasn’t until my fourth semester back that I really began to explore alternative sources of motivation. I’m not exactly sure what clicked for me, but I know that not celebrating every time I got an A on an assignment definitely helped me not to be complacent and helped me sustain momentum through the final month of the semester (when my grades were determined for the most part).

    I’m juggling a few deadlines, but expect my thoughts soon.

    Take your time : )

    Thanks for the great blog Cal.

    Couldn’t have said it any better myself.

  26. sadia says:

    I experienced deep procrastination throughout my undergraduate studies and even saw a counselor to understand my peculiar behavior. My first semester, I made As and A-’s even through my papers were late, and I was sometimes late to class. As I got older, I decided that I didn’t care if my papers were late, and felt complacent with the 1/3 grade penalty, because I was still averaging an A- in most classes. However, deep procrastination was the worst my junior year, when I was taking a graduate class that I really disliked, in addition to introductory classes in my major (which I also disliked). I decided not to submit any of my assignments for the grad class and took the “Incomplete” grade. I took a full year (until my senior year) to submit all my assignments and still got a B in the class. In this class, we had to write weekly essays about the reading. The essays I did submit earned essays, but I just couldn’t be bothered to write them every week. I stopped caring if I got an A or not because there were a lot of personal changes going on, and coursework ceased to matter. Now that I’m going back to grad school, I have a better understanding of what happened in undergrad and I am committed to keeping myself motivated. Thanks!

  27. Micky says:

    I’m in a very similar boat here. I was at the top of my class senior year of high school, but I had a rough last two years which left me quite burnt out. I tried to regain my bearings and motivation during the summer between HS and college, and I thought I succeeded. Unfortunately, I didn’t, and I soon found myself at a lack of motivation to do anything at all. Personal stresses coupled with the nauseatingly competitive nature of the school left me almost paralyzed. Although my first semester went rather well (one B+ was my lowest) I ended my spring semester with the lowest grades I have ever seen on a transcript. I am very disappointed, but I am much more frustrated. Any tips on how to really unwind and gear up for the next semester? I really want to be able to enjoy school again.

  28. How will you known if you are struggling with a deep procrastination and what is the different from the normal procrastination? I know that I am a procrastinator. I don’t like working ahead of time since I expect more from myself if I work ahead. I usually cram my papers and still get a good grade that’s why I like it.

  29. Study Hacks says:

    How will you known if you are struggling with a deep procrastination and what is the different from the normal procrastination?

    Normal procrastination means you wait until the last minute to complete your work. Deep procrastinators will often blow past the deadline, and then, when given an extension, blow past that deadline to. In other words, they develop in inability to do the work at all.

  30. monty says:

    I relate to this SO MUCH. Particularly Sadia @28. I too got great results in my first two semesters, especially considering I copped minor late penalties on most assignments and left far too little time for exam study. Afterwards, though, I let deadlines sail past thinking I would one day, very soon, knuckle down and get everything done. Needless to say this never happened, and now I’ve failed two semesters in a row due to not handing in work. The frustrating part is I had actually mastered most of the material in the course of researching for essays and so forth, but never actually completed anything! I don’t know what the answer is but I hope I can find this elusive propulsion soon…

    I’d love to hear from any students who have been through this and made it successfully out the other side – I’m bookmarking this page so I can come back during future stud…procrastination sessions

  31. Leandro says:

    My History essay is overdue by two weeks, and I’m still not done with it. My PoliSci essay is over by a month and I’m just about to finish it. My Philosophy essay is a week overdue and I’m barely getting started. I really got to fall in love with my class, but could my source of procrastination come from the fact that I’m taking 18 credit hours and letting it all pile up, thus diminishing motivation?

  32. Anon says:

    I developed this sometime in college but managed to push on through to graduate law school (which I hated). Then I got stuck on the bar exam for 7 years. Even now I still take and retake the exam, having tried different courses, tutors, computer programs, supplements, hypnosis, and just plain taking time off from even seeking work to just focus on the test. Each time, I sit down and cannot concentrate for longer than 10 or 15 minutes. If I am working on the computer (some of my study materials are on my computer or online) I spend hours surfing the internet. I installed productivity browser software to try and force myself off the sites where I waste the most time. I still find myself browsing the internet, looking at sites I haven’t blocked or using another browser altogether. Although I don’t freeze up at the test and always manage to finish, I keep failing the test over and over again. I’m becoming desperate because I haven’t worked in a long while and I haven’t been able to really get any career started because I have gotten so hung up on this exam. I know you don’t usually talk to people like me, but I wonder if you have any suggestions for me.

  33. Rob says:

    Isn’t deep procrastination just exactly the same as a burnout? Then why don’t just call it a burnout?

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