Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Understanding Procrastination: Academic Learning as an Emotional Experience

[written for students at the University of Oxford]

Academic learning is often understood as a purely cognitive endeavour. That is, we tend to explain our struggles with it in terms of the difficulty of the subject matter and the limitations of our understanding and memory. But the tasks of emerging from ignorance to knowledge and from incomprehension to new understanding are also intensely emotional. We may be bored or excited, or the work may make us consciously or unconsciously anxious. And when we are consciously or unconsciously anxious we can find ourselves veering away from our work tasks, and instead telling ourselves that we'll first just quickly do some other distracting activity: watch one more youtube clip, check our email or Facebook, eat, exercise, do housework, go shopping, smoke, organise our wardrobe, plan our social life, and so on. In short, we procrastinate.

Sometimes unfocused procrastinatory dithering is all for the  good, but sometimes it takes over. To tackle excessive procrastination effectively it's particularly important to understand it properly. This is because, whilst we may experience it as a problem to be solved, in fact it is itself often an automatic attempt at solving another problem. And this other problem is an emotional problem. All too often the ways we try to increase our efficiency and control our procrastination take us further away from understanding the emotional difficulty and hence leave us more vulnerable to it. So rather than provide tips and strategies to increase our productivity and control procrastination, this pamphlet describes 8 emotionally significant drivers of procrastination, and offers 8 suggestions regarding what is required of us to address these issues.

1.  Let's start with the most obvious explanation, and move below to explanations of increasing psychological complexity. It's important to acknowledge at the start both that this obvious explanation is indeed sometimes true, and also that it is by no means the only explanation. It is this: that academic work is often enough hard, uncomfortable and boring, and any gratification we may feel regarding it must often be considerably delayed. And so, because we tend to be configured as pleasure seekers, we are naturally disposed to shirk the work task and go do something more immediately enjoyable. The solution here is obvious: first, to acknowledge the boredom; then with a modest  compassion to non-judgementally allow ourselves to be bored; next to firmly but respectfully encourage ourselves to simply get on with the work; finally to provide rewards for ourselves, of a proportionate and straightforward sort, for having done it. There's much in life that simply has to be 'toughed out'.

2. Here is another, rather different, explanation: Sometimes we may struggle to get on with our work because we find it too exciting! The ideas that it sparks off in us may be over-stimulating, undoing our repose and overwhelming our attentional resources. The emotional energy released is not sufficiently bound by the structure of the task, and so we find ourselves getting up from the desk, pacing about the room, flitting from one idea to another, rather than settling to the task. (At such times we may sail rather too close to some of our unconscious grandiose fantasies, fantasies which themselves make us profoundly uncomfortable. We will come back to this below in 7.). The first task here is once again to reflectively acknowledge what is happening, and then, whilst still taking pleasure in the excitement, soothe ourselves adequately to return to the task, and contain the excitement by structuring the academic task - breaking it down, etc.

3. Next we note that a difficult academic task can threaten to dent our self-esteem. It's normal for students who end up studying at Oxford University to have developed a sense of self which is significantly indexed to their sense of academic achievement. For such a student, a work task that is experienced as difficult may cause demoralisation. A fear may be set off that others - parents, peers, tutors - will think poorly of us as a result of failure; or that we will disappoint our proud parents or ourselves. This naturally causes anxiety, and procrastination can then be the result of dealing with this anxiety through avoidance. Because anxiety above a certain level makes it harder to concentrate and to lay down memories, our worries about not being able to perform academically can themselves make that performance more difficult. The solution for significant difficulties with self-esteem is not straightforward to implement, and may sometimes involve counselling. Nevertheless we do well to remember to treat ourselves as we would wish to treat others: not pegging our worth to any particular activity, offering ourselves straightforward and gentle encouragement to learn from our mistakes, and, again, breaking down the work task into manageable portions.

4. To avoid such dents to self-esteem it's not uncommon to develop a perfectionist streak. The perfectionist part of the mind says: "You can avoid falling out of favour with yourself or with significant others by making sure that you study perfectly." This may work well enough in a mixed-ability school environment, but at an academically competitive university such as Oxford it is clearly something of an emotional recipe for disaster. The material is too hard, and there just isn't enough time, to do the work 'perfectly'. The perfectionist part of the mind takes itself to be looking out for us, keeping us safe from painful blows to self-esteem. However in truth it radically misunderstands the academic task - which is to regularly produce usually-good-enough (not perfect!) work in the moment, and to allow real understanding to mature slowly, to self-organise and embed over the course of years rather than of days. And it also radically misunderstands the emotional task - which is not to frighten us into doing 'perfect' work, but rather to support and encourage us to have the courage to stay with such muddle and confusion as is inevitable in any significant learning situation. Rather than being 'perfect' it's far more important to encourage in ourselves what we could call the courage of our lack of conviction - to gradually try to cultivate what the poet John Keats called 'negative capability': 'that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.' It is easy to underestimate the moral challenge of actually standing up to perfectionism. It's easy to say things like 'Oh, I know, I should go easier on myself', and then not do that because, basically, one doesn't want to. The inner critic is not some totally foreign agency within the mind - it is us, and we engage our perfectionistic standards because we want to. If, however, we genuinely want to stop procrastinating then it will be important to actually make a change - i.e. actually stop indulging this morally lazy, perfectionistic, habit within us.

5. A critical, perfectionist part of the mind might be in the business of scaring us into working as hard as possible. Hopefully, however, there is another part of the mind that is able to stand up to its well-meant but rather bullying admonishments - a part which stands up for our right to enjoy ourselves and not peg our whole sense of worth to our academic achievements. If, however, this other part itself remains rather unconscious it may express itself in childish ways. A regression to an unhelpful and tense pattern of self-relating can then ensue, in which a harsh inner parent gets into a battle with a stroppy inner teenager.  Procrastination results when the teenager rebels, either just against the harsh inner parent / teacher / boss / tutor / supervisor, or against the actual tutor or supervisor who has been imaginatively imbued by the student with the critical qualities of their own harsh inner voice. In the absence of an encouraging but firm inner directive to bring oneself to settle down to the work, and with only a noxious guilt-inducing punitive inner voice on offer, the rebellious teenage part naturally kicks off: 'No I don't want to do my work, I want to play on the Playstation' - only later to be followed by a further iteration of punitive guilt about the time that's now been wasted. As J H van den Berg writes in A Different Existence:
If a reader of a book considers the writer an authority, then that book cannot be read. ... The word "authority", to the patient, is a collective word that conveys to him the idea of everything that is adult, active, productive and free. A word that makes one crawl. And this is exactly what the patient does. To open a book is, for him, to mortify his body, to crawl in the presence of a book. Can he possibly read under such circumstances? If so, he still cannot possibly gain knowledge, for he who gains knowledge is a partner - even if at the same time he is only a student. ...  To read, to study, is the same as to participate in a joint enterprise of doing, thinking, considering together. The rebellious slave cannot study. His reading is servile; he will not appropriate any knowledge and will occasionally destroy his books.
The drama of it can, despite or rather because of how self-involved it all is, be really quite compelling. The solution here is to start to notice when such cycles of inner admonishment and rebellion are going on, and to instead offer oneself mature tough love - of a genuine, warm and encouraging sort - that encourages one to attend to the tasks of work. 

6. Procrastination can happen when we unconsciously shun the daunting task of taking on the mantle of intellectual authority and responsibility. Rather than putting one's intellectual money where one's academic mouth is, the student may always check themselves against others, produce an essay with 200 references, always seek out supervisor's approval, and cast doubt on their own understanding and knowledge to avoid the possibility of galling hubris. The problem with managing such pride before an anticipated fall in this way is that it is draining, depleting and demoralising. By defensively doubting ourselves we are prevented from getting a good affirming sense of what we spontaneously do and who we spontaneously are. Work becomes tiresome and quickly engenders inner conflict, especially if it activates a healthy part of the self which doesn't appreciate such deprecation. Procrastination now is the avoidance of this tiresome, burdensome approach to work and the anxieties it engenders. In 4. above it was suggested that we need to develop the courage of our lack of conviction - to allow ourselves to stay with such doubts and confusions as are inevitable in the learning situation. Here however the task is to develop the courage of our convictions in what we can and do know and understand - not a courage that comes about from having checked that they are valid merely compared with what an external authority thinks, nor a false courage that results merely from our typical grandiose defences, but rather an apt courage that is of a piece with a true self-respect and self-belief. 

7. As mentioned in 2 and 6 it is normal for students and academics to have conscious or unconscious grandiose fantasies about their intellectual abilities. Sometimes a student will feel he or she is rather intellectually special. This may be partly because he or she is - after all they are studying at a prestigious university, and they may well have been given plenty of emotionally rewarding feedback about their intellectual abilities in the past. And partly the fantasies may function as compensatory defences against the anxieties of intellectual, social or sexual insecurity. That is to say, they can cover over a fear that one is not that great after all. All of this is perfectly natural and par for the emotional course of being a student. Procrastination may however arise if one fears that one has become rather too gulled by a wishful fantasy which, when challenged, might cause one to crumble. So, someone may not bother working because they tacitly fear that, were they to work, they might risk exposing to themselves the fact that they're not as brilliant as they've allowed themselves to believe; and perhaps they would have to significantly struggle before being able to win through from confusion to knowledge and understanding! The solution to this is fairly self-evident; it involves insight, courage, help-seeking, honesty, encouragement in perseverance, and such hard work as is appropriate to the academic task. The moral task is to recall that our only duty is to work hard according to whatever ability we have, to acknowledge that that ability will change over time in ways which are not foreseeable, and to be humbly and courageously realistic to ourselves and others - not misrepresenting ourselves in deprecating or grandiose fashions. 

8. Another effect of becoming overly preoccupied by grandiose fantasies regarding intellectual brilliance is a fear that, were one to effortlessly pour oneself into one's work, one might shine too brightly for others. Perhaps their envy is feared, along with the damage that such envy could cause to the relationship with them - so one holds back. Perhaps one fears that one's excellence would alienate those - certain friends and family members for example - who may not be so intellectually high-achieving. As the anxieties engendered by the fear of success increase, so too can procrastinatory attempts to manage them. Or perhaps the anxiety has more to do with avoiding an anticipated appearance of arrogance which could lead to being rejected or ridiculed by others. Procrastination in such cases is the unthinking strategy used to manage such anxieties. Once this dynamic has been understood, various solutions present themselves. Perhaps certain relationships really would suffer if we allowed ourselves to be fully ourselves in them, and we must therefore acknowledge their limitations as well as their value to us. However clear reflection could also reveal that our fears about envy may themselves be exaggerated. More courageous would be to allow ourselves to flourish according to our own positive values, and to accept that the possible admiration, envy - or perhaps simply the galling disinterest! - of others is not to the point of the work task.


Conclusions

The above understandings do not exhaust the many meanings of procrastination. And the solutions offered are not of a 'tools for your psychological toolkit' sort. What instead is here on offer is a thought about slow but real change through a gradual transformation of self-understanding. Trying to perfectly solve for procrastination is itself often a non-starter: especially when procrastination amounts to a rebellion against an inner perfectionist voice, there's clearly not much point trying to perfect not being a perfectionist. 


Some procrastination is an inevitable part of life. It took me 4 months from deciding to write this essay to actually get on with it! It's also important that we sometimes allow ourselves to take our time and approach tasks in an oblique, lateral, associative, un-focused manner. We don't always need 'SMART targets', goals, measures, directions and plans. This is because the brain often enough just doesn't really work like that. Time for clearly focused work is important, but so too is time for dreaming and idling.