Two Papers Due Simultaneously, No Extensions, and Utterly No Will to Work
December 10, 2004 3:53 PM   Subscribe

I hate all forms of work (hence the anon. post) and the only way I've found to finish papers etc. is to stay up all day and night procrastinating until the last possible instance writing a bit here and there--an agonizing process--until, as the last chance deadline aproaches, something takes shape. These papers are usually final papers and usually earn me between a B+ and an -A... which is probably why I never learned how to do work in a painless and organized fashion... at any rate, I have two papers due on the same day and no chance of an extension on either one and am incapable of forcing myself to work. WHAT DO I DO?
posted by anonymous to Education (55 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I say you bug out of there and call it even.
posted by mookieproof at 4:01 PM on December 10, 2004

I realize that what follows is terrible advice, so take it with a grain of salt.

I do the same thing. I wait until the last possible minute to do anything, and still manage to pull it off. I have just accepted that this is the way I function and I should just stop feeling guilty about it. If you are getting good grades I don't see any reason to change your behavior. Just be honest with yourself, be happy slacking off and panicking at the last minute. Stop feeling guilty.

One of the things that helped me was that I totally refuse to work on weekends. I wasn't doing it anyway and it was just making me feel guilty.

I think a lot of people are perfectly capable of functioning like this, even though other people think it is nuts. So procrastinate away!

I have managed college, a PhD, a university job and a successful business with exactly the same job performance "problems". I am more successful than most of the people I know with good work habits.
posted by phatboy at 4:16 PM on December 10, 2004 [3 favorites]

I have someone else ride me on deadlines where multiple deadlines are too close to me for me to manage to pull it out of my ass. They check with me on milestones and nag me all to hell and back just like mom used to do.
posted by SpecialK at 4:27 PM on December 10, 2004

I just read Dave Allen's Getting Things Done. It's good. More here, here, here, here, and here.

Allen would tell you to figure out what the very next physical action is you'd have to do in order to make progress on your papers. Get a book out of the library? Ask your professor a question? Draft a list of ideas? As long as "the paper" is this big abstract thing, it's too intimidating to start (unless you feel the pain of the imminent deadline.) If you can break off just a one discreet task you'd have to complete to move forward, it suddenly becomes possible.

Or, procrastinate until the last minute, and then: Red Bull.
posted by muckster at 4:30 PM on December 10, 2004 [1 favorite]

Procastination often goes hand in hand with anxiety disorders. If you're sitting at your desk mentally berating yourself for not being able to get anything done, and feeling fairly terrified about how it's going to turn out and what will happen if you can't get it finished, it might help to talk to someone at your school's counseling center about it. They can (hopefully, if they're good) offer you non-medication methods of reducing your anxiety and being more productive. This exact problem is extremely common among college students and graduate students, even (especially?) at challenging, elite institutions.

I disagree with phatboy's suggestion to just embrace this natural tendency of yours. Living that way was extremely stressful and unpleasant for me, and the fact that you're asking this question here shows that you'd like to make a change. Good luck, and hang in there.
posted by bonheur at 4:32 PM on December 10, 2004 [2 favorites]

I have to say that I'm kind of with phatboy here in that I have always done this, the results have been pretty good and so now I just try not to feel guilty that I'm not doing work in a steady fashion. But I have actually begun to work at things a bit more methodically lately (because realistically, I could do even better if I didn't leave it to the last minute, and I'm getting worse at pulling all-nighters), and here are a few things that have worked for me.

My first trick to get myself to work (which is contrary to anything you read about studying) is to rent some good videos (light stuff that I've seen before and love - often Brit comedy), set up the laptop in front of the television and have some good snacks on hand. I might do the equivalent of two hours work in four hours, but that two hours is better than not having done anything, and it is getting started that is often difficult. I think I feel then that I'm not having to give up everything to sit in a room doing something I don't like..

My second trick has been trying to not worry about writing something perfectly first time. Instead of agonising about each bit, now I try to just write to a bit over the word limit and then worry more about editing it. Just write something resembling anything (right now.. do 10-15 minutes writing down any fragments or ideas).

The last.. I try and get away from the internet a bit. Hard if you need it for your research, but for me it is a time sucker.
posted by AnnaRat at 4:36 PM on December 10, 2004 [1 favorite]

When I was at school/college I used to work exactly the same way and would end up doing everything at the end in a mad dash and still end up getting a good grade. I agree with Phatboy and just accept your own work style. If it works it works. If it doesn't then you're in trouble.

As far as the two paper deadline goes, get your head down and get at least one completed without the distraction of the other. When that one is finished then get your head down again. If it comes to it that you haven't completed in time you're going to have to bring that teacher an apple and ask for an extension....
posted by floanna at 4:44 PM on December 10, 2004

Long time reader first time poster. Thanks.

In college, I had the same sorta problems you describe, anon. I never came up with a good solution, though I observed that the other students didn't experience anything like the same agony that I did. And frankly, I think they really weren't trying as hard as I was either.

I think I would have fared much better in college if I'd learned to phone it in. If I were you, I'd focus on writing a really awful paper, at least for one of these two, and give yourself a strict time limit; two half-hour sessions should do the trick. Use an egg timer. Seriously.

Ramble incoherently. Use stupid anecdotes. Cite People Magazine. Or quonsar. Whatever. Just get the requisite number of words on the paper.

We keep hearing in the Blue that academic expectations are low. It's time for you to cash in on it.

Further, I suspect that in learning to write badly, your "good" writing will get easier too, but that's just a secondary benefit. The real point here is that Ds are passing.

On preview (I've always wanted to say that), I second bonheur.
posted by chrchr at 4:53 PM on December 10, 2004 [1 favorite]

Count me as another Getting Things Done convert. The trick of figuring out the next action, and having that be the thing in my face rather than THE TASK, has made all the difference to this habitual procrastinator.
posted by frykitty at 4:57 PM on December 10, 2004

I just got done doing the same exact thing yesterday. I had a huge paper due at 11:00am on Thursday and finished it at 10:35am that same day. It was a day and a half of hell.

So, while I am usually the type of person who's live and let live about differences in people and workstyles, I would think that if your current style is causing you undue stress (seems like it is), its time to change. Even if you are earning A's and B's working your current way, you are still being penalized with undue stress. Perhaps keeping a goal of writting a stress-free paper (meaning you don't procrastinate) should be what you aim for, since you are already earning decent grades.

Anyway, answering your question: I find that just sitting down and doing what you have to do is the only way to get things done. I haven't found any other magical method (maybe I should read Getting Things Done?) that works. So, if you truly cannot sit and do what you have to do, then really you aren't going to do it anyway.
posted by Boydrop at 5:08 PM on December 10, 2004

I haven't even read Getting Things Done, but so many people have blogged about it that I get the idea, and.. it's a good one. Break things down into many tiny tasks. I used to be (still am a bit) a lot like you, but I've found that if I just sit down, write out a quick list of, say, ten small tasks that have to be done, I can plough through them.

Other things that have helped in the past are.. alcohol. Not much, just a little so you can feel it. That usually gets me working, don't know why, must be anxiety or something, as someone mentioned above.

"Just Doing It" has also worked for me.. just leap in, no matter how horrid it feels, and it tends to feel good after 10 minutes, particularly if you have that 'it keeps me working' CD playing at the same time. I find playing Placebo's albums gets me working, even though I never listen to them other than when I have a project to finish!

Other than that, try reading this article called 'Do It Now' for some ideas.
posted by wackybrit at 5:11 PM on December 10, 2004 [1 favorite]

Ask for five more years.
posted by majcher at 5:15 PM on December 10, 2004 [1 favorite]

Oh, another thing. Sometimes you need to find better tools or better processes. For example, I found my productivity LEAPT once I moved over to using an iBook/Mac OS X from using Windows. This is partly because of OS X, but significantly because I seem to work better on a notebook than a desktop as I can walk around, sit where I like, lie on my bed, etc. This example might not cut it for you, but there are many areas where simply changing your process or viewpoint can kick you into action. I mean, before I got my iBook I always claimed I didn't like notebooks!
posted by wackybrit at 5:17 PM on December 10, 2004

Jesus, I do the same thing. I find that I work best w/that nervous energy. Embrace and accept it.
posted by damnitkage at 5:22 PM on December 10, 2004

Bonheur--you totally summed up my husband's experience as an engineering undergrad. This type of stress caused him to take two semesters off, though he eventually graduated and now works for a c.s. research group from the same university he (barely) graduated from.

For him, I think it helped to admit he had a problem and seek some counseling--both academic and personal therapy. He also cut back on work hours a bit and saw a doctor. The doctor diagnosed a sleep disorder (restless leg) and he started taking medication, which helped him get a good night's sleep for the first time in years.

The doctor also prescribed what I think were water pills--to lower blood pressure. The doctor prescribes them to athletes who have a hard time getting un-hyped after a game. The idea was that my husband could take them if he felt so keyed up and stressed out that he couldn't sleep or concentrate on what he needed to do. I don't think he ever actually took them, but I know it really helped him to have them as an option.

Good luck to you. If you're dealing with the sort of thing bonheur described I know by proxy how hard it can be. Based on my husband's experience, I'd strongly advice you to seek medical help and/or counseling (which you can often get through your institution).
posted by handful of rain at 5:23 PM on December 10, 2004

I worked full-time while taking classes at night, and I had the same problem with procrastinating and sometimes found myself in the situation you are now facing. Here's a couple things that help:

Spend as much time as possible thinking about your paper's subject and arguments. The more you think about them beforehand, while commuting, etc., the more prepared you will be to write them at the last minute. If you have friends who are willing to talk about them with you, take advantage of it. I had a couple co-workers and friends who were willing to humor me in this way, and it helped a lot.

Second, look at this as an opportunity. When I had to write two papers at once, I would become tired of thinking about one, and would try to use the other as a distraction (instead of cleaning my apartment or surfing the internet.)

And since you'll have twice the work to do at the last minute, get as much sleep as you can beforehand, stay hydrated, eat healthy foods and drink gatorade and green tea instead of coffee to avoid crashing.

Good luck.
posted by sophie at 5:33 PM on December 10, 2004


I'm guessing "fail."
posted by rushmc at 5:37 PM on December 10, 2004

Convince yourself that the previous day is "the real deadline" for one of the papers. If you recognize in advance that you can't write both papers in the same night, then the previous day *will* be the real deadline for one of the papers, and should cause you to sufficiently panic enough to get it done.
posted by painquale at 5:55 PM on December 10, 2004

Take the Fs, you failed learning how to not fail, the point of most classes, not earning high marks.

If you need high marks; start the paper in the class have the best chance at passing, then try on the second which if you fail, you would have failed anyway.

If you just need passing marks; do half the work on both papers.

Or go for broke and pick the class paper you know you won't fail and do your best. Good luck!
posted by thomcatspike at 6:04 PM on December 10, 2004 [1 favorite]

the only way I've found to finish papers etc. is to stay up all day and night procrastinating until the last possible instance writing a bit here and there--an agonizing process--until, as the last chance deadline aproaches, something takes shape.
What you have described here as your forcing factor to write, you're screwed having two deadlines on one day. Hopefully this will break your habit and inspire your writings in other ways. How, don’t have two classes in one semester that may require large papers. However you do, I would use to judge all your future classes. I can uderstand, as it's how I write too.
posted by thomcatspike at 6:13 PM on December 10, 2004

If you need high marks; start the paper in the class have the best chance at passing, then try on the second which if you fail, you would have failed anyway.

Meant; needing high marks; start the class paper you need a higher mark in order to pass, then work on the next paper which if it is scored low will hopefully not take your final class marks down low enough for failing.
posted by thomcatspike at 6:18 PM on December 10, 2004

down low enough for failing.
posted by thomcatspike at 6:23 PM on December 10, 2004

Don't ask me. I'm reading Ask Metafilter.

This Tarasoff v. Regents of the University of California case brief isn't due until Tuesday, after all. And I paid pretty close attention in my AgLaw class, so I really don't need to start studying for that until Sunday. Night.

And...and... Gotta go play GTA:VC.

What was the question again?
posted by waldo at 6:38 PM on December 10, 2004

I was in a class a few years ago in which we discussed different learning styles. It was mentioned that there are some people for whom this sort of thing is just natural -- it's the way their brains work. They aren't putting the work off, but they are doing a lot of it mentally, then at the last minute they can produce a complete work, without the outlining and draft process that lots of other people do. During the time when it seems as if they are procrastinating, they are just solving the necessary puzzle in their mind -- sort of doing the outlining and drafts almost subconsciously.

When I heard this, I was amazed, because it describes my work process pretty well. In school, when I was assigned to turn in my first drafts and outlines to show my work, I always did them after the fact, because I didn't have real first drafts and outlines. I would just generate the final draft (or pretty close to it) all at once.

But this isn't necessarily the only reason for the delayed work. (In my case, even though I do the work all at once, I certainly could do it a day or two earlier to save myself some stress. That's a separate issue, I think.) The other things people have mentioned might have something to do with this too.

Anyway, just some food for thought.
posted by litlnemo at 6:41 PM on December 10, 2004 [1 favorite]

I have nothing helpful to ad, I just want to go "Meee tooooooo".

I've been in the same position for the past week, over exams. I put off studying for an exam that's worth most of my mark, and is pivitol for the maintenance of my scholarship. Then, with some 6 hours to go, I desperately cram.

Even not sleeping (sleep induced hallucinations are WAY cool) doesn't really spur me on. Although I TRY to get started early, without the pressure factor I can waste a whole day away, reading half a chapter, and then do the remaining 8 chapters in the last hour.

I've used this method my whole life, and have yet to get below B- at something, and thus have no real incentive to change.

Sounds like a lot of people in this thread have similar problems--someone should do a study.
posted by stray at 6:45 PM on December 10, 2004

Clean the house, wash the dishes, straighten up the garage, write that letter you've been meaning to, organize your office and all your old papers, invite that girl over and make her spagetti dinner, Then, go balls to the wall - I have the same problem myself - I can't seem to pull it together unless I'm under pressure.
posted by Pressed Rat at 6:46 PM on December 10, 2004

Long time reader first time poster

Hi, chrchr!

What always worked for me is to make a rough outline. That sounds kind of corny and not very helpful, but outlines are dead-easy to do. Start from the beginning: what do I want to say about (topic)? What's some supporting evidence? Keep the outline short and sweet. Use simple sentences or phrases.

Then go through the outline and jot down some phrases that come to mind. They don't have to be in any coherent order, but keep them grouped to whatever part of the outline you're on. I've always found it easier to write one killer sentence then write a whole paper. So I would write those killer phrases or sentences, then gradually build up text around those phrases. Eventually you'll wind up with a lot of text in generally the right order.

I've always found it easier to edit text that I've already got then actually write new text on a blank, hostile page. Funny thing, though, is that when I got the papers back with notes from the prof, they would inevitably end up underlining the "killer phrases" that I'd built the paper around with comments like, "Excellent point!" or whatever. Provided your paper has a few of these killer phrases at random intervals, the prof. will be distracted from whatever failings the paper might have.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 6:51 PM on December 10, 2004

I'm with painquale. Invent a new due date for one of them...and if a fabricated deadline doesn't put enough pressure on you, consider emailing the prof and asking them to mark the paper late unless you turn it in early. I have the exact same problem, and that's how I stay afloat in these situations.
posted by introcosm at 6:54 PM on December 10, 2004

Okay, I'm kind of shocked at the pleasantry displayed here by the MeFi massive. Quansar must be drunk. Let us presume that you are pretty bright or can at least write well. What exactly do you expect when you say "I hate all forms of work" and "I am incapable of forcing myself to work"? Why are you in school? WHAT DO YOU DO? You suck it up. If you cannot possibly write both papers, pick the friendlier prof and beg forgiveness. (If you *are* bright or write well, this might work--you'd be surprised.) In any case, show some fucking gumption. It takes so little effort to manage a B+ that if you honestly can't handle it, you shouldn't be there.

(/crotchety drunk)
posted by mookieproof at 7:06 PM on December 10, 2004

Get a timer. Set it for fifteen minutes. Work on the paper for fifteen minutes. When the timer goes off, set it for fifteen minutes and go do something else. When it goes off, work on the second paper. Lather, rinse, repeat.

That is how I get my housework done. Only way I know to combat procrastination. And with my disorder I have it in spades.
posted by konolia at 7:16 PM on December 10, 2004 [1 favorite]

When you say "I hate all forms of work", are you sure that's true? I suffered through exactly the same circumstances as you, but it wasn't motivated by hating work. I've been afraid of committing to work, afraid of failing at work (and therefore never starting), and I've spent lots of time preparing mentally, but I don't hate work. I have, however, spent significant amounts of time enjoying not working, but nobody ever convinced me that the problem was that I didn't like to work.

I love AskMe.
posted by grateful at 7:42 PM on December 10, 2004

For one paper, or both, make an appointment with the professor, TA, or school writing center at least 2 days before the due date to "go over the draft." This is your new deadline. You can either hand in the paper as is 2 days later after catching up on sleep, secure in the knowledge that you will not miss the deadline, or you can even use the extra 2 days to get the +A. This is what I finally had to do to bring some sanity back into my life when I had two 20+ seminar papers due on the same day.
posted by availablelight at 8:42 PM on December 10, 2004

I'm in a pretty similar boat; motivation just isn't my strong suit. Something that was mentioned above is a good point: clean up your room. Not only is it a good venue for procrastination (the only time I get work done is when I have other, more important work to avoid) but also, for whatever reason, it's much easier to work when your environment is tidy. Don't ask, but maybe give it a shot.
posted by cmyr at 8:46 PM on December 10, 2004

Me too. I'd take painquale's suggestion and take it one step further: whenever possible, get an authority figure to give you additional deadlines. For example, I'm working on an independent study, which is one huge paper due at the end of the semester. It doesn't work for me to *pretend* that it's due a week early or that I have to turn in rough drafts because I know that I'm just pretending. Instead, I asked my advisor to require drafts at pre-assigned times throughout the semester. Sure, I don't get each draft done until the last minute, but at least I'll have some serious work completed by the time the final is due. And I care enough about what my advisor thinks (she's grading me, after all) to actually turn in those assigned drafts.

Also, I agree with phatboy, but I think some posters have misconstrued his comments. It doesn't work to pretend that you aren't a procrastinator and hope that you'll be able to do better next time if you just want it enough. It does work to admit that you have this tendency and that you need to accomodate it when looking realistically at how you get things done. Next time, ask your prof to make one of those papers due a few days earlier for you (if s/he's not willing to make it due a few days later).

Good luck! Now back to my studies....

(On preview: what availablelight said)
posted by equipoise at 8:54 PM on December 10, 2004

Similar to availablelight, I try to fool myself into thinking my deadlines are actually earlier than they are. So if I have a paper due on the 16th, I'll write that in my planner, but I'll try to convince myself that the paper is due 2-5 days earlier. So I'll say to myself, over and over, "The paper is due on the 13th. Don't forget! The 13th! If you don't turn it in on the 13th, you'll FAIL!"

Then, 'round about the 11th or 12th, some little timer in my brain will go off, and suddenly I'll start thinking, "Need to sit down and write that sucker! Need to edit it!" Voila, I finish it on or ahead of time, and usually have enough extra time to really polish it and make it brilliant.

Aside from this, I find the following technique is also useful: suck it up and stop being lazy. Harsh, but true. My procrastination was worst when I indulged it and told myself "this is just the way I am". Bullshit. That's just an excuse to keep languishing in a faulty state and never, ever improve. Do you want to be pulling all-nighters and struggling against deadlines when you're 40? No, no you don't. Learn from your past mistakes and become a better person for it.
posted by fricative at 10:18 PM on December 10, 2004

Here is my step-by-step advice for you.

1. Stop reading askme very soon.
2. Unplug your internet connection - this is a key source of procrastination.
3. Decide which paper to start first. Then set a schedule. If you have, say, four days til the papers are due, you have two days for each. So two days from now is the "deadline" on the first paper. Set a specific time to be done.
4. You do not yet believe this deadline is real. That is because you still think you can get away with doing them both at the last minute. Think long and hard about how much that would suck, how bad you would feel if you failed one of your classes, etc. Keep at this part until you at least sort of believe your deadline for the first paper counts.
5. Now start working. You can do this. I usually start by brainstorming ideas for what I am going to write, then reading the source material for quotes and useful points to cover. Then I try to lay out what my claim will be.
6. Now start writing. Try to set aside a block of time, say one to three hours, in which you will not do anything else. No TV, no internet. Try to write a certain amount in that time. A good rule is one page per hour. If you get distracted, remind yourself that this is your time to work.
7. After that time is up, take a break and eat a snack or something. Then do another block of work. Once you have written half your paper you can chill out for awhile and bask in your productivity. Keep at this until the paper is done.
8. There are no shortcuts. Even if you slack a bit more than you should, committing yourself to this plan or a similar one will help you make progress.
posted by mai at 11:52 PM on December 10, 2004 [2 favorites]

I did this throughout school, and to a lesser degree, do it professionally. Like others have iterated, try creating false deadlines for yourself, and/or split up the assignment into small chunks.

I also used and still employ a rewards system of sorts: I'll reward myself for 5 or so minutes of work with a snack, 10 minutes surfing the web, etc.

Work is a negative, leisure is a plus. While most of us would always like to be swimming in the positive end of the spectrum, drowning in the negative (like flunking 2 classes) is far worse. So if you're on campus and getting a bite to eat, pay that off with a quick trip to the library, or vice versa. Hanging out with a friend a day or two before the final? Schedule a meeting with your TA for the same or next day. It's all about trying to balance your inherent slackerness with the need to keep your life afloat.

Good luck.
posted by lychee at 1:26 AM on December 11, 2004

For one paper, or both, make an appointment with the professor, TA, or school writing center at least 2 days before the due date to "go over the draft."
As a chronic procrastinator, I find this is the way to go. For example, I had my biochemisty lab term paper due last thursday, but I needed to have it in by Wednesday afternoon to get it proofread. This forced me to finish the paper a full day ahead of time and the final product was pretty good because of the editing. Plus, I find with scientific papers, they always take longer than I expect so not only do I get them in on time, but they're coherant as I have a real chance to review them.
So, yea, definitely scatter meetings to go over your future assignment a day or two before they're actually due. By staggering, they also will magically not all be due on the same day.
posted by jmd82 at 1:39 AM on December 11, 2004

I used to do this, too. And I stopped doing it for probably the same reason that you've posted this; I realized that when I do something at the last minute, I can get away with it, but it's shit!

You know you want to make better work, and you know that you're definitely capable of better work, if only you weren't so "lazy".

Making (or writing) something good is rewarding in and of itself.

Tonight, you had two things to do, and you probably fucked them both up. How about next time you have a major project to do, you consciously decide to do an extremely incredibly really good job on it?
posted by interrobang at 2:16 AM on December 11, 2004

eventually you'll grow up. at some point it just seems a bit stupid whining about how you "can't" make yourself do stuff, so you do it. until then, you don't.
posted by andrew cooke at 4:08 AM on December 11, 2004

"What do I do?"

I'd say suck it up and start writing instead of coming in here and asking what to do.

Otherwise, what rushmc said.
posted by kamylyon at 4:50 AM on December 11, 2004

posted by flabdablet at 4:55 AM on December 11, 2004

Outlining may work for you; it may not. I, for one, despise outlines and will never do them if I have a choice. One thing to remember is YOU DON'T HAVE TO START WITH THE BEGINNING. If you have any ideas regarding your topic, just start typing those out. This is a good way to get started. Worry about introductions, conclusions, transitions, sources, coherence, etc. etc. LATER.
posted by dagnyscott at 7:35 AM on December 11, 2004

This was the way I worked all through college--I even ran my own consulting business in college, while working entirely at the last minute. Now I'm in graduate school and that style of work is completely uncool. Sooner or later it will almost certainly bite you in the ass. For every person who will tell you, "I'm a terrible procrastinator, and it works great!" there will be more who are getting nowhere in their careers. And don't forget that it can totally suck to work or live with someone who is constantly doing everything at the last minute. It is not a problem you can just take care of all at once though; you have to be forgiving and address it a little bit at a time.

Since starting grad school, GTD has been a big help. I'd recommend that: adopt the system and stick with it. It is personal organization for disorganized, lazy people like us; it makes keeping organized and working continually easy, since it's basically built around the maintenance of a giant pile of crap (your 'inbox'). It's awesome, since you just throw stuff into the giant pile and forget about it for a week, confidently knowing that you will get to it eventually. (This is my work style--and it sounds like yours as well--to a T.)

But that is a long-term solution. In the short term:

- I second the suggestion for having a drink. Alcohol is a depressant. A scotch on the rocks or glass of wine will help you sit down in your chair and be calm. This is something that, say, Hemingway knew. (Of course, you don't want to take it as far as Hemingway did!) But it can help you get started. This is why coffee rarely works for me as a motivating drink. A drink. One.

- Clean your room, organize your desk, etc. Lay out all the books you'll need in a big pile.

- Trollope had a great way of working; he would demand so many words from his pen per quarter-hour. He wrote 250 words every 15 minutes, which is a lot; but if you commit to writing 250 words every 30 minutes, even if you sit, staring at the screen, and bang out the 250 at minute 29, you will make surprisingly quick progress on your writing. Personally, my thinking process doesn't begin until I'm wrangling with my own words, so doing something like this helps. Even if you say to yourself, "I'm going to write 250 words and then take a half-hour break and then write 250 more," you are making progress and thinking.

- Listen to non-distracting music with headphones at high volumes. Philip Glass. Steve Reich.

- Think about the benefits and consequences of working well. I don't know if you care about school, papers, writing, reading, and so on, or take school seriously (I do, obviously, since I'm a grad student). But if you do, and you have never written an essay a little bit at a time over several days, then you are missing out on an exhilirating experience. Writing all at the last-minute you will never produce your best work; and if you think that the mental 'work' your brain is doing while playing Grand Theft Auto is serious, before you've even started your paper, then you will be amazed at how smart you are when you work on something day-by-day. It is a wonderful feeling that everyone should have in college, since in the working world you are often so busy that you don't have time for truly leisurely intellectual activity. By procrastinating you are cheating yourself.

Conversely, think about the consequences. Until you've really screwed up, you tend to take pride in how close you've cut it in the past. ("I'm so lazy, I'm badass!" Sure.) All it takes, though, is one harrowing experience to put you on the road to reform. In my senior year of college, I delayed writing the crummy lab reports for an evolutionary biology course until five days before graduation, well after the reports had been due. (I was writing a thesis in the creative writing department, and was not at all interested in writing lab reports.) I almost didn't graduate and had to take a D for the course. Eventually, this will happen to you, and it will be horrible.

Other advice: go exercise to work off your nervous energy. Take a run outside, and walk back, thinking about your work. Put a sign on your door that says 'GO AWAY.' Unplug your phone and your internet. Or, if that doesn't work, find a truly secluded place--not the library--to work. One of my favorite work spots has been the green room of an almost always empty blackbox theater. It has no windows, no decorations, and no people in it, and is great for really getting things done. When you get tired of that, go to a coffee shop where you know nobody and put in some earplugs.

If you're like me, you will spend years of your life struggling to become a hard-working person instead of a lazy bastard. The main thing for me so far has been, first, to realize the huge benefits of actually becoming organized (basically a realization that school is an amazing opportunity and that you ought to have a little more self-respect); and second to realize that even starting one day early, when you usually start 12 hours before, is a small victory.

And, limit yourself to one 'session' of the interent or video games a day. One hour of internet browsing, from ten to eleven in the morning, say, that's it: then you're done.
posted by josh at 7:56 AM on December 11, 2004 [4 favorites]

They aren't putting the work off, but they are doing a lot of it mentally, then at the last minute they can produce a complete work, without the outlining and draft process that lots of other people do. During the time when it seems as if they are procrastinating, they are just solving the necessary puzzle in their mind -- sort of doing the outlining and drafts almost subconsciously.

Wow, that's me. I was lucky enough to have one manager for several years who totally understood that about me, and patiently waited out my "churning" time in between short blasts of massive productivity. Most people can't seem to relate to the sprint-rest-sprint working style, but I can't relate to their constant, methodical, hypnotic loping gait.

I'm getting a little better at the run-up process, though, and one thing that helps me get things rolling is having tools that are fun & easy to use. I've become a big fan of mind-mapping software like Visual-Mind (FreeMind is an open-source alternative that I haven't tried yet. Looks good though.) They're great for managing projects & tasks, and for composing reports and papers. They let you easily start with main concepts and break each one down (Getting Things Done style), or start with scattered snippets of info and assemble them into a report or paper. I find myself gathering momentum as soon as I get a few concepts on screen, and I think it's the immediate visual feedback. It's cool to watch yourself flesh out a project and see it take shape.
posted by Tubes at 9:45 AM on December 11, 2004

This article was posted here awhile ago. I found it pretty interesting.
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 11:40 AM on December 11, 2004

phatboy says: I do the same thing. I wait until the last possible minute to do anything, and still manage to pull it off. I have just accepted that this is the way I function and I should just stop feeling guilty about it. If you are getting good grades I don't see any reason to change your behavior.

I disagree strongly with this. I used to wait until the last minute to do work. Unfortunately, stuff started getting harder, and this strategy became less and less successful. I think that, for almost anyone, if they are ambitious and want to get somewhere with their career/plans for higher degrees/etc, they will find that the level of procrastination that they could get away in high school/college will be much too high for any kind of more advanced work. Frankly, I'm skeptical of phatboy's claim of getting a phd while continuing to procrastinate at the same level as always - a phd is hundreds of pages of writing, preceded by months (if not years) of solid research. You just can't put this stuff off until the night before your defense (actually, you typically need to have a draft to the committee weeks or a month before the defense, so that would be the real deadline). I think phatboy would find that as he compares the procrastination he did as an undergrad to the lead-up to his phd defense/filing, they simply do not compare. The argument of good grades also doesn't go through, IMO. B+/A- work at an undergrad level is not sufficient to last more than a year at a decent graduate program, and depending on your ambitions, may not be enough to make it in the real world. For that matter, B+/A- work in a freshman/soph. intro class (which it sounds like is approximately what you are in) probably won't even be sufficient to pass or do well in a junior/senior elective.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that accepting that procrastination is a tendency of your personality and working to mitigate it is one thing, and embracing procrastination is another. By all means don't feel guilty about it if it really and truely isn't affecting your work, but it sounds like it is, and it also sounds like in 2-3 years of not changing at all, it will be much worse.

Unfortunately, I have no good advice. I was in similar positions at a point early in my undergrad program, and (as I didn't have ask.mefi to ask for advice), simply failed the classes. A year of this made me rethink almost everything about my life. I found the motivation to control my level of procrastination as much as I need to (though I still have a hard time getting it less than that), but I only found it after being faced with the alternate option of leaving college. I also soon added a different primary major in something I found I was really interested in, not just a major I was in by inertia.

So to the original poster, good luck, and if you fail the classes, you may get a more valuable lesson than if you manage to pull it off at the last moment. But I hope you don't fail them - you won't enjoy the lesson at the time, and starting down that path is painful, unpleasant, can change you and your life dramatically, and isn't guaranteed to work (it didn't for a friend of mine in almost an identical situation to me).
posted by advil at 3:36 PM on December 11, 2004

get a job working for the government
posted by getupandgo at 3:38 PM on December 11, 2004

They aren't putting the work off, but they are doing a lot of it mentally, then at the last minute they can produce a complete work, without the outlining and draft process that lots of other people do. During the time when it seems as if they are procrastinating, they are just solving the necessary puzzle in their mind -- sort of doing the outlining and drafts almost subconsciously.

Wow, that's me. I was lucky enough to have one manager for several years who totally understood that about me, and patiently waited out my "churning" time in between short blasts of massive productivity. Most people can't seem to relate to the sprint-rest-sprint working style, but I can't relate to their constant, methodical, hypnotic loping gait.

I used to think this was me. Actually, to some extent, it is. But what I've found in the long run is that ideas get better with time, and no matter how good your churning period is, having something you wrote to edit, think about, and improve, will make it better. In terms of something you may want to publish or have others read, for me this editing period is (at least part of) the difference between not ready and ready. Basically, I've found that I can't judge my ideas at all objectively (and all ideas need that) in any close proximity to having tried to organize them on paper. Last-minute ideas, even if they seem brilliant at the time, usually turn out to actually seem last-minute later, even if this is just in terms of how they are presented.

Also, for me the churning period doesn't help with matters of presentation (incl. how the written product is organized). I didn't always think this way, but now I'm convinced that about half of the value of any idea is really in its presentation/organization. Discounting this aspect really can undermine your ideas, I think.

ok I'm done now, really. But this post touched a nerve - it could have been written by me 7 years ago, if ask.mefi existed then.
posted by advil at 3:47 PM on December 11, 2004

These are very classical symptoms of the Perceiver function (from the Myers-Briggs system).
Perceivers have a tendency to put things off for the last minute, but they also thrive under pressure - even if they hate it. While they may not be working on the task on hand, Perceivers usually spend time processing information about the task itself so that they will be more prepared when they get to work. Judgers on the other hand, feel compelled to finish a task as soon as humanly possible.

I myself am a Perceiver/procrastinator/whatever, in fact I should be studying right now - for an exam tomorrow morning, eek! I find I can only write essays at the very last minute, and even if I were to attempt to force myself to work on an essay three weeks in advance, I would go about it so slowly and pathetically that it would be a waste of time.

I've had bouts of depression and I always feel that the procrastinatory tendencies worsen if I'm depressed. I find that eating healthy, taking a multivitamin, and exercising can beat off depression - which in turn, actually motivates me to at least do some stuff on time. Not all - I really could've used a few more hours of studying for my Philosophy exam for example, but that's all in the past now.
Anyways, eating healthy/exercising et al is my solution and it's really the best I can do, but it's a work-in-progress and it always will be. This probably doesn't help you, but just thought I'd share notes.

Back to studying..
posted by Menomena at 4:09 PM on December 11, 2004

advil, in my experience -- and this is my experience alone, I'm not going to assume that everyone is like me on this -- the product produced after the "churning" period may need some editing, but it is pretty close to final. It is not like a typical first draft that someone who works in the methodical step-by-step way would produce. But in the end the quality is the same as the final work produced the methodical way.

Basically both kinds of workers can produce the same quality of work but they have different mental processes to get there.

When I took the class in which this was discussed, I wish I had saved the citations about this. The teacher had a bunch of studies on the topic. I thought it was interesting as it described me so well. But as I said above, this is not entirely the same as procrastination, for me. I have that going on as well but even when I don't wait until the last minute, I still have the sprint-rest-sprint working/thinking style (thanks Tubes!), and knowing this has made it easier to understand how I get things done and improve my work.
posted by litlnemo at 5:06 PM on December 11, 2004

I think phatboy would find that as he compares the procrastination he did as an undergrad to the lead-up to his phd defense/filing, they simply do not compare.

Probably true, however the "last minute" for a thesis lasts about 18 months on average.
posted by phatboy at 6:46 PM on December 11, 2004

And here I am, reading this thread, when I have two research papers due on Monday. Sprint!
posted by swank6 at 7:33 PM on December 11, 2004

And just to clarify, when I said above "the product produced after the 'churning' period may need some editing, but it is pretty close to final" I didn't mean that to sound as if I write perfect papers, just that they are closer to being done than a typical "first draft."

In rereading this now I get the feeling I didn't explain myself well.
posted by litlnemo at 4:28 AM on December 12, 2004

Ah man, does that bring back memories … I haven’t got a whole lot to go on, so forgive me for making wild and unforgivable generalisations / extrapolations, but: if your college experience was anything like mine, you’re chasing the symptoms, not the cause. Forget the papers. Focus on the procrastination. Posting on AxMe was part of the self-punishment – you’ve been dodging reality, reality shut your game down, and now you've got the academic equivalent of sophie's choice.

So ask yourself a question: do I like what I do? My feeling is you don’t, and you’re getting all fight-clubby (read: internally passive-aggressive) as your subconscious beats you up to try and get some attention. Some part of you wants this unresolved drama to surface ‘cos you’re not strong enough to confront it head-on.

Do you enjoy studying? Are you sure you wanna be a marine biologist? (fill in your own blank). Maybe it’s simpler. Maybe you’re ok with the study but the unknown – that entire universe of possibilities that exist after university – scares you silly and you’d rather remain here fucking about with endless papers ‘cos this little pond’s safe and predictable and there’s really no need to jump into the big pond. Not that one. Not yet. It’s all vast and dark and I hear they’ve got sharks. I can't answer this one for you: only you will know what your drama / demon is.

So you’re enrolled and to the outside world look every bit the college student, but internally you’re actually doing your level best to fail. You know this is a bad thing, so now you and your subconscious are standing with pistols drawn at twenty yards. He's an awful strong opponent, through. Never goes down. Trust me, you want this guy wearing a white stetson. You’ll be fighting this battle forever unless you deal with the underlying cause.

There’s a reason you’re putting yourself through all this grief, right? The outcome has gotta be worth more to you than the pain you’re going through right now. How many more of these deadlines ‘til you graduate?

If you’re getting close and the whole internal monologue thing is a little too big for you pre-deadline, make a pact with yourself: suck it up and get it done, and every semester break you’re gonna fly down to vegas or tijuana or whistler and knock yourself stupid for a week. Give your subconscious something to feed on other than negativity. You made your own tunnel – now make your own light. Reward yourself everytime you beat another deadline – guilty pleasures. Small things. New shoes. New shirt. DVD / CD’s. A sunny day down the coast. Ask that girl in Ecology 101 – you know the one I mean - whether she wants to go scuba diving or sailing or kayaking with your crew this holiday weekend. I don’t care what you do. Just do it.

Bottom line: you’ll get through if you want to. Somewhere, deep down, you know. Is it really the end of the world if you don't finish? There’s gotta be something else you can start.

You were a kid once. Kids only procrastinate over something they hate – needles, vegetables, math – but just try and hold ‘em back from skateboarding or surfing or making out or something, anything, that they love. One thing about childhood, it’s pure. No mindfuckery, just straight-up self-interest and directness and endless idealistic hopeful curiousity until society gets ahold of ‘em and then everything gets all philip larkin *coughs*… err … ahem. A rant for another time. Let's get back on-topic ...

So maybe you wanted to be a quarterback. Not a biologist. Spend a fucking lifetime drying wet rocks and titrating mould spores? Not for me, daddy-o. I wanna play ball … so get out there and make it happen. Find the thing you most wanna do with the rest of your life, and GO DO IT. It’s that simple. If you want it bad enough, you’ll find a way.

Maybe you won’t be the starting quarterback for the Rams, there’s only one of those, but you can become the best damn NFL agent or sports physio or photographer or writer or broadcaster or hot-dog vendor or zeppelin pilot … I dunno, best something - something that’ll let you spend the rest of your life working in and around the NFL and you’ll be as happy as a clam. What’s more, you’ll be better at it than the next guy just 'cos you love it, and you sure as hell won’t be sitting up at 3am trying to psych yourself into a cornered-rat adrenalin-burst of panic in order to limp over the next hurdle, and the next, and the next, ad infinitum …

You don’t wanna spend the rest of your life having to summon courage from fear. It’s no way to live. *cues violin, bogart voice* Find something that you love, and if you can’t find it, keep looking, and keep on believing you’ll find it, ‘cos when you give up, you’re dead. As long as you're looking, you’ll keep moving forward. And, believe me, when you find it, there’s nothing as rewarding. Nothing. The mind-games and internal fuckery just vanish, and you’re left with happiness and satisfaction and self-acceptance and, of course, the eco-babe in her bikini. It’s like the endings of all those soppy love stories you’ve never read. And yes, it happened to me. My major was more grisham, less costanza, but you get the idea *ends violin, keeps bogart*

When you break it all down, I think it's a common symptom for bright disaffected twentysomethings who've lost the structure / framework of school and don't know enough about themselves just yet to replace it with anything else. Go find that something. Let it go long enough and you're sliding a slippery thoreauic path into a life of quiet desperation. Ungood.

I’ve babbled enough, and please forgive me for projecting my own college experience onto you. On preview, this has been more about getting all emily dickinson and writing a letter to myself at 21 than anything to do with your post, but make of it what you will …

Good luck!
posted by bookie at 8:39 AM on December 12, 2004 [2 favorites]

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