Right now, I’m supposed to be writing 50 pages on the Cold War, the CIA, and the KGB for my senior thesis in history. These are all things that I am interested in, and I literally need to finish my thesis to graduate. But for whatever reason, as I sit in the dingy stacks of Avery—a place that is beginning to feel like Dante’s depiction of limbo—I can’t bring myself to write this thesis. Instead, I’m writing this column. I’ve been waiting for the start of every half-hour hoping that it will motivate me to get moving. (It hasn’t.) I have 12 hours to send in a completed draft, and now I’m on a Wikipedia binge that began with Barack Obama’s dogs and has evolved into the highest-profile unsolved murders in the U.S.
If I’m being honest, I find myself in this situation at least once every two weeks. Despite the enormous amounts of anxiety that procrastination naturally gives me, here I am again. I’d label myself as a chronic procrastinator, meaning that I procrastinate very, very often.
Not only am I a chronic procrastinator, but I’m also a very creative one. How I choose to spend my time procrastinating has become exponentially more ludicrous over the years. Once, I made a whole series of short movies for my finsta followers. Another time, I began to train for a triathlon, which I later successfully completed.
For almost all four years of college, I surrounded myself with meticulous students who somehow started assignments earlier than the night before it was due and succeeded in their classes with an ease that seemed unattainable to me. It was frustrating and disheartening and led to a cycle of self-criticism and doubt. However, I went to a procrastination workshop sponsored by Counseling and Psychological Services (as a means of procrastination) and learned that I am not alone.
While there, I learned that there are many theories as to why we procrastinate. The one that related most to me, though, was the idea that procrastinators tend to be people who have mentally linked their academic performance to their value as a person. Therefore, procrastination is a way to protect yourself against criticism from assignments that are perceived as a blow to one’s self-worth. Procrastination is actually more likely when the task is meaningful and the individual cares about doing it well.
So although I’d admonish myself for not starting something earlier, I wasn’t lazy. In the mind of a procrastinator, the act of ignoring assignments is justified as scamming the system: If I didn’t start something until the last minute, then I could blame my poor performance on that fact and not on myself. I wrongly associated my value as a person with the arbitrary letter that was placed at the top of a paper.
Honestly, I think a lot more Columbia students procrastinate than we realize. This is a campus of overachievers and perfectionists who enter into a highly competitive pool of people who are just as ambitious, intelligent, and noteworthy as they are. For me, internalizing that reality caused me to freeze up and question my place here and my ability as not only a student but a person.
It took a four-year undergraduate experience to divorce myself from that idea. I had to unlearn the addictive traits of procrastination: the hit that came from my brain’s pleasure center that gave me short-term relief from deep-rooted fears of inadequacy. When I think about it more, I was always scared that a bad grade would disappoint not only me but my parents, who have been sacrificing so much to put me through this expensive school. I’ve always been worried that a poor assignment would indicate that I don’t care about what they’ve done for me or my education—when actually the opposite is true. I care so much that it paralyzes me from even beginning out of fear of it being bad.
I’m writing now to say that I have surprisingly gotten better about this during my time at Columbia. I’ve learned to make smaller, more manageable, and attainable goals for myself. I use the Pomodoro Technique for short studying intervals. I’ve developed closer connections with my professors and deans, rather than jumping into the massive undertaking of navigating college by myself. I go to office hours, make appointments with my deans, and simply ask for help more often. I am also kinder to myself: I no longer berate myself for hours on end for not beginning an assignment sooner or for not doing as well as I’d hoped, and I know that my parents are proud of me for simply being here.
I know in the depths of my heart that I will finish this thesis, but starting is always the most difficult part. I’ve worked on just setting a timer for 10 minutes and seeing what I accomplish by then, but I’m typically able to keep working far beyond that. No, I don’t know if this thesis is going to be “perfect” (very few things in this life are), but at least it will be done.
Send your thoughts and your creative methods of procrastination to Christina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Christina’s World runs alternate Fridays.
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