Peter Zhang

Procrastination

Anecdote

My college essay journey was a hilarious, spectacular disaster. Most of my friends started in the summer; earlybird-Erics began in the spring; the feet-draggers started in September.

On the weekend of October 22nd, I visited the library, sat in a corner, and made a Google Doc titled “College Apps.” On October 29th, that document was renamed “Final Countdown.” By October 31st, I had finished the Common App and started working on my supplementals. On the night of November 1st, I started copy-pasting them into the portal.

I’ll never forget it. In total, I wrote 6 or so pathetic paragraphs, most of them around 50 words. They were shit, but I was fairly impressed with myself. I finished pasting what I thought was the last response and clicked “next.” I found a stinky surprise.

Two 250 word prompts. Whose existence was entirely unbeknownst to me. I tried—I really did—to wordsmith at 10 wpm with the hour I had left. I was saved by a miracle: my credit card got declined and I couldn’t submit the two stinkers.

If you’re wondering about how the rest of the essays went, keep in mind that Berkeley is notorious for not really caring about essays. Thank the Lord!

Problem

I am a procrastinator by nature. Writing an article is a month-long affair. My presentations won’t get turned in until a day or two before the deadline. Don’t even ask how long it took to set up this site.

For years, I was puzzled by my own behavior. The common causes of procrastination didn’t provide much insight. The problem definitely isn’t organization. I can schedule in (as I did, every week, for months) a time to work on my website, but when time comes, I will concoct some urgent diversion (such as, say, that I suddenly feel a passion for jogging). It also isn’t task aversion, a lack of energy, or trouble focusing. Debate cases, grunt work for classes, reading dry books—no problem. I crave the dopamine rush that comes from checking off a task. Nor is it a fear of failure. I’m fairly confident that I can succeed at most things if I put in the efforts.

On reflection, I think there are three underlying mechanisms that explain why sometimes I procrastinate, and other times I don’t. You might relate to these.

  1. Fear of judgement. I’m not great at taking criticism. I have a sensitive ego and a dangerous love for arguing. The worst scenario is when I’m doing something that I don’t think I’m good at. When I got back reviews for mentoring, I waited a week to open them. Objectively, this was the least intimidating form of judgement: an Excel sheet with numbers. But the fact that I was a new mentor and didn’t know what scores to expect was frightening.
  2. Invisible deadlines. When there isn’t an explicit deadline, I convince myself that there’s no point to starting now. This sometimes happens with writing Premier briefs. Topic just came out? Busy with schoolwork, I’ll start tomorrow. A week in? Still have time, I’ll take it slow. A month in? Too late anyways, might as well start later. Whenever there aren’t clear deadlines for subtasks, I rationalize away self-imposed due dates.
  3. Perfectionism. It pains me to submit work that’s incomplete or has mistakes. It’s especially hard for creative exercises like writing, since the entire point is that there’s no “right” way to do it. I can fix the grammar and spelling mistakes, but the wording or tone will always feel off. The worst consequence is the “all or nothing” attitude: if something’s not perfect, then it’s terrible! There’s no in between and no point to trying to make it less terrible.

It’s the unfamiliar, self-paced, and creative tasks—tasks like college essays—that really screw me. The prospect of having friends review my essays was horrifying. So, each weekend, the “get started” date was booted to the next Saturday. When I eventually started, it hard from me to know when to move on and where to allocate my time; some essays were irredeemable, others had to be perfect.

If you’ve read Subtle Art, you’ll recognize this as the feedback cycle from hell. Procrastinating intensifies criticism, further degrades the benefits of punctuality, and definitely makes it harder to have a perfect product. Oy vey.

Solution

This past semester has featured more assignment and projects than I had ever juggled before. In adapting to the new environment, I designed some coping mechanisms. If your problems are the same as mine, then maybe these will help.

  1. Visualize. Picture the worst case scenarios. What’s the worst feedback that they could give? If I wait, what is the worst result then? I build this into my morning meditation. It mitigates the threat of judgement while also clarifying that waiting will make it worse.
  2. Decide for yourself. It’s an idea inspired by the book Nudge. Give yourself a deadline. No, not just a “mental” deadline or a note on the calendar; make an artificial, external deadline. An example: When I dread writing an email, I’ll have Streak auto-send the email in an hour. If I bum-out and don’t finish it, some garbled outline will get sent to some poor recruiter. I do this for posts like this too. Jekyll let’s you upload drafts that go live in the future. If the article isn’t finished by then, then, welp, you get to read some embarrassing mess.
  3. Move fast, break things. Not a great motto for a tech conglomerate, but a surprisingly good productivity technique. Answer your messages instantly; do the homework once it comes out; get started on that article idea you just had. I wrote about this in the context of habits, but it really applies to all kinds of commitments. The best way to dispel work-related premonitions is to get started and show yourself that it’s not that bad. Make it a habit and you won’t even need to make a conscious decision. It solves perfectionism: if you’re thinking about getting everything done, you won’t be thinking about getting one thing done “perfectly.”

Conclusion

A closing thought. Don’t blame yourself for how you are—it’s not your fault and thinking it is won’t help. Reshaping how you view your work is not an overnight (or over-semester) change. Innate instincts and beliefs are just that—innate. Accepting that they exist and trying to mitigate them is a whole lot better than surrender. Knowing the difference is the key.

And yes, I did procrastinate on writing this article. But I got some words down when I first had the idea. I reassured myself that I could just scrap the article if it turned out poorly. Plus, it’s set to publish automatically on January 22, so, right now, on afternoon on January 21st, I am writing and rewriting the words you’re reading. I have other things to do, and that’s ok! Nonetheless, I am definitely finishing this goddamn article.

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