by Elsa Scott
photography courtesy of Ember Larregui
My writing seminar professor once told us the true root of all failure in writing. Before he revealed the secret, he had us try to guess what it was—what did we think was the one thing that ruined most college papers?
Answers ranged from grammatical errors, to punctuation errors, to shallow analysis, to weak conclusions and more. All of these my professor shut down. He then told us, with a kind of quiet gravity and urgency that made all of us lean in, that the root of all failure in academic endeavors is procrastination.
“When you procrastinate, you cut down on the time available to do your best work,” he told us.
It’s so true. Oftentimes, when I turn in an essay I wrote from 12 a.m. to 4 a.m. the morning of, I feel a strange rush of accomplishment. The satisfaction of finishing is somehow sweeter when it’s after a caffeine-fueled frantic scramble to throw the words onto a page as best as I possibly can. The cherry on top is the decent-to-high grade I finish with, because I am a high-achieving procrastinating perfectionist, and my last-minute work is good enough.
At least, that’s what I, and many others like me, tell ourselves. Deep down, we know that it’s not our best work. We could have easily made it so much better, if we had taken the time to go back and edit, revise, and inevitably improve the paper. Simply because we are equipped to create good work the first time around, does not mean that we should stop there. Our work may be good enough, but it’s not our best.
Every time I close my computer at 4 a.m., eyes blurring from the intense blue light of my screen and heart racing as I finally call it quits on an essay due in six hours, I tell myself I am never doing that again. I will plan it out, I will start early, I will do it the right way. Next time. Then, next time comes around, and I repeat the process all over again. Again, I am left berating myself and asking myself the question I’m sure all procrastinators have asked themselves at some point or another: “Why am I like this and why do I do this to myself?”
This is the question that has been the root of much deliberation and discussion, as well as the focus of many studies. In a study in the Psychological Bulletin, Piers Steel, a University of Calgary professor, concluded that about five percent of people were chronic procrastinators in 1978 as opposed to about 26% in 2007. So, there’s been a dramatic increase in procrastinators between 1978 and 2007, and according to Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University, the amount of people who are chronic procrastinators today is still around 20%.
There are a few main theories for why procrastination occurs, however, there is no definitive answer. One theory includes the fear of rejection due to a desire for perfection. The reason so many procrastinators are also high-achieving perfectionists is that there is a certain degree of avoidance with procrastination, as though the problem will go away if left unaddressed. This then gets rid of the possibility of failure because the work cannot be found imperfect if it is not done in the first place. This fear of rejection may also be linked to low self-esteem, because if we are worried about the quality of our work being found lacking, that could be indicative of doubt in our own abilities.
Another theory indicates a lack of self-discipline, a dependency on others to make decisions for us. Indecision stems from feeling insecure in our judgement. We may be used to letting others’ help guide us; that also lifts the blame off of us if something goes wrong. Avoidance of taking responsibility means fewer consequences should we fail.
A less abstract theory is that the effect of readily available technology has made us increasingly subject to give in to the desire for instant gratification. It is much easier to simply scroll through Instagram and feel entertained and rewarded instantly than to stick it out for the long-term, abstract reward of a good grade on a paper that’s due in a week.
This theory of instant gratification can actually be explored more in the context of the way the human brain functions. Neuropsychological and behavioral research has linked procrastination to the executive functioning in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. The prefrontal cortex of the brain deals with long-term thinking and willpower, while the limbic system deals with immediate concrete rewards. The decision to do the work needs to pass through both sections of the brain. Because the brain is structured this way, it is very easy to give in to the more comfortable decision to put something off for “later” instead of facing it head on and putting in time and effort to figure it out.
This is not to say it is impossible to not procrastinate—far from it, actually. Procrastination is a habit, and all habits are breakable. It is simply a matter of approaching our work with intention, motivation, and self-discipline. It also takes little steps: draft an outline, start some research, write a thesis statement, make a bulleted list for what a body paragraph will be about. Start with baby steps, and you’ll find yourself further along than you might have expected.
This is coming from a fellow chronic procrastinator. This is coming from a writer who did the research for this article two weeks before it was due, and then waited to actually write it until two days before the due date. However, it was easier thanks to that research I had done, and I wrote it during the day, rather than during the ungodly hours between 12 a.m. and 4 a.m. Baby steps, but that’s where it all starts.