I’ve had more than one client recently worry about their inability to get down to their writing. This is not a minor problem. It can lead you to question your ability to do the work you are doing and to question your own identity. If you aren’t an academic and a writer, who are you?
Procrastination is neither a congenital defect nor a moral failing. You are not lazy. You do not lack a work ethic. Procrastination is a clue.
This post is part of a series. This post is part of a series. In Part 1 I write about procrastination as a clue that there is something important that isn’t getting enough attention. In this post and Part 2a I write about procrastination as a clue that you are worried you will fail and look like a fool. In Part 3 I explore the possibility that procrastination is a clue you don’t want to do this at all.
Will you look like a fool?
This is not an insignificant consideration. I am reminded of the philosophical conundrum about the tree falling in the woods. If you mess up (part of) your project and no one knows, does it matter?
It is one thing to miss the bus. It is another thing altogether to be standing waiting for the next bus with a scraped knee, mud on your skirt and a sweaty forehead while more and more people arrive who have not seen the original incident.
The fear of looking like a fool haunts just about every academic. I’d bet good money that everyone has a gremlin that tries to protect them from looking like a fool.
You are not alone.
They are like tabloid journalists or Chicken Little. Doom-mongers.
This should be easier now that you have a more specific sense of the particular piece of the project that carries most of the risk (see part 2a) but you might have to have this conversation first if the doom-mongering is preventing you even getting to that other part.
What will really happen if you fail?
Make a list. Put everything on it, even the stuff that is clearly a gross exaggeration. If nothing else you want some easy things to cross off. That list is likely to be long.
Gremlins are sneaky doom-mongers. They hide real fears in amongst a bunch of stuff that sells well in Hollywood but is obviously fiction. And sometimes they hide it really well. Also, when you get to something really important, they are masters of misdirection. No No, look over here…
Go through your list one item at a time. You can skip stuff the gremlins are really adamant about and come back to it.
How likely is this?
This is the first question to ask.
For example, for many early career academics “I could lose my job” is on this list.
How likely that is depends on your circumstances. You might have to do some research to find out how likely it really is in your specific case. Focus on the specific. What are the requirements in your institution? How does your existing record look in relation to those requirements? What are the timelines?
If you don’t have a mentor who can help you with this, you need to find one.
Other things on your list will be easier. If something is unlikely, it will be easier to experiment and risk messing up.
How serious are the consequences?
Once you’ve got a list of the likely consequences, you need to consider how serious they are. Losing your job is clearly way more serious than getting asked a difficult question that you can’t answer in a conference presentation with 5 people attending.
To return to the running for the bus analogy, if you are just going to arrive out of breath, it might be worth it to run. If you need to run across the road to make it in time, and thus risk getting hit by oncoming traffic and maybe killed, you are better off waiting for the next bus.
Can you reduce the risk?
There are 2 areas to focus on here
- can you reduce the risk of failure (see Part 2a for ideas)
- can you reduce the risk of failing in public/looking like a fool/whatever other consequence
Can you try and fail without anyone else knowing about it? Would that enable you to learn from your mistakes and increase your likelihood of success?
Are there ways of sharing your work that carry less risk? Can you share it with trusted colleagues and friends? Is there a conference that is more likely to be supportive and help you get it into the kind of shape that would enable you to present to more critical audiences?
This is almost always the answer.
You need to get to a place where you can do your work. You need to find an acceptable level of risk.
Pushing yourself slightly out of your comfort zone will move the boundary of your comfort zone. Going to far (into your panic zone) will backfire.
Find the things you can do. Do them. Review. Spiral back.
Edited Sept 22, 2015.