On procrastinating

Scientific American weighs in on procrastinating:

Raymond, a high-powered attorney, habitually put off returning important business calls and penning legal briefs, behaviors that seriously threatened his career. Raymond (not his real name) sought help from clinical psychologist William Knaus, who practices in Longmeadow, Mass. As a first step, Knaus gave Raymond a two-page synopsis of procrastination and asked him to read it “and see if the description applied.” Raymond agreed to do so on a flight to Europe. Instead he watched a movie.

But procrastination is not all bad, apparently, and there’s scientific research to prove it:

To cope with the guilt and anxiety brought on by waiting until the last minute, some students acquired all the books for an assignment as soon as it was given and placed them on a shelf. […] Then, 48 hours before the project was due, the procrastinator dusted off the books and bad feelings and worked in a frenzy to get the assignment done. As a result, the students did the maximum amount of work in a minimum amount of time—with a minimal amount of pain.

So although these students were still putting off the work longer than they should, they were nonetheless managing to finish their assignment while maintaining their sanity. Schraw emphasizes that his work is not meant to advocate procrastination but to point out that the practice can engender some useful survival skills such as tactical planning to complete a task in limited time and with a minimum amount of stress. “The moral of the story is that people procrastinate so they can lead a better mental life,” Schraw says.

Which makes me wonder: why is this being called “procrastination”? Isn’t “time management” the normal technical term for it? Or does the usage depend on the context: executives manage their time, while students and underlings procrastinate?

Without further ado, here are my top 10 reasons for procrastination:

  1. Doing everything you’re told to do as soon as you’re told to do it is not always the best career choice.
  2. That goes double for women in science.
  3. And if someone gave me a self-help book to help me fix that “problem”, I wouldn’t be in much hurry to read it, either.
  4. Math research requires long and uninterrupted blocks of time. If this means that email has to wait a bit, then, well, that’s what it means.
  5. Prioritizing is not just for high-level executives. It’s for us. It’s for everyone who has more things to do than time to do them.
  6. So is organizing one’s tasks. For instance, doing several of them together can save time. But you can only do that once you’ve got several of them piled up.
  7. There are only 24 hours in a day. Not all of them can be spent on work. Nor should they.
  8. Even if something takes only five minutes to do, that’s not a legitimate reason to ask you to interrupt your dinner, movie, or vacation. Free time is a necessity, not an option.
  9. Especially if doing that something is actually someone else’s job.
  10. Oops, that was only 9? I’ll write the last one once I finish reading the news.

Seriously. If you’re a woman in science*, you’ve got to learn to say “no”, “later”, and “when I have the time”. Otherwise you’ll spend most of your time supporting other people’s careers, if not running their errands, while your own career goes the way of last year’s snow. You’ve got to set your boundaries, follow your own priorities, and make free time for yourself. We all need it.

* Not that this doesn’t apply to anyone else, but we’re particularly vulnerable in that regard.