Hands along the way
PROCRASTINATION: If the mud sticks…
AVE YOU EVER BEEN “STUCK”? It’s a great word, and it covers many kinds of experiences, but for most people it evokes a familiar and uncomfortable feeling. Frustration. Frustration about myself. I’m trying, but I can’t move. I want to go forward, but it’s not happening. Many years ago, as a child, I came to live for a while in a prairie community where I was going to attend a small school some kilometres away. It was early spring, and Green Hill School was closed. Why? The roads were too muddy, and cars could not get to the school, because they would get stuck in the mud. If you’ve ever been stuck in the mud, or in snow, or in sand, you will know something about “stuckness”. You can get stuck when you least expect it. After moving along well and manoeuvring the terrain quite competently you might drive down a little decline and SLOOSH there’s a wet, sloppy, slippery, thick bit at the bottom. You hesitate for one fatal moment, and when
Tele Trigg Psychologist University Community Services Clayton
wait till the weather changes and dries out the mud. Environmental change often helps, but it takes a long time, and the next time you’re stuck you’ll be no better off. You could try a number of strategies, and you’ll probably find one that resolves the predicament.
Whatever the solution to that stuck-in-the-mud problem, you will probably find it useful to understand something about mud and why you are getting yourself in deeper the more you want to get out of it.
And what about procrastination?
Procrastination is like being stuck, maybe in just some little, specific aspects of student life, or possibly in some grand way that, metaphorically speaking, shuts down your own Green Hill School. This article will hopefully expand your understanding of procrastination and its relevance to you accelerate again, you go nowhere, FAST. The usual go-ahead strategies don’t work. Try harder. Your tyres are digging a hole. The hole gets deeper. The wheels spin faster, and the situation becomes more
hopeless. Your best intentions, and your greatest hopes, aren’t sufficient to get you out of the mire. Solutions? You could walk away and
Photo courtesy of Ralph Hassel of www.offroaders.com
Hands along the way
postgraduate students, and it will consider very briefly how counselling can help students to break through the “stuckness” and move more effectively toward their goals. Everyone procrastinates, particularly if procrastination is defined as the act of delaying something, putting it off. Sometimes there simply is not enough time to do all of the things we intend to do, and sometimes we choose to delay doing something until there is a better time to do it. The procrastination that comes to the attention of counsellors is the putting off of something in spite of having decided that it is in one’s best interest to do it now and in spite of knowing that the time can be made available to do it. The student who comes with concerns about procrastination may feel truly “stuck” after months or years of failing to move forward on some or all aspects of a goal. That may happen at any time during a postgraduate career and is particularly distressing when the end is in sight but the forward movement seems to have come to a grinding halt. During a period of procrastination there may be active cultivation of other aspects of one’s life. Social life may flourish, the house may sparkle, gym work may increase, or hobbies may thrive. But more often the procrastinator is genuinely miserable about the lack of progress, and the distress permeates through one’s relationships, erodes one’s self-confidence, and reduces overall effectiveness. In fact, there is often a circular relationship between procrastination and self-criticism about the procrastination. The more we hate our procrastination, the worse it gets.
So why do people procrastinate?
Clearly, there are many reasons, many explanations worthy of discussion. For example, in behavioural terms a person may have a poor task approach. This may involve inadequate academic preparation, poor
understanding of the task at hand, inappropriate skills, or poor strategies for the management of time and resources. In counselling, while some attention needs to be paid to the task approach itself, much of the exploration about procrastination centres on the more personal, emotional context of getting the task done. In particular, one needs to consider the role of people’s common tendency to avoid the discomforts associated with completing intended tasks. Intolerance for discomfort is raised here as a very broad issue and includes difficulty with resolving, or tolerating, discomforts such as intense emotional pain. Completing difficult tasks usually requires high tolerance for some level of discomfort. The discomfort that comes with hard work, frustration, and fatigue is known to us all and is tolerated more readily by some than by others. High tolerance for discomfort tends to be associated with such beliefs as “I’m at my best when I sink my teeth into a tough challenge”, while low tolerance may be expressed by “If I were really bright I wouldn’t have to work this hard,” or “I can’t stand to feel the pressure all the time.” Effort and achievement are intensely personal issues and are for many students closely associated with level of self-acceptance. For many students, genetics and experience have collaborated toward a happy outcome, motivation is high, and effort has generally been rewarded with success and self-satisfaction. These students carry a set of beliefs about effort which predispose them to staying focused on the task. They dare to produce work, knowing that even periodic poor results will not negate their value as a person, and occasional embarrassment over a supervisor’s criticism will not reduce their validity as a developing scholar. For other students, the prospect of failure—or less than perfect outcome—is so daunting that
Hands along the way
action is frozen. Low academic performance may be seen in terms of inability to meet one’s own expectations (academic, social, professional, financial, or moral) or those of significant others (including supervisors). When such interpretations are absolute, inflexible, and intensely critical of self and others, the related emotions, particularly anxiety and hostility, often lead to an aversion to the task itself. For example, many students face uncertainty about employment, but those who procrastinate are often more focused on the catastrophic consequences of unemployment, while their more productive peers have adopted an expectation that somehow they will cope with adversity. Again, assumptions about fundamental self-worth will often determine the difference. Sometimes success looms as more dangerous than failure. The future of an international student who will soon become her country’s most highly qualified person in her field may raise increasing anxiety as the thesis nears completion. Panic, health problems, nightmares, and aversion to work may stall the too-rapid movement toward completion and entry to the next set of challenges. The perception of obligations to others may play a part in stalling a student’s progress. Again, it is not the level of actual obligation, but the intensity of emotion generated by beliefs about this obligation, which generates avoidance behaviour. Common scenarios involve attitudes about repaying—or even punishing—supervisors, parents, spouses, and sometimes grandparents for their investment in the student’s performance.
The personal beliefs, assumptions, values, and expectations that students associate with their tasks contribute to their ability to complete those tasks. Keeping in mind that these cognitive attributes generate strong emotions, and that strong negative emotion may lead to avoidance or ineffectual behaviour, we have a model for intervention by counselling. We need to identify the troublesome patterns, question them, consider alternatives, and work out strategies that confront, rather than avoid.
For each student there is a unique pathway into the “mud”, and likewise there are individual paths back onto more solid ground, where a good grip becomes possible and brings forward movement.
70 COMPASS 2002 Photo courtesy of Ralph Hassel of www.offroaders.com