work habits

Two of my blog favorites have recently been writing about procrastination and academic deadlines. I've been thinking a lot about these two posts, since I could easily have written much of their content myself.

In particular -- New Kid wrote about how somewhere during dissertation writing, the typical fuzziness about meeting academic deadlines set in:
In grad school especially, my friends and I disdained this behavior. How hard was it really to get things in on time? What kind of slackers were these people? WE would never act that way. After all, we needed good grades and letters of recommendation and jobs. We couldn't afford to turn things in late, and really, why would we?

But somewhere along the line the rot set in. I think it was during the dissertation, when external deadlines really had no meaning at all. I needed to set my own deadlines, and damned if I was no good at this at all. Because, really, deadlines came to seem so arbitrary.

I too have this idea that sometime in my past, I was better able to manage my time, my writing, and my deadlines -- I've been saying for years that in college I was not only turning things in on time, but sometimes had them done early. Well, that's true -- but the "early" part was mostly because I didn't have a computer -- I had to handwrite my papers, and then type them on my typewriter. (Yup, I'm a dinosaur. I first used a computer for word processing in my last year of college -- but that involved standing in line at the computer lab -- again, I wasn't composing on the PC, just editing and typing.) And, when I really think about it, I can remember a lot of late nights listening to REM on perpetual repeat as I wrote my papers. (Anybody else have certain albums from college that were standbys for writing papers? I can't listen to Murmur, or Low without getting that up-all-night-thinking-about-philosophy feeling).

OK, so maybe I wasn't completely super-organized in college. But it was also a heck of a lot easier to manage my time then -- far fewer responsibilities dragging me in different directions.

Profgrrrrl provides a wonderful glimpse inside the familiar procrastination so many of us know and dread:
I have oodles of things to do. Some with hard deadlines. Some with my own softer ones. Some (dangerously) with no sense of deadline.

Some of the deadlines have passed (thankfully not many). Some are right upon me. And a few are upcoming, just close enough to feed into that panic feeling.

I hate feeling like this. I hate the out-of-control world spinning around me. I hate that this seems to happen to me entirely too often.

Every single time I'm up late working for a deadline -- whether it's a writing deadline, or even just grading my students' papers, I think: how could this be happening, AGAIN? How could I be so dumb?

Now, depending on my frame of mind, I have a variety of answers to that question. (And I know several good books on overcoming procrastination: The Now Habit is the best, I think.) But tonight's answer involves a deeper look back into my work habits.

My very first research paper assignment was in fourth grade. We got to pick our own topics -- mine was ESP. We had to write outlines, use note cards, and eventually write a five page paper. This was a huge project for 9-year-olds in the Jurassic era. (I'm sure today's hyperachieving kids are doing this in kindergarten.) I read books on my topic, did my outline and notecards, and wrote the paper. But what do I remember most? I had to stay up way past my bedtime the night before the paper was due: til midnight. Because I had to slowly, painfully recopy the whole damn paper because the teacher was going to be grading us on our penmanship, and mine was crap. And my mom got mad at me for staying up so late.

Not an illustrious beginning to my research writing career. Although I did get an A, thereby rewarding my late night and suggesting that academic success and working right up to the deadline go hand in hand.

p.s. I also remember being mad that the teacher had marked my careful copying of the digraph in Encyclopaedia Britannica wrong, even though she'd impressed upon us that we had to copy all the titles exactly.