Monday, December 28, 2015

Why I Procrastinate - and How I'm Going to Stop

 Recently I've been waking up at 2:30 a.m., writhing in bed consumed with anxiety and dread over course preparation for my upcoming spring semester at DePauw. I'm set to teach three courses, two of which I've never taught before, and one of which is particularly stressful for me to prepare, as it's a subject I think is so important but about which I currently know relatively little: ethical issues involving immigration policy. I've had months to prepare this course, but I've put it off, and put it off, and put it off. And put it off some more. Finally, three days ago, I sat down and just started to DO the darned thing.

Oh, the bliss, the joy and rapture, when a dreaded task is actually DONE.

So why on earth would anyone live for MONTHS in the dark, tormented space of dread rather than spend a few short DAYS chugging along to make some actual progress on moving the dreaded task forward?

I think I've come up with one answer, or at least an answer that explains why I procrastinated so mightily on designing this immigration course.

For some tasks - many tasks - most tasks? - there are two ways to do them:
1) a careful, thorough, detailed, thoughtful, conscientious, and extremely labor-intensive way
2) a quick, slapdash, corner-cutting, but in the end, remarkably adequate way.

I always feel I should do the former: the long, hard way. But what I really want to do is the latter: the quick, easy way. Down deep, I think the task will turn out perfectly well if I go with speed and ease. But guilt still draws me toward slow, laborious toil. And so I put off the task until the last possible minute to make sure that all I have time for is the option I secretly preferred all along.

In designing the immigration course, I could have spent months reading widely in all the available philosophical and public policy literature to search for the best possible readings. I could have watched dozens of immigration -themed films to select the one or two most worth sharing with my students. I could have made myself into a true expert on immigration - not a bad thing to be, for a professor about to teach a course on the subject.

Of course, if I had taken that route, I wouldn't have also worked on the proposal for a new children's book series for my publisher, or written my article on children's author Eleanor Estes, advised SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) mentees, read intensely for my judging of the Children's Literature Association's Phoenix Award, or sent out so many Christmas cards or baked so many Christmas cookies.

Or I could have taken the route I actually did. I emailed a few former graduate students who wrote dissertations on immigration and are now professors at various universities around the country, asking if they had taught immigration policy and had a syllabus they could share. Two did. Others offered terrific suggestions for readings. I found almost all the readings - journal articles, chiefly - by sitting at my computer searching the CU library catalog; I skimmed them to see which ones would be most engaging and accessible to sophomore-level students. I put out a call on Facebook for film ideas and got a dozen fabulous ones. I'll show in class the one or two with most Facebook votes and give students the choice of watching one or two of the others. I emailed several DePauw colleagues with expertise on immigration to see if they'd come to give a guest lecture and got affirmative replies.

Three days later, the course is put together, and I must say it looks terrific. How lovely not to wake up at 2:30 this morning with that knot of horror and loathing in my stomach! But how glad I am I didn't spend all of the past autumn lost in this one potentially all-consuming project.

Advice to self: Next time, just do the quick, easy route first. You know you're going to take it anyway. You know it's a perfectly good route to take. You don't need the sanction of desperation to go in that direction.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood.
Take the easier, quicker, simpler one.
And go ahead and just take it NOW

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