The Art of Procrastination

I have written about procrastination here before, and I always read articles I come across about things like ways to break out of procrastination. I am a procrastinator, but I get things done.

Unfortunately, there are always more things on the undone list, and I lay a lot of guilt on myself about all the things I do to avoid doing the things I really need to do. The coffee breaks spent staring at the sky, taking the dirty laundry downstairs, writing a blog post, watering the plants, taking a walk.

But of late, I have been rethinking procrastination.

Scientists who study procrastination find that we are lousy at weighing costs and benefits across time. For example, we might avoid doctor and dental appointments, exercising, dieting, or saving for retirement.  We know they have benefits, but the rewards seem distant and we may even question those benefits. What if that money is not there when I retire? What if we don’t live long enough to retire?

Most of us prefer to do things with short-term and small rewards. The benefits of that coffee, watering the plants or writing a blog post may be small or even dubious, but we see an immediate result. I like the coffee and it igh give me some energy. The plants need me to survive, and I enjoy looking at them, I like completing things, even if it’s a post that take me only an hour to finish. It is finished. Check it off the To Do list.

Friends tell me I am very productive. And some articles I have read say that productive people sometimes are very poor at distinguishing between reasonable delay and true procrastination.

Reasonable delay can be useful. I will respond to the request for information from my colleague tomorrow after I talk to someone about it and gather more information. But true procrastination –  not responding to the colleague for no reason, or watering the plants and making coffee – is self-defeating.

It is a way to rethink blaming yourself. I don’t mean that you’re off the hook. I’m not giving myself a free pass on procrastinating in all cases. I’m rethinking the why of the delay.

ABDThere is a phrase in academia, “all but dissertation” or ABD, which describes a student who has finished coursework and maybe passed comprehensive exams, but has yet to complete and defend their doctoral thesis.

It is a kind of club, though you don’t see people putting an ABD bumper sticker on their car bumper.

I had read an article by Rebecca Schuman  about the Ph.D. Completion Project that estimates the ten-year completion rate for that degree. For STEM disciplines, it is 55–64 percent. It’s 56 percent in the social sciences, and 49 percent in the humanities.

So about half of those in these doctoral programs don’t make it after a decade of working at it.

Of course, some of those people don’t even make it all the way to the dissertation phase. I am in that particular club. I bailed on my Ph.D after two years because it no longer interested me. I kept taking courses and getting credits, but they didn’t apply to the degree.

Was I procrastinating? Was it a reasonable delay? I think it was the latter. the delay helped me figure out what I didn’t want, which is often important to figuring out what you do want.

Back then, I was teaching in a secondary school. The salary formula advanced me for having my M.A. plus 32 credits, even if those credits didn’t equal another degree. That was good. The doctorate would have meant more money, and would have been useful when I moved into working at a university.

The Ph.D. Completion Project statistics show that a lot of the people who don’t finish the degree are into the dissertation phase before they bail out. In that odd parallel universe of academia where the ABDs live you’ll find people who did years of research and racked up big tuition bills, and have come away with nothing to show but three scarlet letters they can wear.

I met some of them teaching jobs at 2-year colleges. It is possible that if you have impressive job experiences or publish a book or are a known quantity at a university (true in my case) you still might get a position (non-tenure, probably) at a 4-year school.

Some people have suggested that a new kind of degree between an M.A. and a doctorate might be offered — an “MFA” in other areas.

I attended a party for a friend this past summer who has finally completed the dissertation and degree. He is in his late 50s. He started late and moved ahead slowly but steadily because he enjoyed learning. Was he a procrastinator? He is an adjunct professor at a nearby university and I doubt that he expects to pick up a full-time position at this stage of his life. That’s a good attitude because the odds are against him.

There is an art to procrastination. It takes experience, skills and real work to do it right.

I no longer regret getting off the doctoral path. I really did not enjoy it. I was probably doing it for the wrong reasons. And now, I am long past the point where it would improve my life or work. I think it was reasonable delay.

This post is finished. I can check it off the list and make a cup of tea and look at the leaves falling off the trees onto the backyard deck. That is very pleasing to me. Yeah, I have to rake those leaves. But not now, not today.

Published by


A lifelong educator on and off the Internet. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

Add to the conversation about this article

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.