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Procrastination: Is it a Good Thing, or a Bad Thing?

Confidence to Write Procrastinate Liz Prather Blog HeaderThe following is an excerpt from The Confidence to Write, Chapter Five: Fear of the Blank Page by Liz Prather

You might say writer’s block is just garden-variety procrastination that’s taken up residence and unpacked its bags. When you’re dodging a writing task, everything becomes an emergency that needs to be taken care of. For teachers, it might be grading, planning, documenting, which is never caught up. For students, it might be other homework, practicing a sport, or even, yes, chores. For me, I often feel compelled into a flurry of cleaning. Anything to put off the task of writing.

Download a sample from The Confidence to WriteThe literary world is rife with writers who delivered genius first novels, then struggled for decades to produce a second work; the academic world too is stuffed with scholars who put off the writing of their dissertation for months and years. Procrastination is such a given among entrepreneurs, inventors, and artists that a whole subculture of accountability coaches and support groups have cropped up as creatives battle their inner demons of delay.

Not everyone thinks procrastination is a bad thing. University of San Diego professor Frank Partnoy (2012) maintains in Wait: The Art and Science of Delay that waiting until the last minute to do something is smart. Learning to delay the decision-making process conserves energy, and we often make better decisions if we delay them until the last possible minute. Strategic delay gives you time to assimilate new knowledge or to develop an idea before launching into the writing.

Even though my students groan and blame themselves—Ugh, I’m so lazy— procrastination as protracted laziness is a myth. I’ve met dozens of brilliant, committed, studious students who were ambitious and productive: they all procrastinated. I, too, as an adult with total awareness of the stakes of putting off a task continue to do so, even as I have become less and less dependent on this coping mechanism as I have learned more about why I do it and the role procrastination plays in my writing process.

Some students procrastinated by actively avoiding the work and distracting themselves with something pleasurable, and some procrastinate unconsciously by doing things that look like work. The difference between motion and action— the writer may look like she’s swimming (action), but she’s really just treading water (motion) and not going anywhere.

My student Alec clearly understood that procrastination and its attendant indifference was purposeful, in that he was avoiding the fear of failure. He writes: “I suppose I use procrastination in my writing in a negative way, if I write things I don’t really put much effort into, this way, when people criticize my piece, it really doesn’t matter. I don’t like it either. This isn’t something I purposefully do, but it is usually a by-product of procrastination.”

In Embarrassment, Tom Newkirk (2017) calls this the “posture of indifference” (61), which can be a necessary attitude to assume when one has procrastinated out of fear and then received poor scores on the performance. Psychologists call this “self-handicapping,” sabotaging your performance on a task to give yourself an excuse. As a teacher, I noticed students who are gifted often self-sabotage in the very area they’ve been identified as gifted.

When a student doesn’t try and still performs well, she might assume the outcome is based on luck, or exceptionalism, or perhaps her uncanny ability to game the system. This response will lessen her growth as a writer as well. She may interpret success at writing as just a fluke or something that is destined for some and not for others, instead of a skill that can be learned, practiced, and achieved.

Student Metawrites for Procrastination
Liz Prather The Confidence to Write Procrastination Blog Graphic 5-5 + 5-6 Clear

Teacher Metawrite for Procrastination
Liz Prather Confidence To Write Procrastination Blog 5-5 Orange ClearThe Confidence to Write Medium Book Cover TransparentTo learn more about The Confidence to Write: A Guide for Overcoming Fear and Developing Identity as a Writer by Liz Prather, visit Heinemann.com. Grade Level: 6th - 12th.
Download a sample from The Confidence to Write

lizprather-1Liz Prather is a writing teacher at the School for Creative and Performing Arts, a gifted arts program at Lafayette High School in Lexington, Kentucky. A classroom teacher with 21years of experience teaching writing at both the secondary and post-secondary level, Liz is also a professional freelance writer and holds a MFA from the University of Texas-Austin.

Liz is the author of Project-Based Writing: Teaching Writers to Manage Time and Clarify Purpose, and Story Matters: Teaching Teens to Use the Tools of Narrative to Argue and Inform.

Topics: Liz Prather

Date Published: 03/21/22

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