Have you ever wondered why, when you have a research paper to write, you suddenly get the urge to clean the refrigerator? Easy: because by comparison, psychologists tell us, a simple task permits gratification more quickly than a complex one. The fridge-cleaning lends an easily managed emotional snapshot of the sense of accomplishment which we want to end up with when the paper is completed.
When we perform a simple task such as cleaning the fridge, we thus avoid that nagging little twinge of inadequacy, always hovering in the background whenever we have any daunting task before us. Fridge-cleaning is the accomplishment-junkie’s quick-fix. Who knew? Of course if fridge-cleaning were at the top of your list, you might want to avoid that and do something with a quicker pay-off, such as writing your research paper. The idea is that you’d actually get quite a lot of stuff done, if incrementally, based upon the strategy of avoiding something else which is kind of fearsome.
John Perry, an emeritus philosophy professor at Stanford, won an Ig Nobel prize this year (see http://www.improbable.com/) for a subject about which he first wrote 15 years ago and which he now calls “Structured Procrastination.” Perry asserts that while procrastinating about a particular task, you can actually accomplish a range of other tasks in the meantime, while getting some diversion from the most daunting chore on your list.
In the essay, which is reprinted on his Web site http://www.structuredprocrastination.com/, Perry begins by noting that he’d been meaning to write such an essay for months, and that he only found the time to write it because he had a lot of other work to do.
Naturally I’m not advocating avoidance strategies. I think everyone should write and submit their papers on time. Schedule a bit ahead if you think you’ll need that extra chunk of time to get in some quality procrastination. You may end up with a both a brilliant paper and a clean fridge.