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Kyle Cushman

Percolation-a productive form of procrastination

By Kyle Cushman, Vermont College of Union Institute and University

You've heard the stories from students, or maybe even done it yourself. It's ten o'clock at night and you are facing a deadline on an important writing assignment. You should be sitting at your computer…in fact you should have sat down three hours ago. But suddenly it's imperative that you reorganize the kitchen cupboards. After all, the pots and pans simply don't fit in that drawer-the handles are always catching when you open it. You can't find the spices in the spice cupboard anymore because it is so crowded and littered with onion and garlic skins. And you must clean up the sticky spot left by the honey jar. You just can't bear this chaos for one more day!

What I have just described is a scene, which typically gets labeled "procrastination" by most students, most teachers and many learning support personnel. But what if, for some kinds of writers, this type of procrastination is an essential part of their writing process? What if, while wiping up spilled flour on the bottom shelf, this type of learner is accomplishing valuable writing work?

Indeed, there are many writers who must process their topic in their minds before actually sitting down to do any physical writing, even before doing pre-writing activities like brainstorming. Indeed, while driving, taking a shower, hiking, or talking with a friend, these writers mull over ideas in their minds, investigate patterns and connections, and turn the topic around and around. They are looking for an angle, searching for a focal point, for a way to begin.

I am normally a very productive person who pursues tasks in an efficient, timely manner. But in my workday life, I have noticed that when I have a writing assignment due, I suddenly get nothing done for a period of time. It's as if I am floating adrift in an ocean current. I know desperately that I need to swim, but I can't. This period of time can last for a half an hour or a half a day. Then suddenly I break through the surface of the water--I am ready to write. And I do.

At our learning support office we call this process percolation, rather than procrastination. The problem is that this part of the writing process often goes unnoticed and is not validated by the student/writer or by anyone else. What is noticed instead is that the deadline is looming and the paper is not getting written and the student is thus doing a bad thing-procrastinating. The student then falls into the trap of admonishing him/herself for laziness and avoidance of writing. This increases stress, anxiety and feelings of self-doubt, which can turn the valid process of percolation into true procrastination. In other words, the student may think, "Why bother starting now since I've wasted so much time and I'm such a loser?"

Learning center coaches can help

It is important for students to learn that the process of percolation is a productive part of the writing process. If percolation is part of their learning style, they can achieve greater success by honoring this need and valuing the fact that they work through ideas while cleaning out their dorm room closet. Some writers need to do a lot of percolating and when they finally sit down to write, the paper simply pours out of them in practically finished form. Other's will percolate a little, write a little, and then percolate some more. And some writers percolate very little, needing to actually see words on the page to get a handle on their ideas. Learning center coaches, through exploring instances of "procrastination" with students, can help students to determine whether they might instead be percolating and then help them to develop a conscious awareness of this part of their process.

To help a student determine if he/she is percolating or procrastinating, encourage the student to keep a record for a period of time of when, how and why he or she engages in other activities when he/she should be doing schoolwork. How quickly did writing occur after the distracting activity? Was the writing easier as the result of taking time to do something else? Have students write down their most common procrastination activities and evaluate which activities helped them to percolate ideas and recharge their batteries, and which activities were simply ways to avoid getting started.

Once a student is aware of this need to percolate, he or she can consciously build time for it into their writing schedule (thus avoiding missed deadlines). In honoring this step, students can avoid the shame and self-judgment that comes around the notion that they are procrastinating.

There are, of course, always some cases where procrastination is unproductive and can endanger a student's ability to succeed. These cases of intentional avoidance of difficult tasks can be helped with the following strategies.

What to do when procrastination is not productive:

  1. Make the task look small and easy--I've written a lot of good papers. I can do one more.

  2. Lower your expectations-My first draft won't be perfect. I'll most likely have to change some things.
  3. Give yourself license to play-I'll draw out my ideas with colored markers and see what comes up.
  4. Break the task down into manageable pieces-I'll just write the introduction tonight. Tomorrow I will write two pages.
  5. Work for short periods of time-I'll write for a half an hour and then I will take a break.
  6. Advertise your plans-I told my friend I would write my conclusion tonight and show it to her tomorrow, so I'd better get it done.
  7. Study with a friend who is a good role model.
  8. Modify your environment-change your study space at home to a quieter room or a room with no distractions. Or go and write at a coffee shop or the library.

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