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How I Write and Learn

What I’m Trying: Inquiry-Based Stress Reduction

By Ani

Sometimes procrastination is a time management issue; sometimes it’s an organizational issue. These are not my issues. I love planning. I love organizing. I make lists. I make lists of lists. It’s basically an art form at this point.

A meme of Captain Jean-Luc Picard recahing his hand out with text that reads, "Why aren't you writing your dissertation?"
I am, however, an expert procrastinator. I’m also weirdly productive: I get most tasks done before they even hit my to-do list. Putting away laundry? Done. Writing a blog post for work? Sure thing. Editing a friend’s dissertation chapter? You bet.

A meme of Belle from Disney's animated Beauty and the Beast gesturing at the vastness of her library with text that reads, "All the papers I downloaded and never read."
I’ve discovered that I’m even more energetically productive on various tasks, chores, or assignments when I’m giving the slip to writing my own dissertation (the one thing I desperately need to be working on). I’ll even play a game of chicken with my writing by researching just a little bit more. I’ll research as the day is long because amassing knowledge is wondrous. Putting my own words on paper though? Can’t make me.

I’ve tried many of the very good strategies shared by the Learning Center: break things down into smaller parts (here’s the itemized list of 7,894 discrete tasks ready to go. Yay planning!), find a comfortable distraction-free space (cool, thanks. I will stare out the window or even just daydream at the wall now), set a timer (great, I just spent 25 minutes organizing my notes—did I mention that I love organizing things?), take active breaks (I think this short walk really needs to be an hour stroll, clear my head, etc.).

Although I’m being cheeky here, I need to emphasize that these are powerfully useful strategies. They’re actually incredibly helpful if my issues were centered on external circumstances or detrimental routines interfering with getting work done.

So, clearly, my procrastination falls into the vastly common but less easily overcome iteration of procrastination: anxiety-induced avoidance. There’s been a research boom in this area of procrastination, and I’ve specifically been trying out the approach described in How to Reduce Test Anxiety and Academic Procrastination Through Inquiry of Cognitive Appraisals: A Pilot Study Investigating the Role of Academic Self-Efficacy by Krispenz, Gort, Schültke and Dickhäuser from 2019.

A meme with text that reads "Me: I'm gonna be so productive during quarantine. Also me:" followed by four different images of Homer Simpson from the cartoon series The Simpsons in different sleeping positions.
The goal of the study is to help reduce anxiety around the work that, ostensibly, at least one part of me wants to do. Here’s a peek into my mind as I try it:

Step one of inquiry-based stress reduction says to notice when I’m starting to feel anxious or distressed about a specific task. What thoughts come up?

All right, for me, these feelings are well-nigh constant. But, OK, moving out of my flippant mode and into my mindfulness mode that years of investing in thinking consciously has afforded me: I breathe deeply and check in. OK, I’m really stressed about turning a conference paper I’ve written into a chapter, and I’m feeling every kind of imposter syndrome (great that the feeling has a name, not so great that it exists).

Step two has me ask myself two specific yes/no questions (here’s the table from the article with all Qs I’ll be sharing today):

Is this thought true?

Me: Well, yeah. I mean, I’m not doing the thing, and nothing seems to be helping. What a silly question.

Can you absolutely know that this thought is true?

Me: Oh, I see what you did there, you very clever question. You’re appealing to my better sensibilities and forcing me to turn to the appreciation I have for evidenced-based acquisition of knowledge. I see your attempt to help me identify meaningful examples and see if there really is any support for these unhelpful thoughts. Touché. You’re right: no. I cannot absolutely, without a shadow of doubt, know–for certain–that I can’t do this work. What a smart aleck, this question.

Once I get over myself, step three moves to some open-ended questions:

How do you react, what happens when you have this thought?
Does that thought bring peace or stress to your life?
What images do you see, past or present, as you think this thought?
What physical sensations arise having these thoughts and seeing these pictures?
What emotions arise when you have that thought?
Do any obsessions or addictions begin to appear when you have this thought (e.g. alcohol, drugs, shopping, food, and television)?
How do you treat others when you have this thought? How do you treat yourself when you have this thought?

I’m not going to answer these here, but, oh my goodness, please look at this beautiful array of open-ended questions. This list made me so happy because it was a great reminder of how helpful having an exploratory attitude is when trying to work through something difficult.

Anyway, some highlights from my experience with these questions is that I really found it helpful to ask myself about my own reactions and if they brought peace or stress. Sometimes questions like these make me feel frustrated because I jump to an argument in my head:

Me: Do these reactions bring peace or stress?

Also Me: Oh, so now you’re saying it’s my fault?

This back-and-forth can get murky. But I went into this exercise intending to bring my mindfulness skills into the mix, so I remembered: this is just a noticing exercise. What do I see is happening here? Can I sit with these thoughts? Can I acknowledge these feelings?

I’ll allow it, and give calm reflection the old college try.

A screenshot of a social media post by @CharlieDinkin that reads, "If you're feeling worried about how little you've achieved, remember that Bram Stoker didn't write Dracula until he was 50, and Dracula didn't kill anyone until he was dead."
OK, moving on to step four! Last Q:

Who would you be without the thought?

Me, but happy. Done. Do I win? What next?

OK, after I get that out of my system, I sit with this question. I know that the whole point of this study is to help me (and others) “to perceive reality without the distortions caused by…stressful cognitions and to experience how they would feel without them.”

I know that the point is to relieve emotional distress around negative feelings that are getting in the way of my work. So, I sit with this question a bit longer: Who would you be without the thought?

My first response, “Me, but happy,” wasn’t off the mark. Terse as it was, it’s what I want and the reflection was a nice reminder of something even more important: without the feelings brought on by my anxious thoughts, I’d apparently have no problem believing in that happy “me” to get things done. There isn’t anything materially lacking in my ability to do the work. There’s only self-doubt. It’s a pretty big ah-ha moment for me that I do in fact trust “me,” but that difficult feelings are getting in the way.

This process isn’t over. I plan to practice inquiry-based stress reduction and other forms of mindfulness again and often. For now, I like these questions as a way to kick off reflection and help reduce the pain around putting my academic writing out there. Baby steps.

This blog showcases the perspectives of UNC Chapel Hill community members learning and writing online. If you want to talk to a Writing and Learning Center coach about implementing strategies described in the blog, make an appointment with a writing coach or an academic coach today. Have an idea for a blog post about how you are learning and writing remotely? Contact us here.

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