My story: The last 48 hours of the Ph.D. thesis of a serial procrastinator

On Tuesday, September 4, 2007, at midnight, I wrote the last word of my doctoral thesis. At that time, I was living in Paris. My apartment was a maid’s room on the 6th floor of an old building in the Latin Quarter, near the Sorbonne University. It was tiny and cozy, except for the fact that the only window in the room opened onto a wall and the neighbors’ window, so close that I could have lit their cigarette when they were having drinks in their kitchen. This apartment had almost no natural light and little privacy, but it suited me because I lived in one of the most beautiful streets in Paris, a stone’s throw from the library where Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir had met and two blocks from the apartment where Hemingway used to live in the 1920s. 

That night in September 2007, I felt part of this greatness. After four years of hard work, my baby, “Moral Emotions”: A Psychological and Neurofunctional Approach” was finally ready to take flight in the scientific firmament or, more likely, to end up in an aisle of the university library where no one ever sets foot. So before giving myself a well-deserved night’s sleep, I celebrated the end of what had been a painful pregnancy with a Jack Daniel, a cigarillo and a John Coltrane ballad.

The next morning, I got up early. The deadline for submitting my thesis was Friday at 4:00 p.m. It was Wednesday. I had planned to print my thesis on Thursday, fly back to my home university in Toulouse on Friday morning to hand in my masterpiece on time. The thesis was written but I still had some things to finalize, things that I had put off because I considered them unimportant details. So I started my day by making a list of all the things I still had to do: insert the figures in the text; create the list of references; unify the layout of the 8 chapters; format the text according to the APA standards; write the title page; write the acknowledgments; write the executive summary; create the appendices; insert the page numbers; create a table of contents; browse through the entire document and correct any errors or typos.

As the list grew longer, my heart started pounding, my hands became cold and damp, and the laptop in front of me became blurry. My doctoral thesis was nearly 400 pages long. The task was HUGE! Every time I inserted a figure, the whole layout changed. How long would it take to insert dozens of them? And inserting figures into the text was only a tenth of all I had to do! It was impossible to finish it in less than two days!

My mind began to race. I will not be able to print my thesis on Thursday. I will miss the deadline. I will have to postpone the defense, write to every professor on my jury to cancel the appointment. Everyone will hate me, or despise me, or both. And how long will it take to find a new date? This one had been scheduled for months! I felt panic grab my stomach and twist it like a mop wet with dirty water. A precipice opened before me, a precipice that would swallow me up in excruciating pain.

And then, in the midst of my anguish, something happened. From the cramped place in my stomach arose a rage, a categorical refusal to live through this catastrophic scenario. NO! It would not happen. I had spent the whole summer in a 23m² room with no natural light, working 15 hours a day. I had had no contact with the outside world for 4 months, except for a daily phone call to my mother who, with all her love and pride in knowing that I was almost a doctor of psychology, was getting sick of my explanations about the role of the prefrontal cortex in moral judgments. I knew she was going to let me down soon, too. It had to stop. Whatever it took.

And so, I worked 35 hours straight. 35 hours of absolute concentration and efficiency. I didn’t sleep. I ate a granola bar. I drank gallons of coffee and smoked a carton of cigarettes. I went through the whole to-do list and checked off each item one after the other. On Thursday at 5 p.m. I had a 386-page pdf. I went to the local printing shop and at 5:51 p.m., 9 minutes before closing time, I had 3 printed editions of “Moral Emotions”: Psychological and Neurofunctional Approach” in my hands. It wasn’t perfect. In fact, there was a typo on the first page. But it looked like a doctoral thesis and something I could take to the office the next day. I would have liked to shout to the world about the miracle that had just happened, but I was so exhausted to utter the words.

In 2007, I was an incorrigible procrastinator. Procrastination is the act of putting off until tomorrow what could be done today. Procrastination makes the best stories: it builds unbearable suspense, and the absurdity of waiting so long to be eventually so stressed offers the best elements of comedy. But the reality of being a chronic procrastinator is not funny. It is a life of stress, spent trying to avoid disasters or make up for them, and dealing with people who resent you for being late.

Those two days in September 2007 were a wake-up call for me. After that, I decided to do something about my procrastination. I am happy to say that it worked. Interestingly, I realized that you are not a procrastinator because you are lazy. Procrastination is a short-term strategy to regulate negative emotions. It is a way to avoid the unpleasantness, the fear, uncertainties, boredom, or fatigue that we associate with certain tasks. So, if you are a procrastinator, the first thing to do is to understand why you are procrastinating and, from there, apply the appropriate remedy.

In the next weeks, I will put on the blog a series of articles on this subject: Why do we procrastinate and what to do about it. I will discuss one reason why people procrastinate, and I will provide methods to deal with it. Stay tuned and don’t be late :-)!

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