Jorge Cham and the Power of Procrastination

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Published on: March 6, 2014
 "Piled Higher and Deeper" by Jorge Cham.
“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham.

Jorge Cham, creator of PhD Comics and legend among post-grads, spoke at the University of Warwick last night as part of his UK tour.  His lecture was essentially a stand-up gig, complete with theatrical pauses and audience interaction, but it did have a serious point: stress and guilt are bad for your health and for your work, so embrace the power of procrastination!

Over this morning’s procrastination, I came across this Guardian article on mental health among PhD students. It has a message surprisingly similar to Jorge Cham’s ‘comedy’ lecture. It argues that mental health problems, from stress to suicidal thoughts, are an accepted part of the PhD process.

Though Cham did not directly refer to serious mental health problems in his talk, he constantly talked about the stress and worries common to PhD students: my supervisor thinks I’m an idiot, why can’t I get anything done, when will I finish. To make it worse, these are often accompanied by lack of money, little sleep and bad food.

In typical academic fashion, Cham did not offer empty words of wisdom or advise talking about your feelings. He presented facts on the Power of Procrastination (the title of his talk).

There is scientific research suggesting procrastination can be a positive thing. I didn’t note the reference Cham used, but Chu and Choi (2005; J. Soc. Psychol. 145:245) is an accessible review. ‘Active’ procrastination as opposed to ‘passive’ procrastination, which Cham labeled laziness, can be an effective way of dealing with a problem. Interestingly, for some people procrastination is a good way of coping with stress!

Then there are the numerous examples of highly successful procrastinators. I don’t want to ruin Cham’s punchlines, so I’ve come up with two well-known biologist procrastinators. Francis Crick took 15 years between undergraduate and post-graduate qualifications – although during that time the Second World War happened – and Alexander Fleming famously discovered penicillin by accident. I like to think of him stumbling upon that fateful petri dish while writing a detailed 12-step plan to tidy his messy bench instead of doing real work.

Cham’s comics normalise the everyday struggles every PhD student faces during a time they hoped would be enjoyable, stimulating and life-affirming. Some of the most common comments Cham receives are thanks for making post-grads feel they are not alone in feeling stupid, stressed and fearful of the future, failure, and their supervisor. The comics, like his talk, encourage students not to be overwhelmed any of that – nor to feel guilty about using the power of procrastination. Or going to seminars largely for the free food.

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