Paul's Internet Landfill/ demons/ Sloth and Self-Discipline

Sloth and Self-Discipline

I have made an amazing discovery: working makes me feel good. When I accomplish my goals, I feel good about myself. When I don't meet deadlines, or when I complete my tasks haphazardly in order to beat a deadline, I feel bad. And when I don't even bother setting goals for myself, I feel bad because I'm not doing anything worthwhile with my life.

It's sad that I am only understanding these things now. They are hardly revolutionary thoughts; over and over I have been told that setting goals and meeting challenges are two of the most important things I can do for myself, that self-discipline is its own reward. In fact, over and over I have been telling others these very things, albeit indirectly. Unfortunately, I think I have managed to avoid learning these lessons all my life; if I had ever learned them, I have since forgotten their significance. Maybe now I will finally get a clue, and crawl out of a hole of sloth I have been digging for twenty-four years.

For many years now I have been squandering my life, but lately I have been especially worthless. I have been spending far too much time on the Internet; some evenings I would half-heartedly attend my classes or meetings, the log in and half-heartedly surf the Web for six or eight hours. Then I would go home, cursing myself for wasting my day. I have been feeling that I don't belong in school, that I don't enjoy the work I am supposed to be doing, that I am somehow falling behind in my life because all of my peers are working for a living, and I am cowering behind academia. I have been feeling guilty for wasting taxpayer money -- the government of Canada and the University of Waterloo have both been paying me hefty sums of money to go to school, and I feel that I haven't accomplished anything thus far. I have been letting my new community down; since moving to Kitchener-Waterloo I have not volunteered my time to help anybody or anything. In short, I have not been productive in any way, shape or form, and as a result I have felt more worthless -- more helpless -- than usual.

I think I hit bottom this month. For the last seven weeks -- ever since my final credit courses finished -- I have accomplished nothing. Zip. Zero. Nada. Every day, the dense black cloud of worry that hangs over my head has been growing a little bigger, because I knew that I was accomplishing nothing, and yet I can't get myself productive again. Structure is important to me; ever since high school I have depended on deadlines and the fear associated with them to get stuff done. I would work on my assignments half-heartedly until a deadline approached. Then I would get frantic, and work as hard as I could to avoid the shame of a missed assignment. In some classes, such as English, I would (chronically) miss deadlines anyways, and hand in my work a day or a week or a month later. Mind you, I would not always leave things to the night before they were due; I knew enough to understand that you couldn't complete a typical Computer Science assignment in one day. But I would procrastinate until fear overcame my lethargy.

I am the poster boy of poor work habits. I have known this for years. If the time-management people took a look at me, they would be aghast, because I was breaking every rule of good time-management in the book, but I wasn't flunking out. The secret to my success? Dumb luck, mostly. Almost every time I broke a late submission rule, I would not be penalized appropriately. The number of times I have been saved by such leniency is disgusting. In addition to this, the work I eventually handed in was marked easier than that of my peers, often because I had the audacity to insert humour into my assignments. My ability to write proper English sentences probably has helped a lot as well. In my earlier university years, instructors tended to like me. I don't actively try to suck up, but I have a big mouth, and often I would win over an instructor simply through class participation.

All of these things wouldn't have meant a thing unless I actually did the work, however. Fortunately, I had deadlines and shame to motivate me. I cared about my marks too much, so I respected deadlines. Shame played its part when I was working in groups; I hate myself intensely when I let other people down, so I usually managed my time wisely when I knew others were depending on me. I used the structure offered by deadlines and shame to organize my life, and with the exception of my fourth year of university, it worked for me. In fourth year, I had too many deadlines to deal with, all spaced too frequently together, and I couldn't deal with the stress. In the end, however, dumb luck pulled me through.

I want to make one point clear: I am not trying to romanticise my poor work habits. Yes, my deadline-oriented approach to school got me through university, but many others who followed similar philosphies did not. Furthermore, my poor habits took their toll. I pulled far too many all-nighters, freaking out at 4am, hating myself for squandering so much time the week before, imagining the terrible consequences of failing a course, killing myself over some stupid assignment that I can't even remember now. I hated the stress. What's worse is that my attitudes robbed me of any accomplishments I might have otherwise enjoyed. I would get my report cards back, listing the obscenely stunning grades, and I would be unable to live with myself. I knew I didn't deserve those grades. I didn't work for them. They weren't accomplishments; they were insults, both to me and to all of the people I knew who had worked conscientiously to get their assignments done well ahead of schedule. With a handful of exceptions, I have no respect for any of the good marks I have been given. They are meaningless to me. That's doubly a shame, both because there are so many other people who would love to have my transcript and because people come to all kinds of stupid conclusions when they look at the grades I didn't earn.

No. My work habits have not been good. They have taken their toll -- but my system worked, more or less. I made it through high school, and I made it through my undergraduate education. For some sick reason, I made it all the way to graduate school -- and my work habits blew up in my face. The first two terms weren't bad. Even though the spectre of A Thesis had taken residence in my little cloud of worry, during the first two terms I was able to ignore the bigger picture and concentrate on mandatory coursework. I was able to organize my life around course deadlines, conveniently ignoring my research. Now even those security blankets are gone. I still have deadlines, but I don't have many, and the ones that do exist are amorphous and far away. That's not entirely true -- I am unspeakably frightened because I need to have a thesis topic and two readers by September. But even that deadline isn't immediate enough to prod me into action. For the last seven weeks, I have been drifting in an academic void. I don't know where to go. I don't know what to do. I don't even know up from down. I know I have to start swimming, but I am afraid that it isn't even worth the bother, and I am too lethargic to try.

Maybe saying that I have hit bottom is too melodramatic. I have felt much worse in my life. There are lots of ways in which my life doesn't seem so bad. On weekends, I can go to the local over-manicured park, and watch the crazy mallard ducks being crazy. There's a grey long-haired cat who lives in my neighbourhood. Sometimes it comes to visit me, and once in a while it lets me pet it. I have food to eat, and a relatively peaceful place to sleep. I enjoy books I sign out of the local public library. My life could be so much worse, and at times I think it has been. But socially, spiritually and academically, I have been wasting my time. My academic failings are the least important of this trinity, but I feel the pressures of academic life most acutely, because the consequences of failure are most apparent there. If nothing else, every day I slack off represents a day's pay I am stealing from the taxpayers of Canada. That's probably not the best way of looking at it -- even the best researchers go through dry spells -- but given my lack of progress, I suspect that I am not even trying. That's what bothers me.

Of course, I have lots of excuses to explain away my torpor. The worst of them is the "lovestruck" argument. Myth number one of thesis writing is that all thesis-writers have to "fall in love" with a topic, that once they find that special something, they will cheerfully devote day and night to academics. Maybe some special people do fall in love. I don't think I will because I don't like the narrowness of scope I will be forced into, and because I don't know whether I like computer science all that much. Most importantly, in order to fall in love you have to play the academic dating scene: you have to promiscuously read lots of stuff from different areas until you meet that special something that sets your heart a-thumping and your loins a-burning. I haven't been conducting that search -- at least not with the gusto one would expect of a young eligible researcher. I have had nine months to fall in love. Now, I'm running out of time.

The other excuse I like to pull out is the "ill-fitting" argument, that I don't belong in grad school, because I don't fit in and because I am not smart enough and because I came to grad school for all the wrong reasons. Let's take my not fitting in as a given, even though I probably do fit in better in academics than I would anywhere else. I am not smart enough to be in grad school because all my peers can read papers quickly and understand them, while I have to read and reread things to get any sense of what is going on; although I love reading for pleasure, I am not very good at extracting information from the written word. Also, I am not terribly good at thinking arguments through, and I am not very creative. I came to grad school for the wrong reasons because I was trying to escape the working world. I have never been certain that I really wanted a Master's degree for any reason than to say that I have a Master's degree. Other people, of course, knew what they wanted and were dead set on achieving their goals. Me? I drift in an academic void.

Whine, whine, whine. For nine months I have been mumbling these excuses to myself, watching my cloud of worry grow, wondering why in the world my thesis wasn't getting written. Last week, I finally got sick of myself. I was sick of wasting my weekdays surfing the Internet and my weekends asleep in my apartment. I was sick of accomplishing nothing. I was sick of disappointing those around me. So I tried a little experiment. Last week, I set myself a goal: I would work on academics for four hours a day, seven days a week. I wouldn't be allowed to surf the Internet until those four hours were finished; I wouldn't even be allowed to check my personal e-mail until I had worked two hours. If I didn't work, I wouldn't be allowed to play. I further constrained myself by restricting work to research work. The time I spent auditing classes and attending boring meetings and doing help desk didn't count. Sitting down, working through my readings and exploring them, coming up with new ideas and writing them up all would count. It was as simple as that.

You know what? It worked. Sort of. From Tuesday until Thursday, I was good. I never managed to work for four full hours, but I worked for two or more. Those hours I spent doing my readings were torturous; they dragged on forever. I didn't understand a tenth of what was being written. Often, I was bored out of my skull. My eyes would frequently pass over entire paragraphs without absorbing information, and I would have to reread passages again and again before even the slightest bit of knowledge would stick. I am not going to pretend that I was productive; I wasn't. But at least I was making an effort, which is more than I have done for the past month. And you know what? I felt that I had accomplished something. If nothing else, I didn't feel guilty for checking my e-mail, because I felt that I had earned the privilege. When I finally got to surf the Web on Thursday, I didn't feel awful for doing so.

Then Friday came along, and everything fell apart. Part of the problem was my work schedule; on Fridays, I perform help desk duties from 9:30am to 5:30pm. Friday was an especially slow day, and often I found myself opening up Lynx and reading diaries. I didn't feel good about that, but I didn't feel awful about it, either. My real problems began after my shift. Instead of heading to my office to put in as many hours of research as I could bear, I headed to my office and logged into the Internet. Then I went wild. I caught up on all the web pages I had been missing that week. I spent well over eight hours logged in. A little of that time was spent writing e-mails, so I don't begrudge that. Most of my time was spent surfing. When I finally left for home, I felt like the worst person that had infested this Earth.

Saturday was no better; I slept most of the day away. The only good to come out of Saturday was my epiphany: Working makes me feel good. Setting goals and challenges for myself makes me feel good, especially when I meet those goals. Exercising self-discipline makes me feel good. Being lazy makes me feel bad. I convince myself that "I'll only surf for ten minutes," but ten minutes stretches itself into hours. I tell myself that I will just nap for a half-hour, but a half-hour turns into an afternoon. I tell myself that I can't deal with the boredom of my readings, but then my readings don't get done. Sloth is temptation, and although it is difficult for me to resist, I feel so much better for doing so.

Now -- finally -- this line of reasoning makes sense to me. Many of the things I feel good about are products of self-discipline. I have resisted the temptations of automobiles, and I have reaped the benefits. Last week I splurged on a cheesecake (I know; I am a sinner, and a bad vegetarian, but that's not the point), and I made it last all week. I could have eaten my entire cheesecake in one sitting -- believe you me -- but then I wouldn't have had any cheesecake left. Instead, I exercised self-discipline, and have enjoyed cheesecake for seven days instead of one. (I may have kicked temporarily kicked my cravings for cheesecake too, which is an added bonus.) In general, when I restrict my spending I feel good about myself, and when I splurge I feel bad. When I have devoted time to volunteering, I have felt much better for it. When I get my work done ahead of time, I feel a lot happier (and less tired) than when I race all night to meet a deadline. Certainly, these are small accomplishments, and they are not worth bragging about. But at least I feel as if I have accomplished something, which I think is better than being swamped with guilt over everything I do.

Unfortunately, exercising self-discipline takes self-discipline. It's hard. Being lazy is easy and fun: you don't have to challenge yourself, you don't have to worry about messing it up, and you don't have to spend hours sitting at a desk reading boring technical papers. Being disciplined certainly doesn't seem as appealing, especially when you aren't looking forward to the tasks you are being disciplined about. I don't have an good solution for dealing with this. I will undoubtedly fall into the trap of sloth again and again. The best I can do is to remind myself that if I don't try, I won't accomplish anything, and that if I don't accomplish anything, then I am going to feel guilty. One way or the other, I am going to feel bad. Either I will feel bad suffering through tasks I would rather avoid, or I am going to feel bad for not getting those tasks done. I might as well choose discipline; the happiness is more lasting that way.

Of course, this philosophy can be abused. I still think that there are lots of things that are not worth accomplishing. It's not worth getting a driver's licence. It's not worth trying to sell people things that they don't need. Perhaps it isn't even worth reading boring useless technical papers to get a Master's degree. I am worried that I will succumb to "Grown-Up Syndrome" -- forcing myself to do boring things for no good reason -- but I am hoping that I will somehow become smart enough to understand what is worth doing and what isn't. That in itself is a difficult task, but I believe it is worth the effort. Unfortunately, I may be stuck doing un-worthwhole things for some time yet; I am stuck getting a Master's degree. I'm not getting out of school until I graduate or until I am kicked out, and as I would rather not be kicked out I'll eventually have to write a thesis. I may never fall in love with a topic, but I don't have to. I may not belong in graduate school, but I'm in graduate school anyways. All I have to do is produce a thesis, and that's not going to happen unless I put in honest effort. And right now, honest effort is all I can promise.

I have to be careful. Just because I feel as if I have accomplished something doesn't mean I actually have. Furthermore, accomplishing something doesn't mean I have accomplished something good. That's where self-examination comes into play. I am fortunate in that I have a long list of things I know I do not want to do, because I don't feel they are worth doing. Unfortunately, simply avoiding worthless things is not good enough -- I have to actively devote myself to things that are worth doing. That's the only way I am ever going to feel as if I have done something worthwhile with my life.

That journey, as the sappy feel-gooders say, has to be taken one step at a time. As I haven't yet put in my four hours, it looks as if I have one long step ahead of me tonight.