Building Friendly Teeth: A Three-Fanged Guide to Procrastination-Busting

We all need friendly teeth.

Friendliness debatable, those are some great choppers.
Friendliness aside, those are some great choppers.

This is what Amanda Wilkins, director of the Writing Program, told me at the beginning of this fall: not the kind of teeth that draw blood, but certainly the kind that instill a little fear.

When immediate priorities are vying for our attention and long-term project deadlines are in the faraway future – perhaps a final paper that is weeks away, a JP not due until Reading Period, or a full thesis not due before April of next year, for crying out loud – it’s easy to push the long-term tasks off to another day, and then another.

Friendly teeth: progress deadlines with bite.

Insert friendly teeth: the intermediate accountability standards, made and enforced to keep us on track between now and the distant future. Also known as progress deadlines with bite.

I have a year to write my thesis – I don’t want to be just getting started in March. Heck, I want to be done by March, and spend the last month before my deadline deciding between fonts.

Kidding. The only acceptable font for a thesis is Times New Roman, size 12.

And one other problem: I am almost never early.

Fun fact: tusks are actually specially-adapted canines! These teeth mean business.

Call me a chronic time optimist – I consistently underestimate how long it will take to get from outline to paper, or to walk across campus to meet a friend, or to shower, brush my teeth, do my readings, and teleport to class. Chronic time optimism runs in my family, and was reinforced growing up in Hawaii, home of “island time.”

But I’m working on it. And I’m here to report that so far, progress – on my thesis, at least – is going better than expected, thanks to the snapping jaws of three types of friendly teeth.

1. Start. Really: psychology shows we tend to come back to projects once we’ve started them. This is partly due to the Zeigarnik effect: when you’re interrupted in the middle of a task, you are more likely to remember it. It’s as though your brain keeps a file open for every task you start, and won’t close it until it’s done. These are your internal friendly teeth, gnawing away at the subconscious until you get to work.

Fortunately for us, all it takes to harness the Zeigarnik effect is to start. Take three minutes: open a Word document, write a sloppy first sentence or a couple half-baked bullet points, and save it. Just watch out – you might get hooked.

2. Make a date. Set a time, place, and – if it suits your work style – a companion for focusing on your long-term project. Even better, pair it with a reward: thesis followed by ice cream, or whatever floats your boat. Friends can make great friendly teeth if you set – and maintain – a precedent of accountability.

Two pairs of big, old, friendly teeth – facing off to help each other!

My roommate and I have set up a schedule of weekly dates for “thesis class,” when we get together, put everything else in our lives aside and work on our theses. Okay, we do occasionally “skip class.” But for the most part, it works: we each feel bad enough for letting the other down that we get our other work done ahead of time so we can thesis together.

  1. Make a commitment. Create an external deadline by signing up for a Writing Center appointment or by setting up a meeting with an adviser or mentor. Commit to what you’ll have done before the meeting.
Horse teeth.

It seems a little silly, but I’ve learned that knowing I’ll be discussing my research with someone else creates a sense of urgency, making me work with more focus to produce something tangible I can share.

I like to believe there’s hope for me, and for the rarely-early everywhere. Everyone needs friendly teeth in our lives, in whatever form they take, always both smiling and sharp.

— Zoe Sims, Natural Sciences Correspondent

What “friendly teeth” strategies do you use? Send us your ideas here!