Non-Attachment as an Antidote for Procrastination

by DeDe Dawson
Science Library, University of Saskatchewan

I have a weakness for popular psychology books and I’m a wee bit of a cynic, too – so when I came across Oliver Burkeman’s book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking I knew it would be good. And it is good, very good: entertainingly written and thought-provoking. After returning my borrowed library copy I actually went out and bought my own copy and re-read it! Now that is an endorsement.

But what does this have to do with research?

I wasn’t expecting to find advice to apply to my research in this book – but sometimes when you least expect it the most useful nugget of wisdom lands on your lap!

Each chapter in the book explores a different counter-intuitive route to happiness. In chapter three, “The Storm before the Calm”, Burkeman discusses the Buddhist philosophy of non-attachment. Essentially, Buddhists believe that the root of all suffering is attachment. It is a very human and understandable tendency to cling to things we like and avoid things we don’t. Both of these tendencies can be considered attachments though. The examples Burkeman uses are:

“Develop a strong attachment to your good looks – as opposed to merely enjoying them while they last – and you will suffer when they fade, as they inevitably will; develop a strong attachment to your luxurious lifestyle, and your life may become an unhappy, fearful struggle to keep things that way.” (Burkeman, 2012, p. 53)

So, the Buddhist approach to life is to practice non-attachment: to be non-judgmentally aware of these feelings and impulses but not get hung up on them. Once we stop struggling to be positive and happy then we might actually experience some peace! Counter-intuitive… but compelling.

And now the connection to research… Virginia Wilson wrote candidly in this blog a few weeks ago about her struggles with procrastination – a common curse of academics when they get to the “write-up” portion of a research project. We’ve all heard the inspirational quotes, the motivational tips, and other well-meaning advice. Burkeman states that most of these tips and tricks don’t work simply because they are more about putting you in the mood to get things done, instead of how to actually get things done.

It turns out that non-attachment can be a practical way to get things done.

If you wait until you’re in the right mood to get things done… then you’ll never get things done:

“Who says you need to wait until you ‘feel like’ doing something in order to start doing it? The problem, from this perspective, isn’t that you don’t feel motivated; it’s that you imagine you need to feel motivated. If you can regard your thoughts and emotions about whatever you’re procrastinating on as passing weather, you’ll realise that your reluctance about working isn’t something that needs to be eradicated or transformed into positivity. You can coexist with it. You can note the procrastinatory feelings and act anyway.” (Burkeman, 2012, p. 69)

The emphasis in the above quote is mine. These last two sentences are the ones I underlined and starred in the book (my copy – not the library copy!). After this passage Burkeman goes on to describe the daily rituals of some highly productive and famous writers – they rarely include techniques meant to inspire or motivate, instead they are routines that provide structure whether or not the writer happens to feel motivated at the time.

An aside: My artist husband claims he needs to be inspired to paint – and guess what? He doesn’t get much painting done. I always tell him: “Just sit down and paint, the inspiration will come!”

So, this is my advice to myself and my fellow procrastinating writers: recognize that you don’t feel like it… then just sit down and write. It is very similar to Lorie’s advice to Virginia: “Just do it!”

Oh, and read this book:
Burkeman, O. (2012). The antidote: Happiness for people who can’t stand positive thinking. New York: Faber and Faber, Inc.

This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.

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