Your report is due in 2 weeks. You tell yourself that this time you are going to start early. A day goes by, then another, then the weekend. In a flash it’s the night before the assignment is due and you’re rushing out work that is below your potential. “How did I let this happen again?”
It turns out that researchers in psychology and education are interested in that very same question. While there are many factors behind procrastination, there are some over which you can exercise a surprising degree of control. McCrae et al. have found that “construal level” is one such controllable factor behind procrastination. Construal level refers to how concrete or abstract a task is perceived to be. If a task seems abstract or undefined we are more likely to procrastinate on it. If a task is concrete and well defined procrastination is less likely.
With little effort, you can make writing tasks more concrete with a few simple steps:
1. Read and understand the assignment.
- What is the purpose?
- What are the specific requirements?
- Who is your audience?
Without any attention to structure, paragraph style, sentence style, or punctuation, get the ideas that are currently in your head onto a page. Make your thoughts tangible. Reflect on what you see and make notes about what has merit and what requires further exploration.
Plan your document. You might start by writing possible headings, but try to be more specific than Introduction, Section 1, Section 2, etc. Consider the content your headings will need to describe: e.g., “Bicycle Aerodynamics” gives you more to work from than “Background.”
Getting some ideas on a page and providing even the slightest bit of structure can make it more likely to follow through on the task in a timely manner. The task will be less abstract and ambiguous and writing the rest of document should feel less onerous.
Our Engineering Communication Handbook provides a more detailed guide to document planning.