“Procrastibaking”

No, this is not a stock photo. Yes, I made these. No, the bottoms are not even remotely brown. Yes, they are super chewy and indulgent. As if that wasn't enough, these delightful little cookies double as a sanity-preservation device!.

No, this is not a stock photo. Yes, I made these. No, the bottoms are not even remotely brown. Yes, they are super chewy and indulgent. As if that wasn’t enough, these delightful little cookies double as a sanity-preservation device!.

My name is Andrea, and I am a “procrastibaker.”

I wasn’t always this way. There was a time, long ago, when I didn’t particularly care for cookies, when Pillsbury did the trick, when baking happened… for a reason. Those were dark times, friend.

Then, during my second year of graduate school something happened, something that—as I understand it—happens to many a young graduate student: I discovered that cooking yielded not only a concrete product (well, not concrete… my food is almost always digestible), but also yielded a feeling of accomplishment. That feeling only multiplied when giving the aforementioned food to other people. Shockingly, folks tended to appreciate my Thai food then more than my academic output. I can’t imagine why.

I caught the cooking bug in a big way. I started inventing reasons to cook. Feeding myself wasn’t enough—in fact, most of the time cooking killed my appetite. No, other people needed to see that I was capable of producing a quality meal, they needed to eat and enjoy it. That year, there was a dinner party almost every week. It was both enjoyable and fulfilling, but my wallet got so light it came darned close to floating out the door. INSERT FOOD PORN HERE:

By my third year of graduate school—not coincidentally, the same year I took my oral exams and advanced to candidacy—I had really honed my new addiction. Instead of big dinner parties, I returned to my first love, baking, and restricted myself to one or two projects a week. I spent significantly less money, and instead of feeding five to ten people to the point of bursting, everybody in my classes got a cookie (or two, or three). This was my calling.

These days, I bake at least once a week. I almost always make cookies, not because cookies are my favorite thing to make so much as they are the most space, time, and cost-efficient of the options available to me. When I’m done baking, everything goes straight into the freezer, and then gets doled out to my fellow grad students throughout the week. I’m the cookie fairy.

My kitchen counter at least one night a week. The cookie flavors may change, but the weird foil runner remains the same.

My kitchen counter at least one night a week. The cookie flavors may change, but the weird foil runner remains the same.

While I’m the only person I know who distributes baked goods on an almost daily basis, cooking is one of the stress relievers of choice for grad students. I know folks with cooking blogs, Instagram and Facebook chefs, and elaborate-party havers. By far the most impressive academic foodie I’ve encountered was my undergraduate thesis adviser: she was in her first year of teaching… she actually made her own sausage. 

I’ve long assumed that academics weren’t the only people who turned to the kitchen for validation, but I didn’t realize the extent to which that was true until last month, when I read a Wall Street Journal article about therapists using cooking classes to treat anxiety and depression.

It makes all the sense in the world: cooking forces one to disconnect from stress, focus on something else, and (if you do it right) leaves you with something to be proud of, and share with people you might not engage otherwise. To quote the article at length:

Psychologists say cooking and baking are pursuits that fit a type of therapy known as behavioral activation. The goal is to alleviate depression by boosting positive activity, increasing goal-oriented behavior and curbing procrastination and passivity.

“If the activity is defined as personally rewarding or giving a sense of accomplishment or pleasure, or even seeing the pleasure of that pumpkin bread with chocolate chips making someone else happy, then it could improve a sense of well-being,” says Jacqueline Gollan, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.

Clinical studies on cooking’s therapeutic effects are hard to come by. But occupational therapists say cooking classes are particularly widely used in their profession, which seeks to help people with mental or physical disorders maintain their daily living and working skills.

I used to think of my cooking as a symptom of a problem: the self-esteem issues that often result from spending the majority of one’s twenties in graduate school. Now, I see my procrastibaking as a solution, as one of the things that’s keeping me going during the long hard slog to the PhD. My only regret? They REALLY should have mentioned this at my orientation!

That would be orange glazed chickpeas and tofu, nestled of-so-comfortably on a bed of sesame-soy grilled zucchini and basmati. BOOM.

That would be orange glazed chickpeas and tofu, nestled of-so-comfortably on a bed of sesame-roasted zucchini and basmati. BOOM.

Here’s a few quick tips to optimize your cooking experience:

  • Cook healthy foods, or cook for somebody else. I cook healthy meals for myself, but the vast majority of my baked goods end up in other people’s stomachs. Grad students, as a general rule, are too poor and too stressed out to turn down free food, so get rid of the stuff you make as quickly as necessary to avoid binging.
  • Mix it up. If you always cook the same three things, you’re eventually going to go on autopilot, which effectively eliminates the benefit of the activity. Sometimes zoning out is a good thing, but make sure you’re trying new recipes on a regular basis. Just don’t put yourself in a situation where the success or failure of a kitchen experiment is going to really upset you.
  • Make the time productive. Just because this is your time to de-stress doesn’t mean you can’t also use it to get important stuff done. I study HIV/AIDS, in addition to other things, so I listened to an audiobook of And The Band Played On while cooking over the summer; it was more relaxing than close-reading the ginormous text, and—since the book is well-written and engaging—pretty fun. Other times, I’ll listen to NPR, put on the news, or listen to a podcast that I would otherwise have to carve out time for.
  • Track your spending. How much is that recipe going to run you, exactly? Cooking is great fun, and I am not an advocate of eating super cheap, but be aware of what you spend. The time and enjoyment I get out of baking cookies is worth the investment in ingredients; the same cannot be said of cupcakes, which is the reason I don’t make them on a regular basis. The last thing you want is to turn procrastibaking into a source of stress, and that’s what will happen if you don’t occasionally do the math.
Definitely the least productive use of my culinary skills so far, but also the most fun.

Definitely the least productive use of my culinary skills so far, but also the most fun.

Are you a procrastibaker? Share your culinary accomplishments with us in the comments!

 

“The Six Million Dollar Scholar” is the personal blog of Andrea Milne, a Ph.D. candidate in modern U.S. History at the University of California, Irvine. To get the story behind the blog’s name, click here.

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