The first time I came face to face with the depths of my ability to procrastinate was in college. There were a handful of situations in high school; a science project here, a history paper there, but no extreme cases, you know? Plus my mom was around to ensure I went to bed at a reasonable hour, and my dad to explain things like the periodic table.
College was different. The sweet taste of freedom! I could eat Oreos for dinner! No more torturous science projects!
Most importantly though, it meant I had to manage my own time. Which turned out to be a real disaster.
At first it wasn’t so bad, the adrenaline of a new semester carrying me through piles of homework. But soon the situation became dire. Soon I was putting things off until the final week, or worse, starting preliminary research the day before a deadline. From there I discovered I could delay things even further by simply working through the night. I see your Freshman 15 and raise you a severe case of insomnia.
You might be wondering if this bad habit has been “corrected” since college, in which case I’ll tell you that instead of writing this article, I spent the better part of the afternoon starting Google searches with random openers like “why do people…” and “how much does it cost to…” to see what autofills for the rest of the question. People search for some weird shit.
So it’s with wild irony that I attempt to explain how to conquer procrastination today. Something I’ve been meaning to get around to for quite some time. Heh.
The reason I consider myself qualified to riff on procrastination is that it consumes my waking thoughts. This means I have also thoroughly researched and experimented with ways to beat it, and recently discovered a way to reframe it, which I will share with you.
But first, we need to examine and understand the psychology of procrastination. Allow me to paint you a picture of how my brain works.
Let’s say I was given a month to complete a project, surely a reasonable amount of time allotted for the work at hand. At first, I’m filled with ambitious hope that perhaps I’ll break the project into smaller, manageable action steps and “space it out”. It’s a marathon not a sprint, as they say.
Soon though, inevitably, this ray of hope is dimmed as the thoughts begin to creep in. Innocently at first: I can probably wait a week to start this because I have a lot to do right now, and three weeks is plenty of time to get it done.
To full blown demonizing: Why start now? Look here on the calendar, here’s a weekend you could spend doing this before the deadline. It’s fine, you know you’re going to wait until the last minute anyway.
Sure enough, fast forward to that final weekend (fine, the Sunday) before the project is due that I had a full month to work on, and I am staring at a blank computer screen wondering where the time went.
I’m afraid it only gets worse. Let’s take a look at what that actual last day of work looks like:
12 pm: Two coffees and several hours of mindlessly perusing the Internet later, I begin. The air is teeming with anxiety over the looming deadline.
1 pm: Alright, getting into a groove here! Not so bad. Got some small things done that set me up for the more time consuming components of the project. Nice.
1:05 pm: Decide (since I got that stuff done) to color coordinate the bookshelf in my living room.
1:45 pm: I have to say, despite knowing this was an act of procrastination, the bookshelf looks great.
1:50 pm: Open the fridge. Nothing new in there since I checked two hours ago.
2 pm: Okay, back at it. Make a complicated bargain with myself that if I work for two hours I will go downstairs to the coffee shop below my apartment and get an iced tea. Complicated, because if I do that I’ll only have 15 minutes before I have to leave for a yoga class I signed up for, so should I just nix the iced tea? But then I have nothing getting me through these two hours. This is actually how my brain works. It takes a creative level of procrastination to wheel and deal within the confines of your own mind.
2:30 pm: Ditz around on some project stuff, but in the name of “research” open YouTube, where I naturally see a different video I am interested in on the side bar. Shit. I know full well where this will lead, and yet recklessly proceed anyway.
2:40 pm: Watch another video which seamlessly leads to purchasing the book that is mentioned in the video on Amazon. This triggers a whole new detour with Amazon’s strategically-placed suggested book section. From there I read a review for a book in said suggested section on a different website.
3 pm: Now one article has turned into a spiral of others plus a few more YouTube videos and suddenly I have 35 Chrome tabs open, just short of the point where you can’t see the icons anymore.
3:55 pm: Bathroom break. And I have to leave for yoga in 20 minutes so really it doesn’t make sense to pick the work back up.
4:15 pm: Time to go to yoga! Perfect. I’ll get back to the project when I get home. Proceed to spend the entire class racked with anxiety and dread about finishing the project.
7 pm: After showering and eating, finally settle into the project out of extreme panic that if I don’t my career will end and I will be homeless. Endless hours of The Great British Baking Show or some other bullshit loops in the background and I am miserable. But then as I move through the project, a funny things happens and I gain the momentum to get the job done, which we’ll come back to. Finally finish the project around 2:30 am, eyes burning in their sockets.
I wish I could tell you this was simply an example of what procrastination might look like, but it’s a cold, hard reality. This actually happened, because I’m in denial about how time works. The insane part of it all, is that this stresses me out SO much. As I am sitting there wallowing in a strange mixture of self-pity and self-loathing, I have a psychotic inner dialogue about why I can’t just do things on time like a normal person.
I have read all the articles, with their glittering promises like Five Ways to Stop Procrastinating! Or Manage Your Time in Three Simple Steps! None of it gets to the root of the issue, and none of it helps. If it did, this would not be a problem for so many people. And what these time management gurus don’t seem to grasp is that it’s not an optional way of life for us procrastinators. It’s not like I’m over here saying, I think I’ll procrastinate on this one, that sounds like a pleasant way to spend the next month.
However, as I mentioned I think about this subject often, and there is one idea that recently stopped me in my tracks and reframed the whole shebang.
In War of Art, Steven Pressfield explains how procrastination is a form of Resistance. The most common form, in fact.
And if you think about it, perhaps we’re procrastinating for reasons that run deeper than poor time management.
Could it possible that I put off writing this post because I believe it won’t be the poignant, Pulitzer Prize winning thought piece I want it to be? Could it be that I’m delaying it because I’m afraid it won’t be good enough, that none of it will be good enough? That I’m not good enough?
Dayuuuum. Is procrastination, at its core, a self-esteem issue?
Maybe. After all, Pressfield notes in War of Art that if there was no fear there would be no resistance. Fear tells us what we have to do. The more scared we are of something, the more we have to do it.
So yes, fear can certainly be a factor in procrastination.
But I think that’s only part of it. That doesn’t fully address the example of the month-long project I delayed until the night before it was due. That project I didn’t fear, as much as I simply didn’t want to do it at all.
Light bulb: maybe I should stop taking on projects like that, the ones I don’t enjoy?
Because there is a definitive difference between pushing myself to complete a boring project, and working on something exciting. The difference is wanting to do it. Even this article, while I danced around it for a few hours, I wanted to write it. I enjoyed myself while writing it, and when I ran out of time last night I was glad to continue working on it when I got up this morning.
Of course there will always be hard stuff and things we aren’t jazzed about doing, yet are necessary in this game of life. That’s why filing taxes is the ultimate task to procrastinate on. Who wants to spend a weekend sorting receipts and making sense of spreadsheets, just to discover you owe thousands of dollars? God just typing that makes me anxious.
I am still battling that front, and the tenants outlined in War of Art have helped. Things like:
- Procrastination is the most common form of Resistance, because it’s the easiest to rationalize.
- Saying things like “I’ll start tomorrow” can easily become a habit.
- We live in a consumer culture that is aware of our unhappiness when dwelling in procrastination and resistance, and thus capitalizes on it by selling us products, technology, drugs and ideas to distract us.
- The good news, is that there is never a moment when we are without power to alter our own destiny.
- What finally convinced Pressfield to go ahead and write the book was simply that he was so unhappy not writing it. He was developing symptoms. As soon as he sat down and began, he was okay.
Remember what I said about gaining momentum while working through the project when I finally sat down to do it? That’s what happens: if we can get started and power through a ways, we begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
And the best part, is that once you gain that momentum, you may actually start enjoying yourself and do some great work. Forget color coded bookshelves, forget what’s in the fridge, forget iced tea. You’re on a roll now!
All that said, procrastination doesn’t really ever go away completely. It gets more manageable, but it doesn’t disappear, in my experience.
So maybe it’s not about overcoming procrastination, so much as recognizing it for what it is really is and why it exists. Saying hello again, I acknowledge that you’re here. Come on in, but don’t get comfortable.
Then using it as a compass, guiding us to how we really want to spend our time, pointing out where we need to change our story, and exploring the pockets of low self-esteem. Then letting it go.
A few actionable tips, since this is about moving along after all:
Rewrite the Story
For years now I’ve called myself a professional procrastinator. The Lebron James of procrastination. If “Worst Procrastinator” was a superlative I’d win. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it! Well surprise, surprise. The more I tell myself this, the more it becomes a reality. The alternative path? Change my story. Stop wearing it like a weird badge of honor. I am always improving my procrastination. I work on projects I enjoy, and when faced with a difficult task I make slow, steady progress. Fear doesn’t go away but I stride forward anyway.
Make Conscious Choices
At the end of the day, everything really is a choice. Even choosing to procrastinate. Oof, I know: tough one to swallow. If you’re feeling enormous resistance toward a task, or procrastinating on something like exercising or organizing your finances, or dating, take a minute to think about why you feel that way. Getting to the root of it could uncover something important, and it could be a huge missing piece in the fulfillment puzzle. Is this something you’re afraid of doing? Why? Is it something you don’t want to do? Why?
Slow & Steady Progress
The truth is that anything worth doing or achieving takes time. Building a business, losing weight, nurturing relationships. We’re pretty obsessed with instant gratification as a culture, but patience and small, regular changes are essential for course-correcting a deeply-ingrained procrastination habit. These small steps help us tackle huge goals in manageable ways.
Do you struggle with procrastination? Have you handled it, or come to understand it better? Please, for the love for God, share any tips below.