I had to laugh. Having set myself the task of writing an article about procrastination, I’ve done everything but. I wandered into the kitchen to make yet another cup of coffee that I’ll probably abandon after a few sips. I made myself a slice of toast I don’t really want. (In my old age I’ve curbed the habit of reaching for sugar but I still go foraging when stuck.) I answered a few questions for the “Ask the Therapist” page on PsychCentral. I checked my email, texted my daughter, and put the dishes in the dishwasher. After I got the title right, I decided the garden really needed watering. It did. But not this minute. In short, I’ve been in and out of my seat, avoiding confronting my own task, at least a dozen times in a dozen different ways in the last two hours. What’s going on?
Procrastination: It’s got one name but many causes. Those of us who circle a task a dozen times before landing usually are beleaguered by several. Why do we spend so much energy doing everything except the thing that needs doing? See if any of these are familiar:
- We’re anxious. What if I get it wrong? What if my editor/boss/reader doesn’t like it? What if I look foolish/stupid/uninformed? What if it hits a nerve and makes people mad? Our inner critic goes into overdrive. We lose sight of the relative significance of the task and believe our whole reputation and future are at stake. No wonder we go looking in the fridge.
- We’re anxious. What if I get it right? What if my editor/boss/reader does like it? Even more scary, what if people come to expect that I will always, every time, hit a home run?
- Our standards tend to be very high. We procrastinators are our own harshest critics. When harnessed, our quest for perfection just makes us better. Uncontrolled, it overwhelms and immobilizes, resulting in getting lost in YouTube or taking long naps.
- We have an unrealistic idea about how long something will take. “Oh I’ll just whip off this article tonight and then I’ll have my day free tomorrow.” Yeah. Like that ever happens. Once into the task, we inevitably see something that needs further research, or decide the writing isn’t quite up to par. (See No. 3.)
- We are perpetual optimists so we don’t allow for glitches in our plans. If this computer goes down one more time today, I’m cooked. Again.
- There are too many competing demands. Being optimists (see No. 5), we take on more than can be reasonably handled by anyone short of superheroes. Some are reality-based: The dishes did need doing. Texting keeps me in touch with my daughter. There were readers’ questions to answer. But there’s that time thing again. (See No. 4.)
- Avoidance is its own reward. Writing is both satisfying and painful. (See Nos. 1 – 6.) If I can avoid it for an hour or so, I avoid the pain. Of course, I also don’t get it done but sometimes the short-term relief seems worth it – for awhile – at least a little. I think I’ll clean my desk.
- So many ideas, so little time. Creative people often are like kids in a candy store: Ooh, let me try this. Ooh, how about that? Ooh, what if I did it this way? Oops, I’m up against the deadline.
One Possible Solution
You probably already know what most of the experts will tell you: Break big tasks into small ones. Give up trying to be perfect. Manage your anxiety. Make yourself accountable to someone else. Lock the fridge. I mean to try those helpful hints but I never get around to it. Actually, reading all those helpful hints was another neat way to procrastinate on this article.
I’ve stumbled on a radical solution: Rather than fight my procrastination, I’ve decided to rename it and love it as my own circuitous but generally successful creative process. Wandering around, cleaning the bathroom, and answering emails all serve at least two purposes: Little things, sometimes even important things, get done instead. Meanwhile, the big thing is incubating. What looks like procrastination is really a way of thinking – even when I don’t think I’m thinking.
Once I’ve done the research, conducted the interviews, mulled the topic over, and written the title, I need to give an idea time to sit. Beating myself up for not being the maybe mythic writer who efficiently churns out the perfect piece every time and a week early only makes me depressed. And depressed writers don’t get much done. Giving myself permission to let the bread rise, the chick hatch, the flower bloom, the article come together has done more for my “procrastination” than all the helpful hints in all the helpful books that are now cluttering my desk.
So I’ve made one change and only one. Once given a deadline, I reset it to allow for glitches beyond my control. Deadlines for little projects get reset to a day or two earlier. Big projects require a big reset with at least a month of leeway. Once reset here’s the most important part I make myself believe it. It’s a rigid boundary that, short of a major family emergency, natural disaster, or illness, can’t be crossed. (A sibling squabble, a rainy day, or a hangnail doesn’t qualify.) After that, I let myself be. Yes, I may still look like I’m procrastinating. I may still indulge in all my drama. But I know I’ll get the project done – and on time.