This is a post from yet another angle. Knowing that I’m far from alone in being challenged by this, I decided to share some of my difficulties and progress overcoming procrastination, in hopes that this sharing will be helpful or inspirational to some. I would love to hear thoughts or advice in response!
Given that it’s been over a month since my last post, it probably comes as no surprise that I struggle with procrastination. This has been a lifelong issue for me, I think partly because I tend to crowd my schedule with more than can reasonably be kept up with at once and partly because I tend to perform surprisingly well under the last-minute pressure that procrastination creates.
However, as for many, I think, one of my biggest underlying motives is avoidance and, honestly, a certain degree of dread. Actions that I associate with stress, boredom, or other discomfort just seem more easily put off until the following day.
I trace this issue in large part to my experience with school growing up. I’ve always been a good student; I like and value school and derive a great deal of meaning from my studies. However, especially in high school and college, I experienced terrible dread over writing papers. I was not a bad writer, and the papers always turned out relatively well. But the process of writing was terrifying. I was my own worst critic and would critique every single sentence I wrote, in a way I never would when reading someone else’s work. It took me hours to write a paragraph because I rewrote each sentence multiple times, always convinced it sounded terrible. And the process was so miserable that I would put off beginning it as long as possible. Eventually, the misery brought on by the fear of not finishing at all would exceed the misery of the writing itself, and I would start; I would write all night and produce something by the next morning before school. These were not the best papers they could possibly have been, I assume, but they were good enough to confirm to me that this method was one of success, and I struggle a fair amount trying to break this habit even a decade later in grad school.
And, alas, papers aren’t the only challenge to elicit this habit of procrastination. Another is cleaning. I hate cleaning. And because I hate doing it, I procrastinate on it, which causes a mess to pile up. And that, in turn, makes the cleaning process even more daunting, which leads me to procrastinate more… It’s one thing to choose to procrastinate, to enjoy it, even. But although I suppose I procrastinate in service of (short-lived) enjoyment, the fruits of this procrastination add stress and frustration, not pleasure, to my life.
And not just the fruits – even the procrastination process itself. This is my latest insight, and one which has, slowly, begun to help me change my habits a bit.
A second cause for my childhood (and probably current) procrastination is the fact that I have always been too busy, so busy that I had more to do than I felt I could ever complete, even if I never stopped working. So I took a temporary respite whenever nothing was urgent, despite the fact that this made the work all the more overwhelming when it started up again.
This is my recent insight, though: those temporary respites don’t work! They don’t work because they’re not truly rest, and they’re not truly rest because they are haunted by the dark cloud of procrastination hanging over my head that not only dampens my enjoyment but also drains me of energy. Because as long as I’m thinking about that unpaid car insurance, or that unwritten email, or that difficult conversation, a part of my energy is going to all of these things, remembering them, worrying about them, justifying not having done them yet, figuring out a time when I will, worrying that I’ll put them off even then, etc. And it’s a doubly negative outcome, because not only do I not do complete what I need to do, I also don’t have a moment free from it. Even when I’m not thinking about them, these responsibilities lurk in the back of my mind, ready to pop into my consciousness at a moment’s notice.
And so I have come up with a new way of approaching odious activities (or not so odious – I’m still somewhat stressed out by writing, but I also get great fulfillment from it. Many of the things I procrastinate on, I’ve realized, are not things that I hate, but things which I value, which stress me out precisely because they matter to me.). I shall no longer consider completing them a torturous task which I must avoid at all costs. Neither will I grit my teeth and look at their completion as something miserable, which I sadly must do, which “builds character” (in the words of Calvin’s dad) precisely because it’s no fun. (This latter may be true, but I haven’t found it very helpful in motivating me to actually get things done!)
Instead, I’ll look at the accomplishment of these activities as a goal and a blessing, because it finally allows me to free myself from them, to make them stop preying on my mind. Their power over me is not something that can be avoided by … well, avoidance. It can only be escaped by action, and that action is to finish them as quickly as possible and thereby free myself from them once and for all!
I’m not sure if this method will work; I suspect its implementation will not be without its own challenges. But it has been helpful to me so far, and I’m sharing in the hope that it will be helpful to others as well.