Procrastination and its discontents

For me, procrastination happens in three contexts.

  1. Self-doubt and perfectionism are reigning high. I fear the attempt won’t match the imagined ideal.
  2. The task will be arduous or tedious, or the result is not imminent, so a good degree of patience is involved. The need for patience, mixed with difficulty and tedium, does not lead to swift action for me.
  3. At my core, I just don’t want to do it. It holds no interest for me.

In the throes of procrastination, usually after eight p.m., when it’s really too late to accomplish anything major but not late enough that it’s acceptable for me to throw in the towel, I used to Google “procrastination tips.” Nothing particularly useful came up. One time I watched Tim Urban’s TED Talk on the subject (to further procrastinate), which includes a comical animation of a procrastination monkey that lives in our brains, and although it was a relevant description of how it feels to procrastinate, it didn’t help me take action.

The funny thing about procrastination is that it doesn’t actually feel good. Our strange brains think, “By putting off this distasteful task for another day, another hour, I will prolong my pleasure and defer my pain.” But this is false. In fact, my pain becomes magnified while I wash dishes, scroll through my Newsfeed, and organize my pen collection by color and type. The pain comes from continuing not to do the thing I know I need to do: knowing that I’m intentionally shrinking the amount of time I have to work on it, or understanding that it remains on my to-do list and I will have to face it again in the near future and repeat this absurd cycle.

As for relief — my own “procrastination tips,” or the strategies or shifts in consciousness I have found to work for me — I offer them humbly and with a grain of salt. I don’t know if they will work for you. I don’t know what you’re putting off — is it required? Optional? How hard is the deadline? How rigid are the requirements of the project? So I share these insights as possible modes of exploration, not definite fix-alls. I also share them with the caveat that I’m not talking about the required tasks of everyday living like paying bills or mowing the lawn. The following corresponds to the three contexts listed above.

  1. You know I have been working on self-doubt and perfectionism. The only way I have been able to stop letting these gremlins deter me from getting things done has been to work on them. Accept that your final product most definitely will not look anything like what you envision. Let it go. Then get to work on step one. You might not even know what step two is, but I can guarantee step two will come to you while you work on step one — not while you think about step one, but while you engage with it. One of the post-its on the wall by my desk says, “You have to let your work be messy while you figure out where it’s all leading you.” And along those lines, Tara Mohr writes, “We become creative when we forget our beliefs, stories, and rules about what’s supposed to happen.” Forget rules. Forget the ideal. One baby step. Creation. Messy. Trust in the process.
  2. For difficulty, tedium, or a distant reward, Google results recommend “eating the frog,” more discipline, the Pomodoro technique, Bullet Journals, and all manner of beloved timekeeping frameworks. But lists and schedules never work for me. They make me break out in hives. If I say I will work on something for twenty-five minutes instead of holding myself to an hour of work, that doesn’t make me want to do it more. And isn’t that what we’re talking about here — actually wanting to do the thing so it’s pleasurable or easier? Another trusted post-it above my desk says, “Small attempts, repeated, will complete any undertaking.” To relieve difficulty and tedium, I have to break the thing up into its parts. But I can’t measure these attempts like all the strategies listed above recommend. I’m a human, not a computer. I have to enter into the small attempt with no expectation — of time spent, of result achieved, of emotion felt. Letting go of any kind of expectation usually enables me to enter some kind of temporary flow state and achieve a small measure of productivity. And of course, from Tara Mohr: “When we think we need more discipline, we usually need more self-love.” If the phrase self-love makes you feel icky, try replacing it with friendlinessJust be friendly to yourself. No beating yourself up because you didn’t do it. No critiquing the small amount of progress you did make. Just friendliness. Support. Kindness. Generosity. You know, those radical things we willingly offer to our friends but not to ourselves. Any attempt is a win, in my friendly book.
  3. Just not wanting to do something is more complicated. I often don’t even realize that this is the underlying issue. I mean, of course I don’t want to iron my pants or fold the laundry or go to the grocery store on a Saturday morning. But I have to. I’m talking about work projects or more “optional” commitments. Sometimes it hurts to dredge the murky waters of my soul and realize that a thing I once said I wanted to do is no longer something I care about enough to devote my time and energy to it. But we’re human! We change our minds! Our circumstances change, or we get into something and realize it’s not what we were expecting. I have come to realize it is okay to change my mind. Not caring was the whole problem with my course of study saga here at school. Switching to a topic I feel more excited about enabled me to get to work. When I am excited about something, no matter how difficult it will be to accomplish or finish, I will work on it. For me, this is the most difficult revelation procrastination offers: if I have changed my mind and don’t want to do something anymore, I am not a bad person. My character is not flawed.

One perspective that never fails me is imagining myself at the end of my life, looking back over my days. Do I want to remember a life spent in deferral, busying myself with “in the meantime” tasks, performed in order not to do the most important work of my life? Do I want to remember days filled with Internet browsing and Netflix binges and a spotless house, but a soul cut off from its greatest ambitions? (Don’t get me wrong — after a bad day, yes, I need a Netflix binge. But I don’t want it to be the primary time-filler of my life.) If I don’t accomplish all the dreams I have for myself because they’re difficult or might take some time or might not pan out exactly the way I envision, I’m going to be disappointed.

What are you putting off? Why? What sort of kindness or honesty will enable you to work on it?


(Also, unrelated — or maybe related — what do you struggle with in your life? I’m trying to make a list of areas people want to be coached in, and I thought it might not hurt to ask. If you want to send me a message through the “Contact” link at the top of my page, I would greatly appreciate your honest suggestions.)


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