I procrastinated on writing this post about procrastination for half a year. I need help. I wonder why there is no 12 step program for procrastinators. At extreme, it is a mental health issue, right? Society tells us so, teaches us so and shames us so. It’s probably for the best because a procrastinator would rarely make it past step zero, showing up to the meeting.
Instead we procrastinators struggle alone, feeling like failures. Reading books and attending seminars in the hope that someone somewhere has a magic bullet to solve our compulsion to not do things that we need to do. Actually, we most likely read books and attend seminars to avoid doing stuff. Unfortunately, as with every other important problem, there is no magical quick fix.
Note: To me, procrastination can mean two things: delaying doing something until you do it, or delaying until you end up not doing it. Both cause a lot of stress and guilt. The former usually ends in sub-par results. The latter could result in catastrophic endings or be a huge windfall of effort saved.
No Rhyme or Reason
Everyone has their theory about the cause of procrastination and thus what the fix should be. Unfortunately, the causes and fixes are different and sometimes conflicting. I procrastinate because I fear failure. No, it’s because I fear success. I’m afraid to start because it is a huge undertaking. No, I don’t start because it is a small one and thus not worthwhile to do.
Since I could remember, I’ve procrastinated about some things and not others. In school, some subjects I study diligently for and others I would cram the night before an exam. Early at my job, I worked in cycles, months of extreme productivity followed by periods of forcing myself to do the minimum. Liking or hating didn’t seem to be the reason because I procrastinated on subjects I liked and did the work I hated and vice versa. Neither was wanting to please or not please family, friends, classmates, teachers, teammates, and managers. Fear or defiance of the consequences drove me to do or not do. I didn’t know why I was motivated or why I was not.
I tried time management tools like tracking my minutes or the Pomodoro Technique (which involves breaking work down into 25 minute intervals), but that was more work than just doing the work I was avoiding in the first place. I ended up using prioritized to-do lists and a calendar for meetings and appointments. My to-do lists are text documents that I frequently edit to sort tasks based upon importance and to delete tasks which are done or no longer necessary. When I feel motivated to work, I try to compete as many to-do items as possible.
Over time, I’ve trained myself to take care of the small tasks right away. For small tasks, the burden of having to remember to do them is greater than just doing them. It is a relief to complete them and checked them off in my mind. At work, for medium to big tasks, the angst of feeling like a failure or loser from not doing the task (in the eyes of peers and managers) is greater than just doing the task, so I do it. Outside of work, the medium to big tasks were problematic to do if they didn’t have undesirable consequences like family members being mad or the IRS asking where my tax return was. However, though I will complete the tasks to avoid the consequences, I may still procrastinate until the last moment and endure the stress.
For medium to big tasks that had no external consequences (like writing a novel on the side or learning a new language), my last theory was that I was afraid to start something because of the large time commitment. The solution I came up with was to trick myself by just committing to start for a short period of time, say 15 minutes only. Once I started, I usually ended up spending much more than 15 minutes. I explored this solution in a previous post, Roadblock To Nirvana (see the “A Simple Plan For The Rest Of My Life” and later sections). Unfortunately, some willpower was still necessary to overcome the fact that I knew that I was trying to trick myself into thinking of a large time commitment as a tiny commitment.
In the end, whether I procrastinated or not still depended upon how I was feeling, whether I could motivated myself or not. All the above were compensatory tools, to reduce the occurrence or duration of procrastination, that ended up not working most of the time.
Root of All Procrastination
These past few months, I’ve tried to find the root cause of procrastination. I’ve discovered that there is none. I procrastinate on anything for any number of reasons; from not going to the gym because my stomach felt a little bloated to not wanting to clean the bathroom because hey, it’s not a pleasant thing to do. I’m not motivated to do it so I don’t.
I’ve realized that there is no logical cause and no logical fix. No way to think myself out of this problem. It is because the problem is not thinking, it is feeling. Procrastination is just a feeling. Hey, I just feel like not doing it. As with any feeling, there is no way to reason with it. There may be no obvious cause for a feeling so digging for one would only turn up dead-ends and false positives that might make the situation worse. I can argue with myself about why I should not be having the feeling, but that doesn’t get rid of the feeling. I can override the feeling but eventually my willpower will be exhausted.
The only effective solution is to accept the feeling. To acknowledge that I don’t feel like doing something and then doing that something in spite of it. A small amount of willpower is still necessary, but I’m not fighting the feeling; I’m just letting it occupy the extra guest bedroom in my mind until it decides to leave. In the meantime, I just do what I need to do.
“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.” – Stephen King
I still felt that something was missing. We are beings with free will so if I want to procrastinate, why shouldn’t I be able to? If I’m willing to accept the consequences of not doing something, what’s wrong with that? What is so bad about procrastination? From past experience, procrastination has helped me to avoid doing tasks which, at the last minute, turned out to be unnecessary. So there are good things about procrastination.
Saying that procrastination is just a feeling is incomplete. To be more accurate, procrastination is just a feeling of not wanting to do something that we have judged should be done. That is the conflict. For whatever reason, we have decided that something needs to be done and because we don’t do it, it remains at the back of our head that we didn’t do what we have committed ourselves to do. We didn’t meet the expectations we had of ourselves.
For me, having an unmet judgement or expectation results in mental baggage. We have failed ourselves and we can’t hide that failure from ourselves. Worse, resentment usually follows the disappointment. Who judged that we should do something? Who decided that we should do something we don’t feel like doing? Procrastination may be our rejection of that judgement. Our rebellious self could be saying, “You think it should be done… well I don’t and I’m going to prove it by not doing it.” Fatally, in the final analysis, the judge is us and we are only rejecting ourselves.
My solution is to remove the judgement and expectation, which would eliminate the resulting resentment and rejection. We should not have to do anything. We can choose to do something for whatever reason. There may be consequences like bad credit if we have late or missing payments. But if the consequences are acceptable, then the choice should exist as it always does. Do I do it now or later or never? Any decision is fine. A decision not to do something is equivalent to deciding to accept the consequences of not doing that something.
In practice, expect to have feelings of procrastination often. When you can catch yourself feeling them, stop and accept those feelings. Try to realize if you are judging or expecting yourself to do that something. Determine the consequences of not doing. Then make a decision to do or not do. Over time, you will learn to be okay with having the feelings and doing or not doing.
Dark Side of No Stress
I implemented my solution above and ended up doing nothing beyond what is necessary. This is bad. I completed job tasks and other daily living tasks like paying rent. But I didn’t do anything extra that had no consequence, like writing a blog post. Without the self-imposed judgments and expectations driving me to do, I ended up not doing.
While it was peaceful and pleasantly stress-free, this was not the desired end state. The dark side of the solution is not getting much done because I don’t expect myself to do anything. It turns out that setting goals and expecting myself to accomplish those goals are what make life interesting. It’s the drive that pushes me forward, to improve myself, meet interesting people, and experience new wonders.
It’s like when Alice asked the Cheshire Cat which way she should go:
Alice: Which way should I go?
Cat: That depends on where you are going.
Alice: I don’t know.
Cat: Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.
(from Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland)
Goals determine which way we should go. Without them, I ended up stuck in the same spot, not forcing myself to take a step in either direction. This state of being is stress-free and stagnant.
On Pain of Doing
Rather than re-introduce my self judgments and expectations and their attendants, stress and guilt, the answer is to make the consequences so undesirable or unpleasant that I would decide to do what I have determined I should do. Or to make the goals so pleasurable and worthwhile that I would want to do them anyhow.
I needed to identify my important goals. Goals that would be painful not to do. The goals that I would regret not pursuing on my deathbed. The goals that if I didn’t make an effort to accomplish would render my life void of meaning. I’m talking about those goals.
I didn’t need to succeed at those goals, I just needed to try my best. They could be one or many. I could do them one at a time or several at once. They just needed my attention and doing.
I’m not sure if the above will work, but at least I’m moving in one direction. Whether it is the right or wrong way, I do not know… I just feel like doing something.