Two procrastination fixes

A brief post on procrastination, unrelated (I’m sure) to my ongoing attempt to write three novels at once:

I’ve always been a procrastinator. In high school, after I got home I wouldn’t dream of starting my homework before chatting with everyone for a while (this was during the great age of AIM), putting up a perfectly despairing away message, and probably also spending some time surfing the dearly departed pre-social-media Internet. As a direct consequence of this behavior, I would end up having to stay up past my bedtime to do my actual homework, and the next day always started the same way: bleary-eyed at 6:30 with twenty minutes to leave the house on six hours of sleep. Not ideal for a teenager.

Similar patterns followed me all through college, law school, and into my working life, even after the sad demise of AIM. Even if I had a morning off from class, I didn’t think to treat it like work time: it was time for running, rambling, or even watching TV guiltily in my room. No, work time was that brutal late-night race against my body’s ability to stay awake. Later, in my office jobs, the best hour of my day was always the last one, when I felt as under the gun as possible.

(Now, part of this might just be that chronobiologically I’m more of an afternoon/evening type than a morning type, and that would be fine, to the extent I’m not actively sleep-deprived, which I nearly always have been).

I came to think of myself as someone who has some weakness of will preventing her from just doing things at the right time, whose only hope was a tight enough deadline that things would actually happen eventually.

But let’s go back to that first thought: that I’ve “always” been a procrastinator. Logically, “always” can’t start in high school.

I’ve truly always been someone who does things–but only certain things. Things I want to do. I procrastinate only sometimes, on some projects, and only in some circumstances.

I notice: there are things I jump at doing and don’t put off. And then there is everything else, for which I drag my feet.

Procrastination was, I thought, a problem I needed to fix. Simply figure out the right way to coerce myself into doing stuff earlier.

But recently, with some assistance, I turned my attention to the why of it all. Why do I delay some things, sometimes? Why is it that, sometimes, I can get started right away on a task, whereas other times I sit around until the eleventh hour to begin?

The problem of procrastination turns out to be a problem of the assignment itself. I found that I can fix it by tasking myself differently. Two steps here have helped immensely:

  1. Make sure it’s the right task. Is it something I want to do at all? This has been helpful in creative writing. I sometimes think I know what sort of writing I “should” be doing, based on so-and-so’s recommended method, but if I find that I’d rather reorganize my sock drawer than try so-and-so’s method, maybe it’s just not the right task. Is there a way of altering the task so it actually appeals? On the other hand, if the task is something I must do (say, filing taxes, or work for my employer), making sure I really believe in the “why” behind it is helpful for motivation.
  2. Make it small. The smaller the task, the more likely I will be to actually do it. This has always seemed counter-intuitive to me: I think whatever causes my last-hour productivity panic also causes me to chronically underestimate how long something will take. It then seems reasonable to think I could write, say, 2,000 words of a new novel a day. (Note: It is not.) Setting a daunting task like that for myself strains credulity. My brain inherently knows that ain’t happening. So it doesn’t. But if I set out a miniature task, one that seems far too small to even worry about–that will get done. And, to state the obvious, a lot of complete little tasks over time are better than even one incomplete big one.

This is not to say that I’ve got it all figured out, or that I don’t still find myself in a distraction stupor while the day speeds away around me. So when all else fails, well, I’ve made it this far on eleventh-hour panic. I guess that’s good enough, even if I never learn how to fully get rid of the little rebel inside me that just loves to watch me sweat near the deadline.

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