The Life of a Serial Procrastinator
Procrastination is a popular topic for self-help gurus. Lately, it seems like everywhere I look, there’s a new book or blog post or TED Talk dedicated to tackling the procrastination problem once and for all. The other day, I made the mistake of saving a spoof anti-procrastination motivational quote on Pinterest, and now my feed is full of adages urging me not to “put off until tomorrow what you could get done today,” warning me that “procrastination is the enemy of success,” and admonishing me that “a person who really wants something will find a way…a person who does not will find an excuse.”
I find adages like these to be simplistic and, in truth, rather dismissive. In the last one, especially, there is a presumption that those who procrastinate are not trying hard enough or are just lazy. (I also take issue with the implication that everyone should strive to be as productive as possible, and that those who don’t conform to this ideal are somehow lesser than their success-oriented counterparts, but that is beside the point.) This, in my opinion, is simply wrong the majority of the time. My tendency to procrastinate is not without purpose. It’s not because I’m lazy or trying to make excuses. It’s because making decisions, a lot of the time, is incredibly overwhelming. Procrastination is a tool for allaying the stress and anxiety that accompany decision-making.
In fact, avoidance and procrastination have been tools I use to deal with mentally difficult tasks for a pretty long time. Graduate school was a particularly tough time for me as far as avoidance was concerned; I had a nasty habit of waiting until the last possible minute to get things done. I simply had too many thoughts to sort out, and deciding how to do so was extremely difficult, so I avoided facing those decisions for as long as I could.
The harder the work got, the worse my avoidance and procrastination, to the point where I even nicknamed myself “Last-Minute Lori.” Not only did I write pretty much every term paper the night before (because, who didn’t, right?), but I also wrote the entire Discussion section of my master’s thesis—where you explain the results of your research in plain English, relating them to existing and possible future research—in the two days before the deadline.
It didn’t stop there. When my comprehensive exam—an extremely detailed review of the published scientific research on a particular topic, which determines whether you are allowed to write a dissertation at all—rolled around, I ended up waiting until the week of the deadline. I was incapacitated by indecision. I then spent all day, every day holed up in my basement office in the psychology building, throwing back cups of coffee and hammering away at my laptop keyboard until it got so late you couldn’t consider it to be nighttime anymore. (I passed with flying colors, though, which did not exactly discourage me from continuing to procrastinate on important projects.)
By the time I got around to my dissertation, my avoidance pattern was so entrenched, and so toxic, the department’s deadlines came and went without my document being anywhere close to finished (or beyond what was required for my proposal meeting, for that matter). The only motivator strong enough to propel me to the finish line was the threat from the graduate school of forfeiting my eligibility to complete the project without a special waiver (which would equate, in essence, to nullifying and flushing all my work up to that point down the toilet). Even then, I sent a few panicked emails to the registrar to find out whether the final summer semester was, in fact, included in the eligibility window, and I was still polishing off my document the day it was due to my dissertation committee members. Yikes!
Over and over and over again, I repeated the same pattern:
- Delay working on the task as long as possible.
- Look at the clock and realize that, if I don’t start now, I won’t finish in time.
- Mentally collapse into complete and utter panic.
- Become so completely overwhelmed that a full-on meltdown ensues, complete with sobbing, headache, and nausea, and culminating in exhaustion.
- Say “screw it” to myself, give up caring about the quality of the final product, crank it out in a ridiculously short about of time, and dub it “good enough.”
Or, in pictorial form:
As I think back, I see harbingers of my struggle with procrastination spanning at least the last twenty-five years of my life. I recall needing to stay home from elementary school one day to read a book on which I had to write a report because I wasn’t far enough along. In middle school and early high school, there definitely were a few papers/projects I put off for so long my mom ended up “helping” me complete them (thanks mom!)—-to this day, I still know nothing about Eleanor of Aquitaine or Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, despite having “written” lengthy reports on both. This habit persisted in college, too: I had to make sure my entire dorm room was spic and span before I could even start working on a project, and I think nearly every paper I composed was an all-nighter.
This pattern of avoiding difficult decisions and tasks has leeched into other areas of my life as well. I always mean to do a thorough house cleaning before guests come over, but I typically end up scrambling to pick up discarded toys and hiding clutter in drawers or closets in the hour before the guests are supposed to arrive. Clutter moves from surface to surface indefinitely because it is too difficult to figure out where its permanent home should be. My “to-do” list is miles long, and yet I tick off very few, if any, boxes each day. And who knows if I will ever hang any artwork on the bare walls in our house. Why?
These things all require me to make decisions, and decision-making can be extremely stressful, even paralyzing, for someone like me who wrestles with anxiety. So I avoid making those decisions like I would avoid the plague, and it works. Avoidance is actually a very effective anxiety relief technique.
Until it isn’t anymore…
Inevitably, at some point, most delayed decisions have to be made, and most avoided tasks have to be tackled. There is only so long I can add to that pile of crap on the stairs before it becomes difficult (not to mention dangerous) to walk past, allow tables and counter-tops to accumulate clutter before it drives me insane, or neglect to work on a project before I become a failure.
As I see it, there are two primary approaches to overcome inertia and get to work on whatever task is at hand. I call these the “cannon ball” and the “toe-dip,” methods, because I liken getting started on a task to getting into a frigid swimming pool. The “cannon ball” people prefer to jump right in, exposing their entire bodies to the icy water all at once—these people like to attack the hardest task first, to get it out of the way so the remainder of their tasks become progressively easier. I am not a cannon ball person. This approach will never, and I mean NEVER, work for me (so don’t even suggest it!) because increasingly difficult tasks cause me increasingly intense anxiety, which results in increasing levels of task paralysis.*
The only way I can accomplish difficult tasks is via the “toe-dip” method—gradually easing my way into the shiver-inducing pool. I have to start with something easy to do, requiring very little effort, minimal thinking, and necessitating few, if any, decisions. For example, just turning on the computer, just opening my dissertation document, just reading what I’ve already written in the last section. Then, and only then, can I move forward with a task; it’s just too daunting otherwise. Complex, difficult tasks make my mind hurt**—there are so many different ways to proceed, too many paths from which to choose.
The “toe-dip” method is a form of “behavioral activation” (to use the fancy-schmancy psychological term), which has its origins in the behavioral arm of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and is now a therapeutic technique in its own right that’s often used especially to treat anxiety and depression. In clients with depression, for example, a therapist might ask the clients to engage in an activity they used to enjoy (e.g., playing the piano, going for a run, reading a book) for only five minutes (or three minutes, or one minute, if five minutes is too difficult—the amount of time is not the important part). If, after the time has elapsed, the clients want to stop, then they are allowed to stop. After all, anyone can read a book for just five minutes, right?
Many of us mistakenly believe we need to have the desire to do a particular activity before we start doing it. But, in reality, we often don’t feel the desire to do the activity until we have already started doing it. We don’t feel like exercising until we’re already exercising; I don’t feel like writing until I’m already writing. Inevitably, opening my dissertation document would lead to me reading what I had already written, which would lead to me tweaking some wording here and there, which would lead to some new thoughts to write down…and then, just like that, I was writing!
I used a similar tactic when I was skating (as I mentioned in my previous post on performance anxiety): I “dipped my toe” into the performance by starting with an easy element—a spin or a jump I could perform in my sleep—to build confidence before moving on to the harder ones. It was only by starting the process with an action I could perform without thinking that I was ever able to settle into the rest of the performance.
For me, not thinking is the key. When I think about a task, I think about how I feel. And when I think about how I feel, more often than not I become overwhelmed. And when I become overwhelmed, well…you can guess where this is going.
I came up with a saying, or a mantra (if you will), to remind me to use the behavioral activation method whenever I am struggling to accomplish a task, be it something as weighty as a dissertation or something as seemingly trivial as figuring out how to organize a blog post about procrastination (wink wink). If you, like me, cringe at the idea of doing a cannon ball into the bone-chilling pool of your “to-do” list, I leave you with one final thought:
Don’t think; just do.
*Don’t even get me started on telling other people how to solve their problems. This is probably a topic for another post entirely, but suffice it to say: don’t. Just don’t. We are all smart enough to figure out possible solutions to our problems, and unless we explicitly ask for outside opinions on how to resolve them, we seek understanding and empathy—not solutions—from those in whom we choose to confide. Most of us rely on friends and family to help us process the emotions we feel in problematic situations. Once we do that, we can move on to enacting (our own) solutions.
**Some studies have shown that the same areas of the brain involved in processing and feeling physical pain are also involved in processing and feeling emotional pain (summarized in this article from Psychology Today). Depression and anxiety really can hurt just as much as dropping a hammer on your foot—the neurological underpinnings for both types of pain are largely the same.