Breaking the bonds of procrastination

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It starts innocently enough. I “just” want to go on to Facebook to check on one thing. When I finally emerge from my Facebook haze, 20 minutes has gone by. “Not a problem,” I think. “I still have enough time to get that report done that’s due this afternoon.” So I pull up my email inbox to find the report that I’m supposed to be working on when I notice an urgent email. “This will just take a minute,” I think again. “Let me respond now before this turns into a bigger problem.” Only, it turns into a bigger problem anyway.

After another hour has gone by, and my deadline approaches, I kick in to full gear. “I work better under pressure,” I tell myself. Originally, I had envisioned the report to be a full-color bound manuscript, which was why I put it off until today to start it, but now I’m lucky if I can get it done and printed out on the black and white printer before the meeting starts. While it’s not the perfect manuscript I originally envisioned, it’s presentable.

“Sheesh!” I think as I run down the hall, stapler in hand, to the conference room. “I do this to myself all the time! Why am I so lazy when I know I should be starting my projects way ahead of time! I really have to get my act together!”

Ah, a day in the life of a productive procrastinator. I’m full of ambition, I know I have talent, I’ve actually accomplished quite a few things in my life, but I also know that sometimes I put things off, can’t make timely decisions, and dread doing certain tasks until I have people breathing down my neck to get them done (the IRS, for instance.) I also have big dreams but I’m so busy putting out fires I can’t seem to make any headway on them.

Perhaps you can relate. While researching this topic, I Googled “procrastination” and was flooded with sites. 3,570,000 of them, to be exact. Many of them purport to fix procrastination by simply following a few simple steps daily. But 3,570,000 different approaches can be a bit daunting. Where to start?

One site I visited presented a different take on procrastination. Paul Graham (http://www.paulgraham.com/procrastination.html) writes that “Most people who write about procrastination write about how to cure it. But this is, strictly speaking, impossible. There are an infinite number of things you could be doing. No matter what you work on, you’re not working on everything else. So the question is not how to avoid procrastination, but how to procrastinate well. There are three variants of procrastination, depending on what you do instead of working on something: you could work on (a) nothing, (b) something less important, or (c) something more important. That last type, I’d argue, is good procrastination.”

There you have it. There is no escape from procrastination. So, how to do it well?

First of all, I’ll assert that there is NO SUCH THING as “lazy.” Yes, watching TV for two hours when I know perfectly well that I need to get my laundry done is a big old waste of time. But am I doing it because I am lazy? I say no. Lazy is a label that we use to describe ourselves when we don’t understand why we don’t just get up and get something useful done, and usually the voice telling us that we’re lazy in our head has someone else’s voice attached to it (our parents, our teacher, our old boss…). Ok, so if it’s not laziness, what is it?

Here it is: Resistance.

Instead of beating yourself up for being lazy, start by asking yourself, “What am I resisting?”

Further research into this topic revealed that all procrastination is not created equal. I was able to group them into four distinct types:

1. Avoiding

Avoiding goes hand in hand with resistance. Whatever it is, we just don’t want to face it. So we stall. And delay. And hem. And haw. The ironic part is that most of what we are avoiding is fantasy.

For instance, we may have a fear of failure (FEAR = Fantasy Evidence Appearing Real.) However, if I never try it, aren’t I pretty much guaranteeing I’ll fail?

The task may be distasteful or boring. Who among us likes to do our taxes? Do I have a choice? No. Will I get a refund? Probably. Did I just spend 2 hours checking email instead of calling my accountant? Yes. Will I still have to do it? Yes. Since I no longer have the excuse of being lazy, I recognize that I’m resisting, and give myself permission to get it done now so that I can get it off my chest.

Another way we avoid is by being productive. Yep, I can actually procrastinate by getting things done. This might include things like cleaning underneath my claw foot tub. Or I might try to cross off many of the smaller items on my to-do list before tackling the big things. As John Perry writes on his excellent site http://www.structuredprocrastination.com, “Procrastinators seldom do absolutely nothing; they do marginally useful things, like gardening or sharpening pencils or making a diagram of how they reorganize their files when they get around to it.”

And let’s not forget the old fear of success avoidance technique. If I do it well once, won’t people expect me to do it again, and just as well the second time around? Who needs that kind of pressure?

2. Thrill-seeking

All those college years proved it: I’m most creative at 5:00 AM after pulling an all-nighter preparing a paper for my 9:00 AM class. Suddenly all my ideas come in to sharp focus and the words just seem to flow. The euphoric rush of getting it all done and printed by 8:30 is actually, it turns out, almost fun.

And why wait until midnight to start typing? Because I am a “time optimist.” I always think it’s going to take less time to do something than it actually does. Does it work out sometimes? Maybe 5% of the time. Those are the times that reinforce my behavior the other 95% of the time that it doesn’t work out.

3. Indecisiveness

By being resistant to making a decision, it often it gets decided for me, and then, I don’t have to take responsibility for the decision. (Oddly, whatever option I choose, I am later going to find out some information that says that I should have chosen the other one.)

4. Perfectionism

There will never, ever, ever be enough time available for me to do the perfect job I was hoping for. John Perry writes, “Procrastinating is a way of giving myself permission to do a less than perfect job on a task that didn’t require a perfect job. But when the deadline is near, or even a bit in the past, there is no longer time to do a perfect job. I have to just sit down and do an imperfect, but adequate job. The fantasies of perfection are replaced by the fantasies of utter failure. If only I had been able to give myself permission to do an imperfect job right at the outset.”

So where to go from here? Is there anything specific you can do to improve your productivity? Here are some ideas worth repeating:

1. Realize you are procrastinating and figure out why.

Some people say awareness is the first step. By being aware, you are now in a position to take action. Say to yourself, “Here I go again, procrastinating. I wonder what I am resisting right now?”

2. Commit only to the first step.

Being overwhelmed plays a big part in why we don’t start or finish projects. What is the very next thing that you can do towards your goal? Do that and you’ll be inspired to continue further.

3. Realize perfectionism is fantasy and unobtainable.

Again, John Perry’s words ring true: “You have to get in the habit of forcing yourself to analyze, at the time you accept a task, to consider the costs and benefits of doing a less than perfect job. You need to ask the questions: how useful would a perfect job be here? How much more useful than a merely adequate job? Or even a half-assed job? … And the answer, in an enormous number of cases, will be that a less than perfect job will do just fine, and moreover it’s all I am ever going to do anyway. So I give myself permission to do a less than perfect job, rather than waiting until it is overdue. I may as well do it now.”

4. Don’t do it at all.

Delegate, automate, simplify, eliminate, or stall. Sometimes things just work themselves out and you don’t have to do them. I know this seems counter to all that we’ve been discussing, but it’s entirely likely that many of the items slowing you down are in the unacknowledged (type b) something less important category and letting them go will get you closer to (type c) something more important.

5. Get connected with your vision.

Place yourself in the future and see your life from the perspective of having already accomplished whatever you are procrastinating about. Revel in the satisfaction of having gotten it done, and then bring that experience to the present. That will put you in the frame of mind to get started.

6. Make a big promise to a lot of people and put a deadline on it.

Nothing like a little pressure to get us moving (as us time optimists know so well.) Dream big, promise big, and deliver big.

What are you waiting for?

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2 thoughts on “Breaking the bonds of procrastination

  1. Very well written story. It will be helpful to anyone who usess it, as well as yours truly :). Keep doing what you are doing – can’r wait to read more posts.

  2. Pingback: New Year’s Resolutions: Friend or Foe? |

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