I procrastinated writing this post. I got another cup of coffee. I talked to the dog. I checked Facebook. But, as you can see, I got it done. But once I got started, I really got into it. This is by far the longest post I’ve written, and one of the most enjoyable to write. I hope you enjoy reading it.
I have been a procrastinator all my life. I’ve been chastised for procrastination my whole life by teachers, parents, and even peers. Yet I think I did pretty well, all things considered. I made good grades, completed college degrees, built a successful career, and all in all I have a pretty good life. However, I still beat myself up over procrastination. If I just didn’t procrastinate, I would be able to get so much more done, be more successful, and be happier. Do all those things that I say I want to do. I tried all kinds of methods. Scheduling time in the calendar, using various to do list and planning apps, and more. Being a project manager for so many years, you would think that all my planning skills would resolve the issue. But therein lies the problem. We try to schedule ourselves according to how we think we should work (or worse, how someone else thinks we should work). I’ve come to the conclusion that while procrastination can be a problem, it can also be a valuable tool. Sometimes procrastination is trying to tell you something.
Procrastination can tell you a lot about how you are working – how you feel about your work, how you work best under different circumstances, and can provide clues to how best to organize your life. When you think you are procrastinating, start by digging deep and think on why you are procrastinating. Then consider acting on the why first, and letting it inform how you complete the task. I’ve identified a few sources of procrastination to demonstrate this approach.
Procrastination tied to perfectionism. For example, I was always taught in school that when you get an assignment, you should start working on it right away, and work diligently until it’s due. This way you can make sure it is complete and polished and get a good grade. Now as an adult, I give a lot of educational presentations for project management groups. These are typically 45 minutes of content. I’ve done a lot of them, so I have a solid slide structure that supports my internal timing. I know how to put a professional training presentation together. Of course, I always do them at the last minute, and I still beat myself up over it. Could they be better if I worked on them longer? Rehearsed more? Spent a few hours finding better graphics, or funnier stories? One day I realized – I’m not really procrastinating – I’m subconsciously improving my efficiency. My presentations are very professional and well received. The amount of improvement I might achieve are not worth the many more hours I would spend. Let go of the perfection monster. Being comfortable with good enough actually frees you to do more with your time. I gave up thinking I should start earlier, and accepted that this is my method and it works just fine.
Procrastination tied to aversion. Sometimes we have to do things we don’t like to do, don’t want to do, or are afraid to do. Procrastination in this case seems to me like a very rational response. I put stuff in to-do lists, plans, calendars, and yet I still procrastinate. Why doesn’t it work? Because constantly nagging yourself to do what you don’t want to do hits us right in our lizard brains and makes us want to do the tasks even less! So accept that procrastination is telling you something, and rather than run at it directly, try using a distraction strategy. A distraction strategy allows you to re-define the task in a way that associates it with a positive reward in some way. For example, I hate to vacuum. My husband hates to vacuum. We really, really hate to vacuum. So I don’t. Even with three dogs, I’d rather watch the dust bunnies float across the floor than vacuum. However, my husband and I love having guests over for dinner. We are known for throwing impromptu barbeques for 20 people. And guess what? The house gets vacuumed – usually an hour before people are due to arrive. I don’t hate it any less, but I’m OK with it, since it means soon all my friends are showing up. We noticed this pattern a while back, and now it’s part of our methodology. “Let’s have some people over – the house needs cleaning!” But what if it’s a task you are afraid of. Are you afraid you can’t do it, or are you afraid it won’t be perfect. If you fear not being perfect – go back to the previous paragraph. Let it go. But if you are afraid you can’t do it, try breaking it down into small tasks and creating a game or contest with yourself (or others) to distract you. This also works for other tasks you hate, like exercising, writing reports, etc. Create a progress chart. (You can also use a calendar for this). Define a small subtask each day, and then give yourself a sticker when you complete that day. It’s funny how you might hate that 30 minutes on the treadmill, but you love seeing that unbroken string of stickers on the calendar. Pretty soon the task has changed from hitting the treadmill to not letting the streak lapse. This becomes even stronger when you display your progress streak publically. Now that can be scary – but start with your friends – let them help you.
Procrastination tied to desire. This one really hit me when I saw it for what it was. How much of my to do list, both professionally and personally, was tied to things I thought I should be doing to be successful, things other people I admired were doing, and things that I thought I should be doing if I wanted to be the best, most successful, most admired person I could be. OK, maybe I’m overstating that last bit, but it is true that we surround ourselves with a lot of “shoulds” in our lives. Tina Fey, in her book Bossypants, wrote “When people say, “You really, really must” do something, it means you don’t really have to. No one ever says, “You really, really must deliver the baby during labor.” When it’s true, it doesn’t need to be said.” So often we absorb ideas and experiences of others into our minds and turn them into jobs for ourselves. I’m an idea-person. I constantly think of things I could maybe do. I used to put them on a to-do list. Now I have a note pinned to the top of my-to do list. “Not all ideas are tasks to be completed”. I recently read Marie Kondo’s book, and I liked the underlying concept of examining our stuff for how it serves us, and jettisoning the things we are keeping around for reasons unrelated to having a joyful life (I paraphrased a lot there). When I tried it, I found I was storing an amazing amount of gear, supplies, and just general stuff because “someday I would like to …”, ending that sentence with some craft, project, or product that I could imagine myself maybe doing someday, but I kept putting it off. For years, and years. The lightning bolt hit – I was procrastinating because I was never really going to do that. I love to tinker with crafts. But when I got rid of about 80% of my craft stuff that sat untouched for years, I found that I’ve worked more with the items I kept than I ever had before. I just had to get rid of all the other stuff, the “false tasks”, that were gumming up the works. This works for digital hoarding as well. “KonMari” all the articles you haven’t read, courses you haven’t taken, books you haven’t opened, blog reader queues overflowing, and the other “shoulds” that are clogging up your life so the really important stuff is front and center, without distraction. Procrastination can teach us that less truly is more. Let it go.