Procrastinating is due for a disruption. I think it’s much more complicated than it appears, and that a lot of the time, we bash ourselves with those feelings quite unfairly. What if what we’re doing isn’t really procrastinating?
Over a quarter of Americans are chronic procrastinators, which is way more common than being a smoker or a diabetic. The prevalence has also gone up nearly 40% in the past quarter century. This increase can probably be blamed almost entirely on the advent of cable television, followed by the internet, streaming video, online gaming, social media, et cetera. We certainly know how to entertain ourselves!
Procrastinating means “putting forward to tomorrow.” The interesting thing about it is that we define it for ourselves. Everyone procrastinates on different stuff, and what’s difficult for one person is easy or fun for someone else. We may feel like we are procrastinating on doing stuff even when we don’t have an external deadline or standard that we need to meet. Even when we are being our own boss, choosing our own projects, and doing stuff based completely on our own initiative, we can still judge ourselves for being “lazy” or for procrastinating. Isn’t that a little weird?
Putting something off until tomorrow isn’t always procrastinating. Let’s think about this. Usually, it’s a sign of good planning! We can’t do every single thing the minute the thought crosses our minds. At least, that’s what the receptionist at my dentist’s office tells me. Sometimes, choosing to do something later has no impact at all, like if I delay watching a TV episode or decide not to have a PBJ sandwich for lunch until later this week. It’s only the stuff we believe we really, really should be doing right now that counts as procrastinating. We’ve chosen something that, rationally, we think is the most important, best, and most urgent use of our time. Then we’ve made a decision to do something else instead. That’s extremely fascinating from an existential standpoint!
Even more interesting, rather than find a way to take action, we fill the time either trying to distract ourselves with mindless activity, mentally flogging ourselves, or wallowing in self-criticism, anxiety, dread, and other helplessly negative emotions. Procrastinating usually feels terrible.
On top of the horrid feelings that go with stalling, delaying, foot-dragging, indecision, mental paralysis, and looming deadlines, and am I stressing you out just describing them? Along with all of that come the ramifications. Missed opportunities! Missed deadlines! Regret! Shame! Failure! Disappointment!
Nobody would choose this.
Nobody would rationally choose procrastination. It borders on logical fallacy. If you can only procrastinate by putting off something urgent and important, then procrastinating is deliberately sabotaging your own circumstances. I happen to think that there’s actually something else going on.
Let’s get a little deeper into it.
I work with people who are chronically disorganized. Some of my people have issues with hoarding or squalor, but while those three conditions tend to overlap, some people only deal with one. That’s because the root emotions are different for each person, sometimes astonishingly so. The big difference for the chronically disorganized is that they just do not know what to do. They don’t have any systems, or, rather, the systems they have are far more convoluted and time-consuming than necessary. While my people struggle mightily with following a schedule and being on time, they aren’t choosing to do it. They just lack planning skills, and their inner sense of time passing is set differently. I say “they” when I really mean “I.” People like my clients and I feel a minute as more like 90 seconds. It’s fair to say that chronically disorganized people suffer the same results as chronic procrastinators, even though they may never have made conscious decisions to procrastinate.
It’s not that we put something off until later, it’s that we never technically planned it in the first place!
Procrastinating is often little more than not knowing how long something was going to take, not realizing how many steps were involved, not being aware that it’s already too late to get something done.
Another way to get the same results as a procrastinator without really procrastinating is to be a people pleaser. A lot of people are almost totally lacking in boundaries, and will thus say “yes” to everything in a sincere attempt to be helpful. It’s like having a leaky boat. A pleaser will always “overpromise and under-deliver” because the promises aren’t even really promises, and they’re made so quickly that it would be impossible to even remember them all, much less follow through. This warm, friendly sort of person will not meet deadlines because the point of the commitment was to demonstrate caring and connection, not to actually DO a THING or to show up to an event. The desire to make someone else happy was real. The over-accommodating person who continually promises too much is not procrastinating, but really more turning an emotional dial to ‘please love me.’ Action, production, and execution aren’t even part of the image. This person does not know just how much frustration, disappointment, confusion, and sometimes pure rage is being inflicted on anyone who believed the over-commitment would be kept.
Work projects tend to be procrastinated when the procrastinator doesn’t really know how to approach the project. Most people can do even the most boring or annoying work tasks, grumbling and muttering but cranking them out. The stuff we procrastinate at work tends to be either administrivia, which we rationally judge is not relevant to our work goals, or large-scale projects with longer deadlines. We just don’t know how to break these projects into manageable chunks. We don’t know how to create longer, uninterrupted blocks of time. We don’t know how to delegate or negotiate. We don’t know how to communicate with our supervisors and admit that we don’t know exactly what we’re doing. We don’t know how to shift gears into System II thinking and get into the zone of focus on demand.
We often think we’re procrastinating on personal projects like “getting organized” or “losing weight” or other loosely-defined objectives. If we knew what to do, I think we’d be doing it! We have the internal sense that our lives would be easier if we did these things, that we’re missing out on something that works nicely for other people. It’s not that we’re procrastinating, it’s that we have no idea where to start.
We don’t know Future Self. Future Me feels like a total stranger, an annoying old person who is constantly asking me for more money. Thinking about the needs of me, myself at some later point in the timeline just feels like such an unfair burden. Why should Future Me get everything? What has Future Me ever done for me? We don’t know how we’re going to feel later on. If we’re well acquainted with the helpless, horrible feelings of chronic procrastination, we may simply feel that going into a shame spiral is a fitting punishment for being a useless, procrastinating loser failure. As though negative self-talk or self-punishment ever actually helped to accomplish anything or meet deadlines?
Isn’t the point to get something done? A specific thing? Add “insult myself” to the list for later, because doing it now is actively interfering with the stated goal.
The main reason we procrastinate is that we don’t know what done feels like. We can dimly imagine the relief of getting out of this rut, this hell of our own making, this trap that we’ve thrown ourselves into. What we can’t imagine is the thought process or the course of action that actually led to the doing of the thing.
One thing that helps is to write out a list of everything you don’t know. Every question you have about the project, every place where you’re stuck, every piece of the job that frustrates or confuses you. Sometimes there is an answer. Sometimes, in the most interesting work, the answer is something you create on your own! Usually, clarifying the questions helps to make at least tentative steps toward a course of action.
Another thing that helps is to just get started. Tinker around the edges of the project in some way. Open a file folder. Write an outline. Draw a mind map. Try to figure out any two-minute steps that could be done without thinking too hard. Go through the motions and the stuck feeling can start to dissolve.
Fighting procrastination is a skill that can be learned. It is possible to get rid of this tendency. It is possible to learn enough skills in project planning and time management so that it quits being a problem. The dread of putting off something important always feels so much worse than actually doing the work. Just get started.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.