I’m on the platform, sweaty and out of breath. I just missed my connection. My phone isn’t picking up a signal. There’s no printed schedule down here. All I can do is wait. I’m not doing anything productive. I can’t leave because there’s somewhere specific I’m trying to go. I’m not making any progress toward my destination, though. I know it’s possible to get there; I just watched loads of other people speeding off in that direction. Something happened and I wasn’t able to get on board with them. Now all I can do is torture myself with thoughts of how late I’m going to be. I just wish I knew how long I’ll have to wait. Time seems to have no meaning here.
This is the feeling of procrastination. It’s a haunted, stressful place. We’re stuck in limbo. We can’t make ourselves do what we’re supposed to be doing, but we can’t enjoy ourselves by doing anything else, either. There is nothing but looming dread, guilt, anxiety, and negative self-talk. It’s gray and dimly lit. It’s a prison of our own creation.
We believe that we could do what needed to be done if only we were motivated or in the mood. What we’re looking for is a flow state. We’re capable of working for long stretches, and even losing track of time entirely. In fact, this often happens with the alternatives to work that we allow ourselves as diversions. We just don’t know how to turn on this flow state at will.
One of the ways to avoid finding ourselves at Procrastination Station is what I call bustling. We use physical momentum to carry ourselves from one activity to another. The important thing is to complete one task and move onto the next without stopping to think or make decisions. For instance, when I step into the shower, I wash my body in a particular order, dry off, comb out my hair, and put my clothes on. It’s called a routine for a reason. The more elements of the day we can make into an automatic routine, the more we can get done by bustling. I’ve made a continuous flow of routine tasks from grooming to exercise to housework to handling the day’s mail. Every day, I can get enough done to keep my life running smoothly, without entropy causing too many problems.
A lot of people procrastinate on small things, which can become chaotic in mere days. Laundry and dirty dishes and junk mail and dust never stop coming. It’s like turning your back on the ocean until the tide crashes into you. Chipping away at it a little every day is the easiest way to manage, if we can keep ourselves bustling. We just have to recognize that even though we find these chores unpleasant and irritating, they will become more so the longer they are put off. Do it now before it gets worse.
The rest of us procrastinate on big things. We may be impeccable in our surroundings, but lacking direction or initiative on more abstract missions. Starting a business, resolving a health issue, losing weight, getting fit, saving money, going back to school, traveling the world… The most commonly procrastinated tasks are not washing dishes or sorting junk mail, but rather planning for retirement and getting in shape. This is probably because it’s not obvious what to do. We don’t have enough information, we’re not sure whom to ask, and we don’t know where to start.
It’s possible that some of us procrastinate on the small stuff to disguise the fact that we’re really procrastinating on the big stuff. We dither around, making lists and sorting socks and reading articles about time management and getting organized, so we won’t have to face our fears about releasing our creative projects into the world, facing our own mortality, or failing and looking foolish. What are we displacing? What would we do the day after everything was crossed off the last to-do list?
We hate being beginners. We hate feeling awkward. We hate accepting critique and not getting an A+ on everything. We want to wait until we’re “ready.” Sometimes we hold back because we don’t want to be told that “I told you so.” What we do is stagnate. Today I do everything perfectly that was hard for me at 5 years old, like tying my own shoes and writing in cursive. I’m not satisfied being a perfect 5-year-old, though, or even a perfect 30-year-old. Being perfect means never changing or growing or learning anything new.
The only way out of Procrastination Station is to accept that there is nowhere where the clock stands still. We can’t hide from the passing of time. We acknowledge our anxiety. Yes, this is something I am resisting. No, I don’t feel like it right now. No, I don’t want to do it. I don’t know what to do next. I don’t know where to start. I’m going to get started anyway. I can break it down into smaller steps and make progress on something. I can do the hardest part first and slay the dragon. I can release myself from the ominous feeling of looming dread, and just finish it. I can give myself the gift of getting it over with and moving forward.
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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.