Procrastination means worry. There are all kinds of things I could be doing today that are irrelevant to my interests. I could be learning to play the tuba; I’d make new friends and have an exciting new way to troll people who annoy me. It’s not on my agenda though. If I wanted to learn both guitar and piano, and I chose guitar, would I then be procrastinating on playing piano? No. Almost every possible activity, conversation, or consumer item is irrelevant to my life in this moment. The only way I can have a meaningful or happy life is to consciously set intentions, choose specific acts, and focus on one purpose at a time. This is where it can help to distinguish rational and irrational procrastination.
Economists can’t account for procrastination. Why do it? (In some cultures, people don’t really procrastinate, just as some cultures don’t have clutter problems). If I’ve decided that a particular action is the most valuable way to spend my time and the most important thing I could be doing, why on earth would I not do it? There are two reasons. 1. Anxiety and 2. Discounting. In the first case, we are paralyzed. We feel uncertain about what to do or what might happen, and the longer we remain in indecision, the more fraught the act becomes with potential unanticipated ramifications. In the second case, we miscalculate how valuable an action would be, how much effort might be involved, or how long it will take us to complete the action. We weigh what we’re doing right now against the benefit of doing the Most Important Thing, and we decide we’re better off saving That Thing for later. When we’re wrong, it’s a result of inaccurate discounting. We guessed wrong. Our estimates were off.
I procrastinated on something stupid once. I tell this story all the time because it still mystifies me. What on earth was I thinking? I had a weird problem with this constant tickle in my throat. I couldn’t speak when I lay on my back. My chiropractor told me that my thyroid gland was visibly enlarged and I needed to see a doctor right away. I had just had my annual physical two months before, but I went back. My doctor diagnosed a goiter and said it hadn’t been there at my previous appointment. Whatever it was, it was moving fast, and I needed to see an endocrinologist. She told me I needed to get it scanned, which I did, though swallowing radioactive iodine is not a cheerful thing to do. The scan came back with a scary nodule that could well be cancerous. Next step: biopsy. Needle biopsy.
What did I do? I went to the public library and read two books on the thyroid, cover to cover. I finally made the biopsy appointment 14 months later.
As it turns out, people do this kind of stupid thing all the time. Anyone in the health profession will tell you that patient compliance is one of the toughest clinical issues. We don’t fill our prescriptions, we don’t take our medications as directed, we don’t change our dressings, we don’t do our physical therapy, we don’t come to appointments, we use limbs we were ordered to rest, and we certainly, certainly don’t make the lifestyle changes that could save our lives or keep us out of the surgical theater. Probably our feeble human brains (speaking for myself here) aren’t fully capable of understanding future threats in the same way we might understand the attack of a predator. I’m convinced that a certain portion of us (again speaking for myself) would stand stock-still and scream rather than take any evasive action, even in that primal scenario.
Taking care of our health and saving for retirement are the two most commonly procrastinated acts. We just don’t identify with Future Self. We have trouble imagining Future Self: Tomorrow, much less Future Self: Next Year or Future Self: Age 73. It seems more rational to worry about Present Self: Wants Cookie while trying to deal with Past Self’s mess of postponed chores and unpaid bills. Gee, Past Self, thanks for the dirty sink, you lazy slob.
This is where clutter intersects with procrastination. It’s perfectly rational to put aside unimportant things in favor of more urgent concerns. Sorting junk mail should not be a thing in the first place. Why is it opt-out instead of opt-in? (Answer: lobbyists). Maybe we will need that stuff later. Discounting comes in when we don’t realize how much it costs us to maintain a storage unit, or the fact that it takes 40% more work to clean a cluttered house. I used to have a storage unit, and I no longer own a single item that I paid to store. Even at $20 a month for several years, I could have flown to Paris for a week. There are 168 hours in a week, and I know I’ve spent that long sorting, stacking, and searching through all that clutter. Yeah, so, instead of the week in Paris I sat around sorting old junk I paid to store. Fun.
One day I decided that I didn’t want my story to be about chronic procrastination. Around 20% of us fall into this category. We run around with unfinished projects, unsorted clutter, calls we don’t want to make, email we don’t want to read, mail we don’t want to open, gifts and cards we haven’t sent, and invitations to events we don’t want to attend. We can’t take any time for strategic thinking because we’re continually preoccupied. We feel like failures. We feel like losers. We’re always late and leaking papers. I wanted to be the opposite of whatever I was.
What’s the opposite of ‘loser’? It turns out there are infinite varieties of success. I chose health and became an athlete. I chose love and became a wife. I chose minimalism and got organized. I chose a profession and became a writer. I still struggle so much with punctuality that I simply arranged my life in a way that rarely requires me to be in a specific place at a specific time. If you want to be my friend, drop by any time, but let’s not make it about a designated individual minute. Far be it from me to stress you out. Like I said, I’m still working on it. I need to choose contributions I know are within my capabilities. Anything else is either a stretch goal or a non-starter.
This is where rational procrastination comes in. I’m learning that everything works better when I focus on doing only one thing at a time. When I went back to school and finished my degree, that was what I did. I lived in a different city and I missed a lot of family gatherings, parties, and events. When I decided to get fit, that was what I did. I went to the gym at least five days a week, often for 90 minutes at a time, although I didn’t miss much because I read the same books on the elliptical that I would have read on my couch. When I decided to lose weight, I let go of the idea that it was going to happen through exercise (because it doesn’t), and for three depressing months I “missed” a lot of “treats” and snacks. When I chose minimalism, I spent a lot of time sorting and discarding stuff and missed a lot of leisure activities. I closed the loop. I got the degree and resumed an ordinary schedule. I reached my goal weight and raised the bar for my daily activity level. I created a streamlined space and more mental clarity. Each time, I derailed my routine for concentrated periods, emerging with a “new normal.” I put aside a lot of activities I would normally do, procrastinating on them until I finished something specific.
The key to minimalism is this rational procrastination. Almost every possibility is recognized as a distraction or non-starter. For instance, I have ideas for three different series of books. I can only write one at a time. I want to complete a triathlon, and that means swim, bike, run, in that order. If I want to train for that event, I have to choose all the other activities I won’t be doing all season. I prioritize longevity, and that includes earning and saving money as well as strengthening my body. Specific savings goals mean I have to choose not to buy an infinite amount of attractive things and experiences I might really, really desire. Not buying all the soda, cookies, frozen desserts, and snacks I used to use to keep myself fat has freed up a not insignificant amount I can save for the future. I let go of crafting, and that freed up space, time, and money. Instead of cross stitch, knitting, and crochet, I write, and I pay rent on a smaller house.
I procrastinate every day. Maybe I’ll get around to binge-watching TV one day, but not today. Maybe I’ll get around to playing Candy Crush or Angry Birds one day, but not today. Maybe I’ll find the secret to perfect hair one day, but not today. I’m curious about all these limited edition flavors of Oreos, and maybe I’ll taste them, but not today. I can put it off for tomorrow. I can read the comments tomorrow, I can argue about politics tomorrow, I can gossip tomorrow, I can complain tomorrow. Today, I’m going to do specific things. I’m going to put away my laundry. I already worked out and I already sorted my mail. Maybe if it’s still warm enough I’ll take my pets outside and sit on the porch. I’m going to floss my teeth. Anything I can think of that will set Future Self up with a better starting point, I’ll do that, today. Anything else can wait.
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.
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