I’m working on my procrastination tendencies, and something struck me. There are basically two types of procrastination: letting yourself down or letting other people down.
The most commonly procrastinated tasks are financial planning and dealing with health issues. Those come from a lack of urgency, because we can’t imagine Future Self. When we think of an older version of ourselves, the one who will be suffering the consequences of our delays, it lights up in our brains as “a stranger.” Old Me? I don’t know her.
Other than these Future Self types of problems, most of the things we procrastinate affect other people. In this light, suddenly procrastination is less about our to-do lists and more about how we show up for others.
It’s one thing to put off making a dentist appointment. It’s my mouth, after all. It’s another thing to put off doing something when someone else is counting on it.
Not returning calls, texts, voicemail, emails, skywriting, singing telegrams, or whatever is not a task, not in the way that filing taxes is a task. It’s a refusal to engage. It’s a missed connection, a ringing phone that is never picked up, to put things in 1980’s terms.
Maybe that’s the difference?
In the Eighties, most of our missed connections would literally be a ringing phone or a knock on the door. We spent time together face to face. This is hard to imagine, but kids would walk over to each other’s apartments, knock on the door, and ask whoever answered, “Can So-and-So come out to play?” We’d call each other’s homes and literally anyone in the family might answer, because the phone was an object that sat in the kitchen or living room.
Now, a huge amount of our communication is textual. Social media, text messages, email. It feels much colder and more removed. The expectation may be that we do *not* reach the other person directly, that the response will be time-delayed.
While this may work well for most people, for others (including me) I think it makes it feel more abstract. Just a few letters of the alphabet, probably on a piece of glass, rather than another human face and voice.
When we think of a task in the abstract, it’s easy to forget that our participation matters to someone. The act of setting a bowl in the kitchen sink, wandering away, and leaving it there feels like something other than “I hereby choose to proactively annoy my coworkers/roommates/spouse who have already told me that they hate having dirty dishes in the sink.”
Maybe sometimes that act is done specifically because it bothers other people? Maybe we don’t feel so much like “putting this in the dishwasher takes five seconds, I can do it faster than I can actually make the decision” but rather “I DO WHAT I WANT.”
Is what we do, or avoid doing, built around asserting our autonomy?
Personally I feel that my autonomy is a resolved state of affairs. There is no debate around whether I do what I want all the time or not. Putting my bowl in the dishwasher is a way of marking my territory, and it’s the same if I wash up after someone else. This is *my* kitchen and *I* make the rules in this room. Or, I clean up after myself in other people’s homes because I affirmatively build my reputation as a do-er and person of action. If people are going to gossip about me, I want it to be about something far more interesting than whether I am a lazy dish-leaver.
For me, physical tasks are the easiest.
I like mindless chores because I can knock them off while listening to a book. I am good at practical things like sewing buttons, assembling furniture kits, or adjusting the brakes on my bike. I do these things because they make good puzzles and I’m a physically restless person. Whether I’ve made someone else happy by doing these small jobs is mostly beside the point.
There, I fixed it!
Where I have more trouble is in communication chores. I tend to convince myself that I need to choose the perfect time to have a conversation with someone. I’m going to write that response when I can really concentrate and get the details right. The longer I delay, the more it turns into a big deal, which makes it feel like it needs even more bells and whistles.
If you are my friend and you haven’t heard from me in a year, it probably means I really like you!
It seems like maybe there are two sides to this coin. Maybe there are people who would have an easier time doing abstract chores, like taking out the trash, if they realized that it really matters to someone else. It could be a gift. Not “I am doing this annoying chore” but “So-and-So will be pleased if I do what I said I would do.”
On the other side of that same coin, maybe people like me (and are there any?) would have an easier time following through on communication if we saw it more as a task to get done. Maybe thinking of a pending call or message as a loose button or a dirty dish would make that crucial difference.
Usually when I finally get back to someone, all they wanted was to touch base and say Hi. It didn’t need to be a huge emotional breakthrough, just a one-minute “thinking of you.”
How weird would it be if my various casual friends and acquaintances knew it’s easier for me to do something like, I dunno, cleaning out a drain than it is to just say HI back?
All of this probably comes back to our tendencies, to how likely we are to meet internal vs external expectations. In my case, I know that I will do anything if I’ve decided it’s a good idea. What is it that I’m telling myself when I put off responding to text messages? How can I convince myself to see this type of communication as a simple, straightforward social task?
How about you? What type of procrastination are you prone to? Would it be easier for you to get it done with someone else to keep you company? Or are you more of a lone wolf?
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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