“Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task.” William James
Procrastinate: To defer action, delay; to be dilatory. Often with the sense of deferring through indecision, when early action would have been preferable. ~ OED
This isn’t going to be one of those “I have conquered my faults and now do everything I set out to do in the order in which I should do it” kind of posts. I still procrastinate. Am dilatory. Dawdle. Defer. Drag my feet. Hesitate. Let slide. Linger. Loiter. Play the waiting game. Postpone. Prolong. Protract. Stall. Tarry. And, my favorite, shilly shally.
But I no longer think of myself as a procrastinator.
Why? Because I’ve learned that thinking of myself as a procrastinator doesn’t help me to get things done, a realization supported by the work of psychologist and procrastination expert Dr. Timothy Pychyl:
“[T]he most recent paper we’ve got out for review is about forgiveness. And in fact, it plays in women’s favor. We found a gender difference here, that women who self-forgive, who forgive themselves for procrastinating, are more likely to procrastinate less in the same task the next time. And the rationale there is that when you don’t forgive, there’s a lot of negative emotions associated with that, so you want to avoid it. But if you forgive yourself and then you get a second chance. So absolutely, self-forgiveness, particularly for women, seems to make a difference.” ~ Read more or listen to the podcast, How To Be a Productive Procrastinator, on NRP
As is often the case, dealing with procrastination comes down in part to paying attention to my feelings. Asking myself the question “How do I want to feel tomorrow?” is a good way for me to know whether what I am putting off really should be done now, or if it’s not that big a deal. I will feel bad tomorrow if I don’t work on a short story today that I want to submit by the end of the month. I really won’t lose any sleep over not dusting the tops of the door frames.
Also, I’m noticing that I procrastinate for different reasons, depending on the task. Emails often go unanswered because of perfectionism: I think I should write a long, thoughtful, grammatically perfect response when the other person would probably be happier with a shorter, imperfect reply that at least gets sent. For larger tasks, I often delay simply because I haven’t figured out or taken the time for the very first step: gathering notes for an article in a folder, downloading photos into one file on my computer for sorting, or putting the ironing board and iron in a room where they are easy to use. An object at rest…
This advice from Psychology Today’s Ten Top Tips to End Writer’s Block Procrastination rings true for me and frames the problem more as a simple skill to be learned rather than a character flaw to bemoan:
Decide when to start, and commit to that time. You won’t get far unless you start. That’s obvious. State the “obvious” to yourself and this can help put the matter into perspective. Before that, commit five-minutes to create a plan: What you do first, second, third, and so forth. Include a schedule where you carve out time for each phase of your self-management writing plan. By pushing yourself to start on time, you may avoid the last minute rush and stresses that typically come at the end of a procrastination cycle.
[G]iven that procrastination carries the stigma of sloth and disorganization, it may seem uncharitable to ascribe the dithering disease to the blocked but feverishly ambitious writer—surely, if he weren’t truly stuck, he wouldn’t be finding new Facebook groups to join instead of composing his chef-d’oeuvre? On the other hand, creative-writing instructors often start class with a five-minute automatic-writing exercise for a good reason: There is always something to be written.
Finally, I’ve found it useful to think about times and activities for which I don’t dawdle, and ask myself why. I shop for groceries on time, every week because it’s something my husband and I do together on Sundays (habit and routine). I get the oil changed in our car every four months because the dealership puts a date and mileage sticker on our windshield (written reminders). I more or less keep up with blog posts because I don’t want to be seen as, well, a procrastinator (accountability).
Like Anne Greenawalt at Wow-WomenOnWriting.com, my top procrastination activity is often social media, and I’m still learning to tell when I am using social media as a professional tool (good), as a way to connect with others in a very real way (also good), as a way to relax (still good), or as a way to shilly shally (not so good).
How would your writing or your self-concept change if you stopped labeling yourself a procrastinator?
- Timothy A. Pychyl’s Don’t Delay Column (Psychology Today)
- How To Be a Productive Procrastinator (NPR Podcast and transcript)
- The Danger of Deep Procrastination (by Cal Newport of Study Hacks)
- Top Five Methods of Procrastination (WOW-WomenOnWriting.com)
- California Polytechnic State University’s Procrastination Page
- Procrastination: Ten Things To Know (from Psychology Today)
- Are You a Procrastinator or an Incubator? (from CNN)
Note: This post is updated from a version first published in here in 2011.