February 26, 2013

Procrastination Is Not Laziness

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I was going to tackle my procrastination problem last weekend but I never got around to it.

By Sunday at 5:48 p.m. I realized I had blown it again. Throughout the week I feel like I barely have enough time to cook, eat, tidy up, write an article and do the odd errand. I lean towards the weekend, when I have two whole days to finally get some work done. To improve my blog, to catch up on my correspondence, to get some monkeys off my back like fixing things that need fixing, organizing things that need organizing, tackling things that need tackling.

But the weekends go by and I never catch up. I don’t use the time well. Time is not what I’m short on, even though that’s what I tell myself all week.

Sometimes I do sit down early in the day and pound something out, but then I give myself a well-deserved break and that’s usually the end of any productivity. I end up clicking around on the internet, then clean up, then cook something, then watch a bit of a documentary online, then try to work again, then get distracted. Then I decide to wait until after supper to do some work, then I start reading something after supper, then if I’m still home, it’s already after 9:00 so I decide I’ll get an early start the next day.

I avoid taking on the real important stuff. I create work of secondary importance so that I never have to confront the really worthwhile things. When I get on a roll, I back off and stay backed off. I take breaks that turn into written-off days. I am addicted to hanging it up for the night, to letting myself off the hook.

The important stuff doesn’t get done, at least not before my procrastinatory tendencies have created an obvious, impending consequence of not doing it, like incurring a fine, really letting someone down, or getting fired.

So much of what I want to do isn’t terribly difficult and wouldn’t take a lot of time to get done. Looking at my projects list now I have items like: book an appointment for X, send in that change of address form, phone so-and-so about Y, write a short piece for Z. And many of them have been sitting there for weeks or months. I have the most bizarre aversion to tackling things.

Reaching critical levels

To some of you this is already sounding familiar.

I have lived with this sort of “productivity lag” most of my life, but it only recently hit me that it’s not just run-of-the-mill human busyness. Some alarming patterns have emerged in the past few months. I’ve been feeling chronic stress for the first time in years. I have been waking up angry on a fairly regular basis, and that’s not okay.

After a bit of poking around at the library, it’s become clear to me that I have a pretty serious procrastination issue. I also learned that procrastination is not caused by laziness or disorganization, but by deeper psychological issues, which I’ll touch on a bit later in this post.

As I said, it’s always been a feature of my life but it’s reached a critical point this year. The catalyst has been a change in my job. At the end of January I was dropped into a new role that I neither like nor feel prepared for. My protests were met with, “You’ll figure it out as you go along, it’s like this for everyone at first.” I have since worked it through, mostly, but not before it set off a pretty bad stress cycle that brought some ugly stuff to the surface.

Honestly, it probably would have been a much easier adjustment for most people to make than it has been for me, but my initial uncertainty combined in very ugly ways with my lifelong phobias of asking for help, admitting ignorance, and talking to people I don’t know on the phone. Paralysis set in. Stress, which has been a mostly-dormant force in my life for the last five years or so, became prominent again.

Once you lose track of the specific items that are causing you stress, you tend to regard it all as one big ugly entity that you want to avoid. My unaddressed duties and grey areas at work became mixed with my unaddressed duties and grey areas outside of work, to create a stifling mutant stressor that only leaves me alone while I’m sleeping. All the work I’ve done towards learning to effect the quality of the day can be easily short-circuited by my procrastination habit, and that’s what’s happening right now. It’s gone way too far and I am determined to address the bad habits that let it get this way.

My last few experiments have created huge changes in the way I operate and the environment I live in. Well I’m doing a bigger one this time. I’m taking on a problem that has probably taken more from me than any other behavior. I’ve lost so many opportunities, relationships, advantages, sources of income and growth. There is certainly nothing that has caused more suffering in my life than my propensity to avoid achievement or competition.

For what I’m capable of, I have been a resoundingly unproductive person. Almost every Sunday night I mourn another blown opportunity to catch up, and throughout every week I am leaning towards the next weekend. The weeks fly by, and if weeks are flying by, so are months. How we spend our days is how we spend our lives, and I’ve had enough of this.

Monday I’ll formally announce Experiment No. 11. While preparing for it I did some research on where procrastination comes from, which was frankly quite alarming to me and shed a sorely-needed light on why I have had such confounding, persistent trouble with getting ordinary things done. This post is quite a bit longer than usual but if you’ve had similar trouble, it might just shake loose something that’s been stuck for a very long time.

The real causes of procrastination

Let’s clear something up: I am not lazy. I have no shortage of energy, I have no interest in lounging on the couch, I don’t have TV service, I never wear pyjamas all day. Waking up after 7:30 is sleeping in for me, even on a Saturday. I actually like working.

Yet I exhibit a consistent failure to work through my day-to-day tasks, errands and projects in any manner than could be considered timely. Nearly everything must reach some sort of “scary point” for me to finally move on it. Like when I waited till the last possible day to submit my lease renewal, having had three months of lead time. In the end it took about fifteen minutes, but evidently I needed to be a day away from losing my home in order to do it.

I ended up reading one of the more highly-acclaimed books on procrastination, Neil Fiore’s The Now Habit. Reading the section on the psychological causes of procrastination really hit home.

It turns out procrastination is not typically a function of laziness, apathy or work ethic as it is often regarded to be. It’s a neurotic self-defense behavior that develops to protect a person’s sense of self-worth.

You see, procrastinators tend to be people who have, for whatever reason, developed to perceive an unusually strong association between their performance and their value as a person. This makes failure or criticism disproportionately painful, which leads naturally to hesitancy when it comes to the prospect of doing anything that reflects their ability — which is pretty much everything.

But in real life, you can’t avoid doing things. We have to earn a living, do our taxes, have difficult conversations sometimes. Human life requires confronting uncertainty and risk, so pressure mounts. Procrastination gives a person a temporary hit of relief from this pressure of “having to do” things, which is a self-rewarding behavior. So it continues and becomes the normal way to respond to these pressures.

Particularly prone to serious procrastination problems are children who grew up with unusually high expectations placed on them. Their older siblings may have been high achievers, leaving big shoes to fill, or their parents may have had neurotic and inhuman expectations of their own, or else they exhibited exceptional talents early on, and thereafter “average” performances were met with concern and suspicion from parents and teachers.

This was the part that made my heart sink when I read it. Not that anybody was trying to make things difficult for me, but I grew up feeling high expectations from the adults in my life and myself. For most of my schooling, I was always in advanced programs, always aced everything, and when I got anything less than an A, people asked me what was wrong.

I also noticed other kids didn’t get this treatment. They were congratulated for getting B’s and even C’s. So from the feedback I got, I learned that a report card (of mine) with five A’s and a B was indicative of a shortcoming somewhere, not success. I’ve written about this before so I won’t get into it here, but suffice it to say that I learned that the downsides of being imperfect are far greater than the upsides of being perfect.

Perfectionism breeds pessimism

It was a major revelation to me when I recognized a year ago that despite my preference for and sensitivity to the positive aspects of life, I am a pessimist — I have come to give potential downsides far more weight than potential upsides. This means that pushing projects ahead is — on the balance — a bad deal, because unless I’m pretty damn perfect there is much more pain to be had in doing that than pleasure.

This is obviously an inaccurate presumption, and I’m intellectually aware of that, but when it comes down to confronting it “in the field” it’s amazing how tricky the mind can be. I have a lifetime of habits routing me away from striving for prizes in life, and towards protecting myself.

For a procrastinator of my kind, perfection (or something negligibly close to it) thereby becomes the only result that allows one to be comfortable with himself. A procrastinator becomes disproportionately motivated by the pain of failure. So when you consider taking anything on, the promise of praise or benefit from doing something right are overshadowed by the (disproportionately greater) threat of getting something wrong. Growing up under such high expectations, people learn to associate imperfection or criticism with outright failure, and failure with personal inadequacy.

A person who does not have this neurosis might wish they didn’t make a mistake, whereas the neurotic procrastinator perceives the error as being a reflection of their character. In other words, most people suffer mainly the practical consequences of mistakes (such as finishing with a lower grade, or having to redo something) with only minor self-esteem implications, while neurotic procrastinators perceive every mistake they make as being a flaw in them.

So what they are motivated to do is to avoid finishing anything, because to complete and submit work is subject yourself (not just your work) to scrutiny. To move forward with any task is to subject yourself to risks that appear to the subconscious to be positively deadly because part of you is convinced that it is you that is at stake, not just your time, resources, patience, options or other secondary considerations. To the fear centre of your brain, by acting without guarantees of success (and there are none) you really are facing annihilation.

A backlog of avoided tasks accumulates, and each one represents another series of threats to your self-worth should you tackle them. So the fear mounts, knowing that there is a minefield of threats between you and the fulfillment of your responsibilities. You feel like you must do something and can’t do that thing simultaneously, which can only lead to a burning resentment of the people or forces that put you in that impossible place — your employer, your society, or yourself. A victim mentality emerges.

Because it is rewarding on the short term, procrastination eventually takes on the form of an addiction to the temporary relief from these deep-rooted fears. Procrastinators get an extremely gratifying “hit” whenever they decide to let themselves off the hook for the rest of the day, only to wake up to a more tightly squeezed day with even less confidence.

Once a pattern of procrastination is established, it can be perpetuated for reasons other than the fear of failure. For example, if you know you have a track record of taking weeks to finally do something that might only take two hours if you weren’t averse to it, you begin to see every non-simple task as a potentially endless struggle. So a modest list of 10-12 medium-complexity to-do’s might represent to you an insurmountable amount of work, so it feels hopeless just to start one little part of one task. This hones a hair-trigger overwhelm response, and life gets really difficult really easily.

All I want

As I mentioned, on Monday I will begin Experiment 11, which is direct attack on my procrastination problem. I’ll give you the details then about how I’m going to go about it.

All my experiments must have a clear aim. “Dealing with my procrastination problem” is too vague a goal here. I have to define what specific change I want to make.

What I want to get out of it is very simple. I want to be able to do something many (most?) people do every day, and would never consider it a problem:

I want to write down what I’m going to do the next day, and actually do it.

I am really good at the first half of that. Planning is something I do very well. I have planned the next day (or week) thousands of times. I’ve taped it to my door or bathroom mirror. I’ve set alarms, made promises, left trails of instructional sticky notes all through my apartment. But I am not sure if I’ve ever executed one of these plans all the way through. Honestly, in my 30 years I cannot think of one time I ever did. I will do anything but the 5 to 10 items I thought would be smart ones to do.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why I’ll do anything but what I planned, but it’s not that they’re necessarily difficult tasks. Sometimes they’re so easy that I don’t feel any urge to do them right away, and therefore can justifiably do something even easier, like check my email, watch online documentaries, or try a new recipe.

My adversary is the unconscious reactive part of my mind, and by now it’s a world-class expert at manipulating me. It’s like being a prison guard for Hannibal Lecter. Sure he’s locked up, but he’s Hannibal Lecter.

So that’s my simple, humble dream in life: to list a few things I’d like to get done and go ahead and do them. I could take over the world, if I could only learn to do that.

Do you have a problem with procrastination? Is it a career for you, or just a part-time hobby? TC Mark

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David Cain

I’m David and my blog, Raptitude, is a street-level look at the human experience — what makes human beings do what …

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