I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by. – Douglas Adams
This post was actually written last August. I kept putting off posting it and now some of its content is out of date.
Ah, there did you catch that? Digression, the little sister of procrastination. I started this blog with the intention of exploring what it means to procrastinate – so many writers admit to this – and yet the first thing I do is start talking about something else. It’s noteworthy that one of the first things I started writing about here was my dad. This is what Psychology Today had to say about dads:
Procrastinators are made not born. Procrastination is learned in the family milieu, but not directly. It is one response to an authoritarian parenting style. Having a harsh, controlling father keeps children from developing the ability to regulate themselves, from internalizing their own intentions and then learning to act on them.
But elsewhere it suggests that procrastination is actually is due to a problem with our hard wiring. The article lists five ‘quirks’ – here are the first three:
Quirk 1: The brain is built to firstly minimise danger, before maximizing rewards.
- Procrastination Effect: We avoid tasks that threaten the self, and we discount future rewards in favour of immediate gratification.
Quirk 2: Too much uncertainty feels dangerous. It feels like possible pain so we avoid it.
- Procrastination Effect: Uncertainty — not knowing what to do next — is scary. Delaying a task becomes a way of coping with or avoiding that fear.
Quirk 3: Our conscious processing capacity is small, which makes us terrible at a lot of things, including predicting what might make us happy.
- Procrastination Effect: It’s difficult for us to set realistic goals — or stick to them.
So, nature or nurture or a bit of both? I’d go with a bit of both personally.
Procrastinate is an interesting word because unlike other verbs it’s hard to describe. I can tell you to stand up just now – assuming that you’re seated – and you know exactly what to do. The same goes for sitting down. But if I told you to procrastinate what would you do? ‘Procrastination’ is one of those abstract nouns, like ‘love’ or ‘inspiration’ that we think we understand and yet can’t quite put our finger on and so I guess that would make ‘procrastinate’ an abstract verb like ‘involve’ or ‘oblige.’ It’s not a simple doing word and yet procrastination is such an easy thing to do.
Procrastination is putting off doing something often by doing something else instead so it’s not as simple as doing nothing. I didn’t procrastinate before beginning to write this. I had the idea a couple of days ago and decided that the next blog I would write after I’d finished the book review I was working on would be one where I learned a bit more about why we procrastinate and so for the past couple of days I’ve done nothing except try and remember what I intended to do when the time came to write my next blog. The time came and, after practically no thought whatsoever I wrote my opening sentence and I’ve hardly stopped since except to look up ‘abstract verb’ to make sure I wasn’t using it incorrectly which I haven’t although my explanation is a bit simplistic.
(Sorry, I just had to check my e-mail, then read my e-mail, click on a hyperlink, scan a blog, decide to subscribe to it, actually subscribe to it, delete the read e-mails and now I’m back with you.)
- Complicated-task anxiety
- Not in the right mood
- Insufficient time to complete the whole task
- Overestimating the time left to complete a task
- Fear of imperfection
- Fear of failure
- Fear of success
- Priority confusion
- Boredom from minutiae
- Lack of focus
- Lack of belief
- Poor organizational skills
- Lack of technical skills
- Lack of energy
- Ill health
- Early morning lag
- Post-lunch fatigue
- Overreliance on external factors
The ticks indicate all the ones that apply to me. So I could be worse.
(Sorry. Had to go tuck my wife in for her nap, check my office PC and get a wine gum. No new e-mails.)
The list is just in any old order but I’ve underlined the three that I think I’m most guilty of, the ones that really cripple me. You see for most of the time procrastination is a nuisance, nothing more and how susceptible I am to it varies radically. When it’s at its worst it’s every bit as debilitating as my depression but as I’ve proven time and time again you can write when depressed and write well.
(Sorry. Just had to unzip a file on the other laptop, have a pee and make a coffee.)
Wikipedia lists two types of procrastinator:
- The relaxed type of procrastinators view their responsibilities negatively and avoid them by directing energy into other tasks.
- The tense-afraid type of procrastinators usually feel overwhelmed with pressure, unrealistic about time, uncertain about goals, and many other negative feelings.
I am without a doubt the latter. Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University, however, uses these terms:
- Arousal procrastinators seek the excitement and pumping stress hormones of having to finish everything under duress.
- Avoidance procrastinators make their work the measure of their self-worth and so end up putting it off out of fear.
Again I would say I’m the latter. I won’t say I can’t work under pressure but I prefer not to which is why I write my post so far in advance so as not to be under any pressure. (As of today by the way I have 24 posts in hand. Added together that’s longer than my longest novel.)
(Sorry. Just had to go and clean my glasses. And take a couple of paracetamol. Then I had to reboot my computer to finish installing McAfee so I gave my face a wash while that was going on. Remembered I wanted to see where I knew Angela Thorne from so looked her up in IMDB. Installed a Java update. It was To the Manor Born in case you were wondering.)
How many things do you have to do right this minute? You may well have set time aside to read this post but what are you not doing that really needs doing? I could be working on my novel just now. I could be doing the dishes. I could change the paper in the bottom of the bird’s cage. I could read some more of the book I need to review next. I could go for a walk. God knows I need the exercise. I could fix the doors on the cupboard in the kitchen. If I decided to stop right now and do any one of those things could you accuse me of procrastinating? They all need doing. The reason I’m doing this just now is that I feel like it. I can clean out the bird’s cage any time. How much messier will it get if I leave it till tomorrow or even next week? Writing is affected by one’s moods. That doesn’t mean we let our moods dictate what we write but at the same time when one recognises that the mood is right it would be foolish to waste that energy on something that you could do with your eyes shut.
(Sorry. Just checked my RSS feeds. Marked all read bar one which looks interesting and I’ll check it later.)
The philosopher John Perry has an interesting site. It’s called Structured Procrastination on which he explains what he means by the term:
I have been intending to write this essay for months. Why am I finally doing it? Because I finally found some uncommitted time? Wrong. I have papers to grade, textbook orders to fill out, an NSF proposal to referee, dissertation drafts to read. I am working on this essay as a way of not doing all of those things. This is the essence of what I call structured procrastination, an amazing strategy I have discovered that converts procrastinators into effective human beings, respected and admired for all that they can accomplish and the good use they make of time.
I always thought God wasted an opportunity with the Ten Commandments. He could have compacted the five about him into one and that would have given him four more to play with and if that had been me that I would definitely have included:
Thou shalt not waste time
Seriously. Time is the most valuable commodity on the planet. You should want to make your time count and do important stuff. That’s why I resent sleep. It takes up so much time and I always feel like crap when I wake up so what is the point I ask you?
A job’s not worth doing if you’re not going to do it right. Not sure when I first heard that. It’s not exactly a credo for the perfectionist but it’s heading in the right direction. A perfectionist is not a perfect person and yet for some inexplicable reason they expect to be able to produce perfect things and get annoyed with themselves when they can’t. It took me a long time to modify my understanding of what perfection actually is: that there are two kinds of perfection, absolute and relative. It was my dad that explained it to me by emphasising the expression “perfect for the job” – water is perfect for rehydration, a screw driver is perfect for extracting a screw from a piece of wood unless the screw is damaged in some way then a chisel would be perfect.
Was that last sentence a perfect sentence? Did you get my point? Perfick! As Pop Larkin used to say.
I don’t use the word ‘perfect’ much when I think about my writing. I use the word ‘right.’ I read over what I’ve written and I fiddle with it until is sounds right. Sometimes it never sounds right. I’ve never been completely happy with the first sentence to Living with the Truth but what I settled on works well enough. It’s not absolutely perfect but it’s perfect enough.
(Sorry. Needed to stretch my legs. Rebooted my office PC, used the toilet, woke up Carrie, made coffee, refilled my container with paracetamol, ate a kiwi fruit with some ice cream and did the dishes.)
Aristotle considered a concrete house more prefect than the idea of a novel. Only a real house can contribute to our organic and psychological survival. But it can’t do that until it is built. Once constructed it may well not be the perfect example of a house but until it is built that assessment cannot be made. It may be that the house is an excellent house in that it exceeds the quality of the surrounding houses but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be a perfect house until it is inhabited. Only the inhabitant(s) can make that assessment. A single man might say that the house is perfect for him whereas a family might feel it needs more cupboard space. Context determines whether or not anything can be described as perfect.
So is fear that my next novel is not going to be perfect a reason to procrastinate over writing it? Of course it is! Not that procrastinators generally need reasons, excuses work just as well.
What’s the difference between preparation and procrastination? Sometimes it can be hard to tell. You want to be comfortable writing although not so comfortable you doze off so a cup of coffee, some nice music and . . . seriously how much preparation do you need? As soon as you start dithering you need to ask yourself one very simple question: Do I want to write this thing or not? If you can’t say, “Yes!” to that then why are you there? Go and tick something else off your to-do list. Go and change the birdcage at least. What if the question was: Do I need to write this thing? As far as creative writing goes if you cannot answer, “Yes!” to that question you’re on a hiding to nothing anyway. I don’t need to write this blog. I need to write something to keep up with my self-imposed schedule but I don’t need to write about procrastination.
I don’t need to write my novel either. The sky won’t fall in if I don’t. I need to vacuum the living room carpet more than I need to write a novel and I think one of the main reasons I’ve not finished my current novel up until now is that I’ve neither wanted to nor needed to. Everything else was just pussyfooting around that issue.
Okay, so it’s not that simple. They say that where there’s will there’s a way. Up to a point it’s true. If you want something badly enough you’ll do your damndest to make it happen. But that’s not enough. We all have limitations and need to work within them. That’s part of what it means to be imperfect. The trick is to find the edges of those limitations and keep leaning on them to see how far you can shove them out.
If at first you don’t succeed try, try and try again. Another platitude. But one that procrastinators like me need to heed. I read about writers doing draft after draft of their novels, literally writing them over and over again until they get it right. I read about Joyce Carol Oates writing two novels by hand and then chucking them straight in the bin. Time is precious – we agreed on that at the start of this article – and so was the time wasted? The simple answer is that there are a great many things that we are going to fail at in this life before we succeed at them so why the hell don’t we just get on and get the failing out of the road so we can find our way to the successes at the end? I’m already on the fifth draft of my current book. That fact alone is killing me and it’s also putting me off. The other books were, by comparison, strolls in the park. Is it wrong to expect this current book to be the same? Er, yes, because it’s its own thing and not writing it is only putting off the inevitable.
But what is the inevitable? It’s not as if it’s written in stone or anything. I won’t know until I get there. It may be that I’ve bitten off more than I can chew with this book and haven’t grown as much as a writer as I’d like to think I have. That doesn’t mean I might not be capable of finishing it in ten years time. Am I wasting precious time by not so much procrastinating but denying that the work is beyond me? Not sure yet but haven’t any better idea yet. If I had I’d go off and write that.
(Sorry. Back’s killing me. Need to get up. Put the dishes by and decided to play ‘Snake’ in the office. 2350 words written. Not bad for an afternoon’s work.)
Do I believe in my novel? Yes. Do I think it has something important to say? Yes. That’s why I’ve not quit thinking about it for three years. Am I afraid that what I’ll end up writing might not be what’s in my head? Yes. Would that be a bad thing? Don’t know.
Many famous and successful novelists have been procrastinators. Harold Robbins, is described in Another Life by Michael Korda as having to be watched over (on occasion, under literal lock and key) before he would finish a novel.
Douglas Adams did everything humanly possible to avoid the daily drudgery of plonking down at his desk and pounding out his novel The Salmon of Doubt. The eccentric British writer soaked for hours in the bathtub, lollygagged away entire days in bed and dreamed up ever more fanciful excuses for his exasperated editor. When he died in 2001, he had spent a decade on the book without even a complete first draft to show for it.
Procrastination works. That’s the sad thing about it. It’s a symptom of imperfection. Imperfect people are prone to being selfish and that’s what procrastinators are, selfish and self-indulgent. But there are cures available. Like any other disorder what works for one will not work for someone else. Some people find it helps to tell people what they’re doing so that they’re faced with having to feel publicly guilty if they fail. I actually find that makes things worse for me. For me it’s looking at the importance we place on things. Just because #1 on my to-do list is: Finish novel doesn’t mean that that’s necessarily the most important thing in my life. It does mean that it’s been outstanding longer than most of the other things on the list. I’ve just had to acknowledge that finishing that novel was not important enough for me to actually do it. There pressure off. Now I can apply myself wholeheartedly to something that matters and not feel that I should be doing something else. So I’m not writing my novel. At least I’m writing. THAT is the most important thing.
The real solution to procrastination is to change the way you think about it. If you think of it as a bad habit then it becomes something that you can quit. But just like a smoker or a drinker the urge will never leave. My name is Jim and I’m a procrastinator.
Addiction and compulsion are about escaping the present moment – not being present in your life, not experiencing the reality of your life. People procrastinate as a way to not be present in their lives because they have addictive personalities, and this is the particular form their addiction takes.
Note: Procrastinators do not have a problem with time management. They have a problem with compulsive avoidance.
It lists the following 10 warning signs:
- Disappointment is a way of life. We constantly disappoint other people and ourselves by not keeping our promises.
- We have enormous difficulty getting started on new projects, or transitioning from one project to another.
- We have a very poor sense of time, chronically underestimating or overestimating how long a task will take us to complete.
- We have difficulty organizing projects by breaking them down into steps; we don't know where to start, even when we're willing to start.
- We are surrounded by clutter and disorganization in our homes and work spaces.
- We are regularly late for appointments.
- We are acutely aware of what we should be doing, or think we should be doing, and oddly out of touch with what we actually want and need.
- We feel uncomfortable saying "no" to requests from others, and instead express our resentment through the passive resistance of procrastination.
- We suffer from Demand Resistance, causing us to do anything and everything except the one thing we most need to do.
- We are short-term thinkers, focusing on short-term pleasure while ignoring long-term well-being.
There are no PA meetings. This is an almost exclusively online 12-step programme for procrastinators. They even have a song.
Is there are real cure though or is it simply a matter of managing the condition?
All you have to do to beat procrastination, according to Michael Wohl, a psychology professor at Carleton University in Canada, is forgive yourself for it:
Wohl and colleagues have proposed a rather surprising cure – self-forgiveness. That’s right, forgive yourself for you have procrastinated, move on, get over it and you’ll be more likely to get stuck in next time around.
Wohl and his colleagues followed 134 students through two rounds of mid-term testing, asking each student to report how much they procrastinated when studying for the first round and how bad they felt about it in the period between the exams. The researchers then looked at how much the students procrastinated on their second exams and how well they performed on them. The results?
The key finding was that students who’d forgiven themselves for their initial bout of procrastination subsequently showed less negative affect in the intermediate period between exams and were less likely to procrastinate before the second round of exams. Crucially, self-forgiveness wasn’t related to performance in the first set of exams but it did predict better performance in the second set.
That procrastination is a real and a growing problem is obvious when you type ‘procrastination’ into Google. And there are plenty of posts out there listed the x number of reasons and the y number of cures. Once you’ve waded through them there are a few sites that treat the subject a little more seriously and I’ve listed them at the end.
(And, yes, I did write that last section in one sitting. Neck killing me. Back killing me. Need to go and watch TV for the rest of the night. 3683 words. Not bad for a day’s work.)
Slate (special issue on procrastination)