My dog’s requirement for medication to be taken thirty minutes before breakfast has given me the perfect opportunity for an early start with my procrastination.
As the wind and rain howl outside, I get up to make myself a cup of tea and return to bed with Daisy’s tablets where I stay for longer than the required half hour, finding things to read or thoughts to have.
Like so many debilitating self-sabotaging behaviours, you have to be conscious of them and accept yourself despite them in order to change them.
I’ve been asked to write and deliver a presentation about procrastination on “Blue Monday” which falls later in January and is supposedly the most depressing day on the calendar.
The whole premise is questionable as far as I am concerned because I love the winter much more than I enjoy a heatwave, which, in my estimation, is anytime the temperature rises above 22 degrees centigrade.
Contrary to popular belief, procrastination has nothing to do with a dislike of any particular task or any inherent idleness on the part of the procrastinator. It’s all about the emotion triggered by the thing that you’re supposed to be doing but successfully (and often disastrously) avoiding.
In that sense, procrastination is an equal-opportunity form of self-harm, so you don’t need to feel bad about doing it, you just need to get better at understanding and identifying it, which will put you in the luxurious position of deciding when it’s OK to watch the squirrels gathering nuts from the tree outside and when to stop it and pay your tax return before the deadline.
To decide what I want to cover in the presentation I drew a mind map.
I used to think that mind mapping was simply an effective way for me to organise the numerous and often random ideas that spill from my chaotic mind, but I have realised that it is also a great way of procrastinating. When I spend more time than is necessary using coloured pencils, shading all the loops on letters and drawing extravagant arrows, I know I am putting off the important work. When I was studying, I often wondered whether I might submit my mind map with the completed assignment to see if I was awarded marks for artistic merit as mitigation for a rather sterile academic effort.
I discovered that I spent ages on the mind map because I found it so hard to put all my random thoughts into order. It wasn’t the essay itself, it was how writing it made me feel incredibly anxious. “How can I start?” “How will I structure my narrative?” “Will it just be a pile of absolute trash?” These were really at the root of procrastination. I felt anxious and not good enough, and I would do anything to avoid feeling like that.
These uncomfortable and unwelcome emotions come in many forms with multiple triggers, but somewhere at the root of every procrastination is an emotion you don’t want to feel.
There’s a stage I get to with pretty much everything I publish here where I experience what I can only describe as visceral shame.
“Why would anyone be interested in your opinions and pontifications on anything,” a voice pipes up from deep within.
I’m a therapist, so I realise this isn’t really my voice but one I have inherited from past experience, but it’s compelling nonetheless.
As shame causes me to put things off I avoided getting on with my presentation and turned my attention to this week’s online groceries order.
Washing detergent is on offer in capsule form but I usually buy the powder, so I calculated the cost per wash allowing for some small variation in dosing for the powder versus the defined amount in the capsule.
I reached a figure of 12p per wash (excluding electricity) which seems reasonable, especially if I cram more laundry into each load than is seemly.
Despite the clarity over laundry costs, I find myself feeling a bit stressed and low because I have still not made any progress on my presentation, and this is the secondary blow that procrastination strikes.
If we aren’t sufficiently hampered by the procrastination itself, the pangs of guilt and shame about interrupting our schedule we experience as a result make the whole thing worse.
In staving off a feeling of shame, I find myself feeling ashamed.
The vicious cycle that perpetuates procrastination is the feeling of reward we get when we do it. If you need an example, think of any conversation you’ve had with your kids about homework.
At school, we’d invariably be given a project over the summer holidays.
I’d think about the seven long weeks stretching out ahead of me and the ample time there is to get to grips with it.
As each day passes Mum says, “Have you done all your homework?”
I’d think about how boring it will be to do it, how I feel anxious about knowing where to start, how many days there are still left to go of the holidays and put it off until tomorrow.
This continues for six weeks and approximately five days at which point the good feeling I have enjoyed by avoiding it for the holidays switches to a feeling worse than the one I’m avoiding if I don’t get my shit together and do something to find out what the Spanish Civil War was and when it took place.
Leaving things until the last minute is something we do because we misunderstand the importance of selecting the most appropriate of the only two motivation strategies available to us.
The motivation away from pain.
The motivation towards pleasure.
Procrastination is powered by trying to escape from the painful emotion we associate with whatever the task is, so the way to address it is to focus on the pleasure we’d like to experience instead.
Hands up who hates emptying the dishwasher?
Me too. It’s boring. I have ADHD and my brain won’t tolerate boredom, although it will happily accept my decision to sharpen all of my hundreds of pencils to avoid the risk of boredom.
I do, however, love cooking and a clean kitchen in which to do so is a joy. So, if I empty the dishwasher by refusing to focus on the pain of boredom coming from putting crockery away and sorting the cutlery into the drawer and focus instead on the pleasure of the clean space in which to make hummus or this frankly obscenely delicious vanilla cake, it becomes a lot easier.
To force your brain into addressing something it feels rewarded by avoiding, you have to offer it a bigger reward.
This is also the point at which it’s worth considering the important topic of forgiveness.
It’s easy to beat yourself up for procrastination but all it does is make things worse.
If, as we’ve established, procrastination is a result of uncomfortable emotions you are berating yourself for feeling bad which is unnecessarily harsh.
Instead, try treating yourself with kindness and understanding. Look past the task you are procrastinating over for the painful emotion beneath it and support yourself in finding a strategy that makes it feel more manageable. Look for the payoff you can reach rather than the discomfort you want to avoid.
Familiar to all procrastinators will be the loop of feeling stress about getting something done, the amplification of the stress that comes from putting it off, and then the act of procrastination that staves off the feelings of stress that have resulted from the original procrastination.
It’s hilarious really when you think about it. So laugh at yourself when you realise you have spent several hours avoiding writing a presentation and written a lengthy essay about how you have avoided writing a presentation, instead.
In the end, I’ll get everything done because I know what I am doing to myself and holding it in consciousness, believe it or not, is a big help.
But before I get to the presentation I’m going to take the dogs out and then put a load of washing on because it’s such great value.