Holy procrastinating pigeons!

Some thoughts on procrastination, from my notes for yesterday’s show:

Pigeons procrastinate. This puts the phenomenon in perspective, for me. Maybe for some people it’s a deep psychoanalytic conflict that leads them to put things off, but pigeons do it too. Procrastination might not be all that complex, and it’s definitely natural. In fact, one thing that came up over and over again as I was looking at the research is that the people who beat procrastination are the ones who acknowledge that it’s a genuine temptation that can’t simply be willed away. You aren’t going to be a better person tomorrow. So what are you going to do today that will make tomorrow-you do the right thing?

If you find that you procrastinate a lot, here are some questions to ask:

1. How’s your health? One simple reason that people put off ’till tomorrow is because they do not have the physical or mental energy today. If procrastination is a real problem for you, take a look at your health and schedule first. Are you getting enough sleep? Do you exercise and eat well? Do you have any chronic conditions, mild or severe, that affect your energy level and need to be managed?

2. Do you really want to do the thing you’re putting off? Generally, we procrastinate on tasks that we don’t like doing. Which then leads to the subversive question that grownups get to ask themselves: Do I actually have to do this? Is the task you are postponing really necessary in the first place? If it is, are you the only person who can do it? Or can you outsource it?

3. Do you know how to do the thing you’re putting off? If the task must be done and you are the only one who can do it, do you know how? I don’t mean do you know what the finished state ought to look like — I mean do you know how to start, and how to get from that starting point to the end? A couple of months ago I answered a question from a woman who got writers’ block about thank-you notes. (I suspect a not-insignificant percent of late and or never-sent TYNs are the result of bad nerves more than bad manners.) I wrote, in part:

You can get over your gratitudinal perfectionism. Develop a formula for thank you notes, and then don’t overthink it. Your friends and relatives aren’t dissecting your missive as if it were some long-lost Rosicrucian manuscript in a Dan Brown novel. Here’s the recipe I use: The first sentence is an “I” statement about the gift (“I’m sitting here wrapped up in the afghan you knitted me,” “I just returned from spending my gift certificate at Williams-Sonoma”). In the second sentence, I thank the giver — and I don’t worry about sounding cliched, because the fact is there are only so many ways to say “thank you.” One or two more sentences compliment the giver and express love, support, and/or hopes of seeing each other in person soon.

If you don’t know how to get started in the task you are postponing, ask for help.

4. Is procrastination rewarded? This is primarily about workplace procrastination. What kind of task-management style makes sense in your workplace? Does getting your work done punctually mean that you have less stress, and more time to create a first-rate product? Or does it mean that your idea gets hung up for everyone else to take potshots at? Does your boss take deadlines seriously, or are extensions routinely granted? Is the nature of the work relatively predictable, so that work can be planned in advance, or are there constant interruptions and emergencies?

Maybe you feel that you are procrastinating, but in fact you are managing your work in a rational way given the parameters of your job. If this is the case, think about how you’d like to manage your work (keeping in mind that you’re not going to be a better person tomorrow!) and whether the environment you are in supports the work style you’d like to have. If it doesn’t, that isn’t a dealbreaker — just something you have to be conscious of. When I was writing my dissertation I was also working four days a week at a job that rewarded putting things off until the last minute (because if you didn’t, your work would be subject to endless revisions). I had to be disciplined about not letting my “good” work procrastination habits become bad study procrastination habits.

So let’s say you are physically and mentally fit to do your task, which is necessary and can only be done by you, and that you know how and have no rational reason to procrastinate. Then what? I’ll do another post later on tips for avoiding procrastination.

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