Silk’s Post #102 — Let me ask you a question: have you ever procrastinated? No? Really? Not even once? Okay, you’re dismissed. The rest of you should read on.
Some background: this is my last post before the 5writers get together for our mini-retreat in Vancouver later this week. It has been on the calendar for more than two months. One of the key things on our agenda is reviewing synopses for our five books in progress, and we all agreed to have these ready for presentation and discussion.
A confession: I’m still working on my synopsis with less than three days left to finish it. Did I say “still working” on it? I meant “just starting to work” on it. I will charitably assume that all the other four writers are totally ready. Actually, I know better. We’re all in the same boat.
So why is it so difficult to knuckle down and focus on writing? Why do even ambitious and engaged people procrastinate, especially on projects that are really important to them?
I can understand putting off tasks like, say, taking the garbage out, or purging an over-stuffed back hall closet that you know has absolutely nothing in it you’re ever likely to look for in the next five years (we all have one of those). But writing? That’s supposed to be a calling, not a chore. I admit I’ve sometimes put off writing to do some other wonderful thing, like sailing. But I’ve also put it off to do something incredibly mundane, like laundry.
It seems so perverse – and pervasive – that I don’t find the easy, little-questioned, explanations very satisfying. Old-fashioned laziness doesn’t seem to get to the heart of it, since I know plenty of procrastinators who are demonstrably not at all lazy.
Some of the psychology terms used to explain procrastination – like lack of attention control or inability to defer gratification – liken procrastinators to immature children, the weak-willed, or those with mental deficiencies. Granted, it’s the job of psychology, apparently, to look at human behaviour through the lens of pathology. But bouts of procrastination are so widespread that I’d have to call it pretty “normal”, even among people who are usually quite self-determined.
The most common view of procrastination is often expressed with the ever-popular “boot strap” cliché. Procrastinators simply need to apply better self-discipline. You know … in the same way that fat people just need to go on diets. No problem. Right. Well, there must be some kind of problem conjuring up self-discipline – and a common one – judging from the number of new diet books and schemes constantly springing up (a $20 billion dollar-a-year industry in the US alone), and the untold number of unfinished manuscripts lying around in bottom drawers nationwide.
In any case, the old “boot strap” saw is neither an explanation, nor a very useful prescription. Saying that procrastination can be stopped by having more self-discipline is like saying that rain can be stopped by having less water fall from the sky.
As Nietzsche might have said, procrastination is human – all too human. I decided to do a little investigating into the phenomenon. I figured, if I couldn’t discover a way to stop being a procrastinator, maybe at least I could make myself feel better about it.
Procrastination, Wikipedia asserts, “is the practice of carrying out less urgent tasks in preference to more urgent ones, or doing more pleasurable things in place of less pleasurable ones, and thus putting off impending tasks to a later time, sometimes to the last minute before the deadline.”
Except for the reference to the “last minute before the deadline”, this definition doesn’t seem to fit the writer’s circumstance very well at all. But let’s read on …
“The pleasure principle may be responsible for procrastination; one may prefer to avoid negative emotions, and to delay stressful tasks … Some psychologists cite such behaviour as a mechanism for coping with the anxiety associated with starting or completing any task or decision.”
Hmm. Stressful tasks. Coping with anxiety. There’s something in that.
“Procrastination may result in stress, a sense of guilt and crisis, and severe loss of personal productivity, as well as social disapproval for not meeting responsibilities or commitments. These feelings combined may promote further procrastination.”
Yes, yes, the effects are obvious. So tell me something useful: why do we do it?
“While it is regarded as normal for people to procrastinate to some degree, it becomes a problem when it impedes normal functioning. Chronic procrastination may be a sign of an underlying psychological disorder … On the other hand many regard procrastination as a useful way of identifying what is important to us personally as it is rare to procrastinate when one truly values the task at hand.”
Ugh. Let’s put off delving into the rest of the Wikipedia discussion of neuroticism, meta-analytic research and temporal motivation theory, which purports to “summarize key predictors of procrastination into a mathematical equation”. Maybe tomorrow.
If we can’t get a straight answer on why a writer who loves to write would procrastinate about writing, maybe we’ll have more luck investigating discipline (and how to get some). Back to Wikipedia.
“Discipline, in its natural sense, is systematic instruction intended to train a person, sometimes literally called a disciple, in a craft, trade or other activity, or to follow a particular code of conduct or order. Often the phrase “to discipline” carries a negative connotation. This is because enforcement of order – that is, insuring instructions are carried out – is often regulated through punishment … Discipline is the assertion of willpower over more base desires, and is usually understood to be synonymous with self control. Self-discipline is to some extent a substitute for motivation, when one uses reason to determine the best course of action that opposes one’s desires.”
Huh? If you’re still conscientiously trying to follow this somewhat contradictory line of thought, you’re more disciplined than I am. I checked out right after the thing about punishment.
Let’s try for more practical advice. The Mind Tools website provides a helpful list of signs that tell you you’re procrastinating when you are …
- Filling your day with low priority tasks from your To Do list.
- Reading e-mails several times without starting work on them or deciding what you’re going to do with them.
- Sitting down to start a high-priority task, and almost immediately going off to make a cup of coffee.
- Leaving an item on your To Do list for a long time, even though you know it’s important.
- Regularly saying “Yes” to unimportant tasks that others ask you to do, and filling your time with these instead of getting on with the important tasks already on your list.
- Waiting for the “right mood” or the “right time” to tackle the important task at hand.
Mind Tools and other websites also attempt to explain why people procrastinate (refreshingly, without the psychobabble) …
- You might simply find a task unpleasant or boring.
- You might simply be lazy or unmotivated.
- You might be hopelessly disorganized.
- You might feel overwhelmed by the task and lack the confidence to tackle it (this can further escalate stress and diminish confidence).
- You might be too much of a perfectionist (also related to lack of confidence about accomplishing the task to impossibly high standards).
- You might have poor time-management or decision-making skills, and can’t decide how to start or what to do (another indicator of lack of confidence).
So, of five potential causes frequently cited, three of them relate to a daunting, immobilizing lack of confidence. I call it Fear of Failure. Finally! A possible cause of writing procrastination that makes sense.
Unfortunately, I was spectacularly unsuccessful in finding cures for Fear of Failure. Neither did I locate that No Fail Recipe for Self-Discipline. So I’m sorry to admit that in the perennial writer’s quest for productivity, it’s still every man and woman for him- or herself.
But I did find a hilarious and instructive post on a just-discovered blog that I plan to return to often. “Wait But Why” by Tim Urban ran an illustrated essay titled “Why Procrastinators Procrastinate”, starring Rational Decision-Maker, Instant Gratification Monkey and Panic Monster, which takes place variously at the wheel of a ship and in a diversionary outpost called the Dark Playground.
He follows this up (some time later) with a Part 2 titled “How to Beat Procrastination”. A lifelong procrastinator himself, Urban admits that him giving advice on procrastination is like the guy who shoots himself in the foot while talking about gun safety. But his paradigm for forward progress – “changing your storyline” – is liberating, and he has added some intriguing new settings in this essay, including The Dark Woods, The Critical Entrance, Mixed Feelings Park, The Tipping Point and The Happy Playground (Where the Instant Gratification Monkey gets distracted from The Dark Playground by giving him diversionary High Self-Esteem Bananas).
If you really want to understand and tackle this procrastination syndrome and get yourself a new supply of self-discipline, I highly recommend “Wait But Why” over doing serious self-help research or seeing your psychiatrist. Urban unerringly hits every nail on the head and makes you laugh your guts out at the same time.
Seriously, go to “Wait But Why” right now and read these posts about procrastination. No, don’t wait until tomorrow or put it on your long To Do list.
Come to think of it, nothing boosts self confidence and lightens the burdens of stress, angst and perfectionism like a belly laugh – especially when you’re laughing at yourself. It’s very freeing.
Maybe I can change my storyline and become the Mistress of Discipline yet.