2014. I am fast asleep in a Physics class, my check stuck to the desk. The teacher walks over and slams down a test paper in front of me, a big red F written on it. Scrawled underneath are the words 'this is terrible. I'm not surprised though, as you sleep in all my classes and never revise for tests.' I wake up long enough to read it, tuck it in my folder and then go back to sleep. I had tried to revise for that test- or rather, I had intended to. Somehow, unlike in every other class, I could never bring myself to do it. It drove me mad- although not mad enough to actually do the work.
Procrastination. It is the ultimate first world problem in a society obsessed with productivity and achievement. It's a topic I have long found fascinating. Why do we all seem to do something so illogical and detrimental? I see the battle to just get shit done play out non-stop in my own life and that of just about everyone I know. Heck, it is 11pm and I have been deferring writing this essay all day. You know the drill.
One of the reasons why procrastination is so prevalent, is how misunderstood it is. There is an incorrect view of it as a character flaw- an internal issue. It is widely assumed that someone procrastinates because:
1. They are lazy and/or
2. They are bad at whatever it is they are deferring.
In fact, that is rarely true. If it were, the sudden motivation produced by an impending deadline would not occur. A student, having put off an assignment until the last minute, would not work all night to complete it. An author would not lock themselves away to complete a 50,000 word manuscript in a short time. Someone who cannot be bothered to clean their apartment would not happily work 18 hours a day to code their start-up. If procrastination were a character flaw, we would not universally be able to conquer it when necessary. In fact, we procrastinate because of two key reasons:
1. A lack of a clear idea of what to do and/or
2. A lack of a reason to do it.
Laziness and ineptitude have nothing to do with it.
The last few days, I have been struggling to get started with my daily writing. I find myself putting it off until the evening, procrastinating by doing low-intensity stuff like email and fiddling around with analytics. Then in the evening, I wind up too tired or tell myself that all the little tasks I have completed were productive enough. Except, I measure my days by how much I create and the maintenance work should normally be secondary.
Whenever I am struck by writer's block, I know what the inevitable cause is; I don't have a coherent idea of what I should be writing. And/or I have lost touch which why I am doing it. That's it. Without a vision, it's impossible to get stuff done.
When I catch myself procrastinating, I do not get angry or beat myself up. Instead, I take it as a positive opportunity to reassess what I am doing.
My usual technique for getting out of a rut is to take a break, reconnect with my reasons and make a new plan. Sometimes a few hours off is necessary to recharge my creative batteries or a weekend. Realigning myself with my goals is not always a simple process. Sometimes my procrastination is induced by a sudden sense of doubt as to my own abilities. Or a lack of direction. In these cases, it takes far more work to pull myself out of the slump. Creative work can be emotionally draining. It's hard in a different sense to physical work or to working for a regular paycheck. In order to put stuff out on a regular basis, it is necessary to have a certain degree of self-belief. Not arrogance or an overinflated ego, but the knowledge that what you do is worth doing. Putting your work out into the world daily takes a lot of guts, tenacity and acumen.
Reconnecting with that never fails to push me beyond procrastination. Sometimes I go back and read through comments and emails from readers to remind me that my work does have meaning for other people. I remind myself of the wonderful nomadic life I am currently able to lead as a result of my writing. I am particularly encouraged by reading about how writers I admire handled the same feelings.
I remind myself of Stephen King's words: 'Writing isn't about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it's about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It's about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.'
When we have a purpose, procrastination does not enter the equation. It goes beyond enjoyment, reaching to fulfillment. As Nietzsche said, he who has a why can endure any how. When I know exactly what I am working towards with a piece of writing, hours pass without distraction. When I don't, it can take an entire day to get anything done.
The cause is not laziness. It's doubt. Confusion. Uncertainty. These are very real feelings which everyone experiences. These emotions cannot be trampled or ignored. Discipline can only take you so far without drive. These feelings have to be faced and resolved.
Sometimes that means taking the requisite time to reassess what we are doing and why. In the day to day mess of emails, paperwork, meetings and minutiae, a sense of wider purpose can get lost. Even the most meaningful pursuit can become muddied. When that happens, on the micro and macro scale, procrastination is the result.
On the micro scale, when a single task is being put off, moving the consequences to the present is an effective way to get it done.
Victor Hugo forced himself to finish The Hunchback of Notre Dame by instructing his maid to lock away all his clothes until he had completed the manuscript. Demosthenes shaved half of his head so he would be too embarassed to go out in public until he had spent 3 months working on his oration. They had their wider purpose, but they dragged the future consequences of procrastinating into the present.
I used Beeminder during my last exam season, set to charge me $5 each time I missed one of my revision sessions. Unsurprisingly, I did not miss a single one for 2 months. Telling myself I must revise so that I will be handed a piece of paper with the letter A written on it in six months' time was not very inspiring. On the other hand, the loss of $5 felt worse than the effort required to work for half an hour.
I'm even doing this for this exact post. I am currently using Writeordie, which forces you to keep writing or it starts deleting words. For overcoming writers' block, no Pinterest platitude beats it. Commitment devices like this work because they make intangible, future goals become immediate.
But on the macro scale, when we find ourselves struggling to do anything, the real answer is to find the necessary sense of purpose. To connect the current task with our long term goals and ambitions. To recognize that this work is part of our role in the world.
Marcus Aurelius put it best in Meditations:
'People who love what they do wear themselves down doing it, they even forget to wash or eat. Do you have less respect for your own nature than the engraver does for engraving, the dancer for the dance, the miser for money or the social climber for status? When they’re really possessed by what they do, they’d rather stop eating and sleeping than give up practicing their arts.'
The upside of procrastination is that it forces us to step back and ask the big questions. Why am I doing this? Do I really want to do it? What am I actually doing? Procrastination is not a sign of laziness or any sort of negative character trait.
The answer of 'because my boss said so' or 'because I need to pass this semester' can only take us so far. Our brains are smart and are designed to avoid wasting energy on anything which is not required for our survival. And the brain can only be fooled for so long before it rebels.
Procrastination is an important warning sign. In academic situations, it can be a red flag that current studies do not align with long term aspirations. Or that a dream job is proving to be unfulfilling. It can be a sign of burnout, or of a deep sense of confusion.
The discomfort I have been experiencing with my work over the last week is not a bad thing. It is not a reason for me to run away from creativity and get a job in a McDonalds or whatever.
It means I need to start figuring things out in the long term. I need to go beyond living day by day and start thinking ahead. Not necessarily a 10 year plan, but at least a 1 month one. Spontaneity is fun until it starts to get confusing. I cannot force myself to follow a path which seems practical, which please other people, or which meets the societal pressure to work non-stop. It will not end well. The only thing I can do is to keep probing. Keep exploring. Keep trying to figure out exactly how I can turn what I love doing into a viable career.
That is all any of us can do. We can stop seeing procrastination as a sign of weakness and start recognizing its significance. The upside is that it gives us no choice except making the necessary changes to overcome it. This does not mean that spending an evening on Facebook is a springboard for some dramatic new self-knowledge. Instead, it means that we should look at our behaviour as part of a bigger picture, and stop labelling natural responses as character flaws.
Procrastination is an unconscious intervention staged by your brain. Some part of you is not buying the current plan. Some part of you is not a fan of the current job, degree, relationship, whatever. Some part of you wants a bigger goal, a different direction, a fresh purpose.
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