FINALLY, AT LONG LAST, MY ARTICLE ON PROCRASTINATION
By Frank Young Ph.D.
This topic has been going through my mind for years. I keep joking with my colleagues that I will get around to writing it, as soon as I agree to stop attending meetings of the apathy club. But actually, attending those meetings protected me from exposing my ineptitude in writing on this topic. Now I’m afraid that the article will be too long, and therefore no one will publish it. Then I recite the mantra of depression and inertia “Why bother?” However, the time perhaps has come to meet my date with destiny, and attempt to cover some ideas about why people often wait until the last minute to do things they should. Let’s start with that concept.
Should. Any action plan preceded by the word “should” is almost doomed to last priority from the outset. “Should” is a word that seems to refer to an obligation to others, to a social order, or some personal good or benefit that is so remotely future that it almost is devoid of any immediate pleasure or passion. For example, I am writing this article tonight partly because I should be doing some accounting and records management to prepare for submitting my income tax. Then again, I should be writing this article as number five in a series about Managing the Expectation Gradient. The rest of the series has been written and is in the process of being published, so why not complete the set. If I can only manage to reframe this, not as an obligation to others, but as a gift of freedom and creativity to myself, I can break the curse of “shoulding on myself.” See the benefit of freedom from the thoughts running around like captive squirrels in my head. Feel the sense of accomplishment in the joy of giving these ideas away, recycling them where they can be of greater use to more people. But what if nobody reads them? Self-doubt is now being dispelled with the idea that you are reading this. The future has now been moved ahead to the present. Now I can begin to answer the question that breaks through “the should barrier.” The question is: Do I really need to do this, and ultimately, looking at all the consequences and benefits, do I really want to do this? If I can move up the benefits into the realm of the present, then I have a chance of mobilizing beyond the should-barrier. In other words, I have now promoted a promise to others into a commitment to myself.
Denial – Discounting early warning signals. Most of us understand the ultimate wisdom of preventive maintenance as an essential factor in sustainable high quality living. That is, if we attend to the tasks that are important in a timely manner, they will not crowd us by becoming urgent. Nevertheless, there is a tendency in most of us to hope that an annoying problem will go away if we just ignore it. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” is the philosophy of negligence that leads to greater expense and even breakdown of systems in the long run. For example, while driving my car at night, I noticed that the headlights were weakening, but the charge indicator seemed to be saying things were okay. I know I should have taken the car in to get checked by a mechanic, but I was quite busy that week and did not get around to it. Sure enough, by the time I got to it in week two, not only was the alternator broken, but also I had run the battery so low that it too had to be replaced, an avoidable double expense. Lessons will be repeated until they are learned. One way out of this trap is to interpret signs of maintenance problems as signal (I need to respond to this fast) rather than noise (I can ignore this and it will work itself out). I admit I still have quite a distance to go in developing this skill of proactive planning and vigilance about system maintenance, but I’m learning.
Avoiding structure and off-loading responsibility. Another expression of procrastination is avoiding a task in the hope that someone else in the family, group, or organization will do it. This tendency can arise from a life position of entitlement (I deserve to be treated in a special or privileged manner) or a passive-aggressive posture towards authority or structure (nobody is going to tell me what to do or when to do it).This strategy is far from noble, and the consequences in morale for the whole group, and for the offender’s reputation within it, are quite costly for all involved. For example, one roommate or spouse will ignore the accumulation of dust and dirt around the house for weeks, knowing that their partner will become so frustrated with the situation that the partner will dust and vacuum. After several cycles, resentment builds, and the goodwill in the relationship degrades, with increasingly bitter conflicts and mutual divestment of caring. Again the antidote may involve moving the consequences into the present so that the offender is motivated to spare the relationship this avoidable harm, or honestly admit that the relationship is not important enough to contribute the initiative and investment required to sustain it. Such a realization is sad, but at least honest and authentic for all involved.
A related pattern is rumination, the avoidance of fear of change by postponing it. Unfortunately, the total time spent worrying while avoiding can generate hours or days of misery, further compounding the dread of change. Similarly, a dreamer’s distaste for detail can impair the beginning as well as the sustained effort required to complete a project. Dreams need not only wings, but also landing gear.
The cost of focused efficiency in a climate of urgency. Most of us have had the experience of cramming the night before a term-paper, report, or assignment was due. After repeatedly harrowing experiences like this, why would we keep repeating this misery and self-inflicted stress? There actually is some logic to this strategy. Especially among perfectionists and compulsive strivers, the chance to research a topic well in advance of deadline is an invitation to actually waste time. That is, work tends to expand to fill the space available. If you are 4 weeks ahead of deadline, there is a tendency to be overly broad and inclusive in researching the topic. The write-up may be several times too long, and much time and effort will be needed to edit the report to usable and focused proportions. The time to produce the assignment may mushroom to 60 person-hours given enough lead time and ambition. Contrast that scenario with the idea that you only have 4 days until deadline. Your literature search or review is sharply focused to 3 main texts and about 15 recently published articles. You limit your quantitative analyses to 3 spreadsheets and 2 graphs. Your tight focus is succinct, covering the most important points, cutting out the embellishments. You produced a usable report in 15 hours. You just saved yourself and your company 45 hours by waiting until just before deadline to get going on the project. Just-in-time inventory control is another example of the efficiency of reducing carrying charges by waiting until a product is needed. In other words, there is some logic and economy of effort with procrastination. This also applies to group projects where some individual effort is wasted because it is done too far in advance of the crucial contribution of other team members.
Given that procrastination makes sense in terms of forcing efficient focus, why not do everything to deadline? The answer is the high level of ambient stress carried within individuals (and their families) and organizations that typically function this way. In effect, these individuals and groups are crisis-generating systems, driven by chaotic urgency rather than planful proaction. In the longer run, such groups are stressful and conflict-prone, because sudden collapses can have cascading effects when deadlines are breached and budgets overspent to correct rushed pseudo-solutions in business and in family life. In the long run, procrastination undermines group morale, fun, and happiness in teamwork. The accumulated stress of individual and organizational procrastination can undermine the health and happiness of its adherents.
If procrastination is helpful in focusing resources due to desperation, but such addiction to the drama and adrenaline of urgency is stressful and corrosive to health and happiness, what is the alternative? The answer is support for focus of scope in beginning and continuing a project. On both the individual and group level, an important concept is the provision of leadership and support to keep the project small and keep it focused in scope. If you have these resources, and the tools and technical support to do the project, you will not be consumed with scope-creep (tending to go beyond the objectives) or being overwhelmed and thus demoralized (How do you eat an elephant? It can be done, but just one bite at a time.).
Perfectionism. Much has been written about the topic of perfectionism, and its inherent self-defeating traps, so I will not try to cover the waterfront, just the breakwalls. Perfectionists self-sabotage by trying too hard and repeatedly, or alternatively, not trying at all for fear of failure. Virtually all their effort is directed to ward off feelings of inadequacy in the production of unassailably exquisite performances in products and services. They also operate in the fallacy that life can be controlled. Remember from previous articles in this series, that life is better regarded not as controllable, but as manageable. There is a fairly high correlation between perfectionism and procrastination, and no wonder! If you only want to put out the best, then you will ruminate and worry for excessive amounts of time, avoiding starting projects or endlessly polishing versions of them prior to their final release. Most successful software designers have gone beyond this trap, but still quite a few are burning the oil for the same reason.
People who are not perfectionistic can generate projects and reports in a reasonable time frame, because they benchmark their skills and timelines appropriately, and manage the expectations of themselves and others accordingly. They know that the flaws of imperfection are usually not fatal, and life is a series of iterations eventually achieving usefulness or goodness of fit between the producer and the consuming co-creator of their shared reality. They have patience and acceptance of this essential concept. Therefore they can work quite actively in advance of deadlines, because their focus and expectations will be in scope for the task at hand. These are the seasoned craftsmen of our society.
If perfectionism is a major driver of your procrastination, there are readily available solutions to break through these tendencies. Perhaps I will write about these interventions in a future article (maybe procrastination; I prefer to reframe is as containment). For now, the main idea is to allow each production you send out to be deliberately imperfect; that is, to release your production from your perfectionistic ego. Allow it to be buffeted and polished by the waves of feedback in response to it. Let it go as a work-in-progress. Imagine life itself as a work-in-progress. Your excellence will not decline. You will strive for quality; you merely will not be enslaved by its obsession. In this way you will feel liberated to increase your quantity, and do so joyfully ahead of deadline. Labors of dread will now become labors of love.
Low Self-Esteem. Closely related to the previous topic, if we feel that our product or service will be regarded as worthless by our friends or peers, or esteemed judges in our lives, we will hesitate to put our efforts on the line. Perhaps worse still is the condemnation of faint praise. That is, it was produced, but it made no important meaningful impact in the outside world. Perhaps every artist feels this insecurity. I certainly do, and it adds significantly to my problems with procrastination. My friend and co-founder of the Journal of Systemic Therapies, Don Efron, helped me get over this hump. He said something like, “Frank, remember it doesn’t have to be brilliant to be useful. Just tell them what you know has worked for you, and let the readers decide for themselves what they will take away and use.” That advice helped a lot in remembering my true status as journeyman, not yet craftsman.
Low self-esteem can also lead to difficulties in assertiveness when approached by others to do more tasks that put your time and effort resources into a state of overload. The antidote to this situation, as we have seen in earlier chapters in this series (Arrangements We Make with Others), is to consider carefully our workload before taking on additional responsibilities to please others.
Tools for Transformation. In his book, Robert Persig outlined several “gumption traps” that would be guaranteed to suck all enthusiasm for a project, especially the maintenance of motorcycle engines. Here I will attempt to state in positive terms some of the resources you will likely need to finish a project ahead of time with a spirit of focus, engagement, passion, and hopefully, joy:
The Power of Synergy. The last 3 elements are especially important in my life journey. For most of my ambition-driven first 30 years, I embraced an ethos of self-determination and achievement. Thankfully, many life events awakened me to the realization that everything we do depends in part on the elicitation of support and synergy with our social systems. Getting them onside with projects is perhaps the number one method of counteracting procrastination and promoting creative productivity. Such relationships took time and selection to cultivate, and I am glad to be thankful for these friends to help me overcome my tendency to procrastinate.
Remember that I am merely a journeyman, by no means a master, of cultivating the skills to overcome procrastination. I merely decided at last to share some of these ideas with you. I hope you find some of them useful.
Meanwhile, I am reminded of a cartoon. A fellow is working in a cubicle in front of a computer, when Death appears with his black cape and sickle and beckoning finger. He shouts back, in dismay, “Ah shit! Just when I was starting to get my life organized!”
Good luck. Now, assemble your supporting elements, clear the distracting clutter, and get going. You will soon be happy you did.