Is There A Way Of Actually Conquering Procrastination?
What good are New Year's Resolutions if you put them off until 2019?
We'll get round to it. Richard Baker/Alamy
In addition to oversleeping and working lifelessly through the last of the Quality Street like oral sex on a hangover, procrastination is January’s definitive characteristic. You probably woke up on Monday with a sore head, a bloated stomach and the overwhelming feeling that you must become a completely different person immediately. This is why we make New Year’s Resolutions – not to improve the quality of our lives, but to attempt to warp ourselves into someone much better. And we fuck it. Every one of us. Every single time.
Despite having the requisite tools at our disposal – the great outdoors, Amazon, the ability to turn our phones off – we simply cannot better ourselves. There are a select few who get bang into running and spend the rest of their lives Instagramming pictures of fog in the park at 6am. But you? You will register at a Leisure Centre and go swimming precisely thrice. You will have salad for lunch for a week before making the mistake of having one pint, two pints, six pints, and a kebab. Come January 20, you will be found wrapped in a duvet cover that hasn’t been changed since November, binge watching a period drama while screaming down the phone as HMRC’s hold music surrounded by a pandemonium of unorganised receipts and used mugs. Yes. We can all set goals, we can all make lists. But how do you actually follow through without getting distracted, clicking intermittently between Facebook and Netflix until the shops start blasting Slade again?
Guess how long it took me to write even that paragraph. Actually, don’t. The answer is objectively "too long". Wars have been settled faster, probably. After walking into my first working day of 2018, I simply sat down, ate a banana, and spent [redacted] minutes staring at a blank Google document thinking about soup. All of which is to say: my name is Emma and I am a raging procrastinator.
Despite what you might think, procrastination isn’t simply a time management issue, it’s an emotional one. In some cases it’s pretty straightforward: you don’t want to do your taxes because literally who does, you don’t want to write that essay for uni because you’d rather be sinking an endless conveyor belt of VK at an 80s cheese night. So instead you tell everyone “sorry, I have to work” for a week, spend most of that time scrolling through Reddit conspiracies about the moon, and eventually rush through the task six hours before its deadline. In other cases – putting off something you actually want to do, for example – procrastination can be more nuanced.
Like drinking or social withdrawal, procrastination is a maladaptive coping strategy that temporarily addresses a problem by avoiding it entirely. It is, in essence, picking half your wardrobe up off the bedroom floor and shoving it under the bed. Researchers have revealed that procrastination is a risk factor for poor mental health, poor physical health and other aspects of well-being.
The act of avoiding something itself is fairly unloaded, but the guilt and shame that comes after makes you put it off again, which leads to more guilt and shame – and on the horrid cycle goes, until the simple task of texting your aunt back is now tantamount to dumping a partner of eight years.
In an act of desperation, I spoke to Dr. Timothy Pychyl – an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at Carleton University and founder of The Procrastination Research Group, which does exactly what it says on the tin.
“The reason people procrastinate is pretty much the same for everyone in the sense that we face a task that we intended to do earlier,” he explains, “and then our emotional response to the task is simply: 'I don’t want to’ or ‘I don’t feel like it’. The thing is, our motivational state doesn’t have to match the task at hand, although many people typically believe it does.”
At this point it’s probably worth mentioning that I am a highly unreliable case study for this phenomenon since I often ignore pressing tasks because I’m clinically depressed – haha! – so I tried to speak to some other people who do things about how good they are at doing them.
“My procrastination is an expression of fear, I think,” London-based yoga teacher Lis tells me, “And my biggest fears are change and my ability to do stuff. So if I’m afraid of moving house, because my gut-brain tells me that evacuating means leaving behind everything I know, then I might put off packing my life up by organising paper bank statements or checking old stockings for holes by wearing them on my arms.”
Obviously, procrastination manifests different for everybody. Some people blow through all their #career #goals with Terminator-like intensity, but let their dishes transmogrify into rancid tower in the sink. Others regularly swear to use their leisure time to do more reading and then spend months binging all nine seasons of Seinfeld or becoming a memelord. I, personally, have been threatening to take up the piano again for the last ten years. So far the closest I’ve come to doing that is telling my dad that no, he cannot get rid of the electric keyboard I’ve left rusting in my nan’s garage because I will obviously need it.
People’s motives for procrastinating are different, too. I could tell you that I’ve been using my small amount of free time to do better, more realistic things, like doing volunteer work or learning some recipes that aren’t pasta-based. But the truth is I’ve routinely put it off because I would sooner die than not be good at something immediately. Which is ridiculous, but not uncommon. Lis tells me she feels similarly.
“I am my own biggest bully,” she says, “I am very unforgiving about not being able to do things expertly on the first go, even if I wouldn’t hold anyone else to this standard. Since figuring this out, I've started removing myself from the daunting task for a while, or breaking it into bite-size chunks. Naturally this feels condescending and I tell myself as much, but once the stress hormones are no longer flooding into my bloodstream and I regain some sense of self and tranquility.”
This, Tim tells me, is referred to as perfectionistic concern. It isn’t necessarily related to procrastination, but can be if you also happen to be an impulsive person. “If we’re impulsive, we’re more likely to escape negative feelings and procrastinate,” he says, “And if you’re defined as a socially-prescribed perfectionist, you’re more likely to procrastinate because you’re trying to live up to unrealistic expectations of others.”
At this point it all starts to feel a bit too much like therapy, so I decide to speak to an objectively high achiever and see how they deal with things. At the age of 24, Ellie is getting a doctorate in Art History at King’s College London and spent last year working on an exhibition at Tate Britain alongside its curators. All of which seems, to horribly re-contextualise a phrase from Sex and the City, “good on paper”. She is also a self-confessed “horrible procrastinator”.
“Procrastination usually comes from a fear of getting something wrong, or worrying that what I'm doing is a bit shit,” Ellie says, “This means the procrastination isn't even fun, it's often just a kind of paralysis, and usually means consuming a thousand memes and occasionally ending up on someone's Facebook profile who I haven't spoken to since year 11 maths.”
And here we are again: back at the table of self-defeat, gorging on the neverending buffet of social media and fear of failure. But the fact that society hasn’t totally collapsed suggests that these cycles can been broken; procrastination has to come to an end at some point.
“I suppose this is where I could suggest The Pomodoro Technique,” Ellie says, “But in all honesty it was listening to "Unwritten" by Natasha Bedingfield that got me through my masters degree. Simple stuff like writing to-do lists and answering emails always helps me to focus more, as well as not-so-simple stuff like learning to be kind to yourself about your own work, and having reasonable expectations around your own productivity. Sometimes procrastination is part of the process. It's better to accept that and make yourself some tea than to sit in a pit of self-loathing.”
The thing about New Year’s Resolutions is that they’re famously easy to break because they’re so nebulous. “Lose weight, exercise more, eat better… These are what we might think of as anemic intentions because they are so vague as not to have any real strength or force,” Tim says, “So, it’s not so much that these goals feel insurmountable because of pressure, but that they’re are typically our most difficult because we have failed many times before.”
The best and most effective method of coping with procrastination is to cop to the fact that you’re never going to feel like doing The Thing. So, instead of putting it off, ask yourself what would be the next action to take if you were to do The Thing. “Make this action as small and concrete as possible,” Tim explains. “When we phrase things like this, we see that we can do that and we move forward instead of avoiding. This little bit of progress fuels our well-being and our motivation, and we’re able to take another little step.”
Basically, you have a better chance of doing something if you take it one tiny conquerable piece at a time. You start a big block of writing with a single sentence; you wouldn’t have full sex without first doing some snogging and that. So go forth, listen to Natasha Bedingfield, and interpret this whole thing as “yeah, that’s right! I don’t have to do anything if I don’t want!” and continue to be your eternally unimproved self. We all know you’re going to.