I used to be a master procrastinator; I could put tasks off for weeks, if not months, and not just tasks I didn’t want to do, but things I enjoyed as well. When I was a teenager my hobby was miniature war-gaming, I remember one time being amazed that someone had a fully painted army of recently released miniatures, and by recent I mean 5 months previously! Plenty of time in reality, but it was amazing to me as I had barely started on mine. I read a lot of advice on how to overcome procrastination, but what I found focused mainly on tasks you were reluctant to do, or afraid to put out into the world, and while this was true for me some of the time, this was not my main problem. My procrastination problem revolved around other items on my to-do list, and a feeling of guilt that I was not able to do it all.
Tell me if this regularly occurring scenario sounds familiar to you: I would have a great idea for a blog while I was showering, so I would switch my computer on and sit down ready to write out all the words I had already mentally written while shampooing. But the words just wouldn’t come, rather than reciting out my imaginary blog post to me so I could type it all out before they faded, the little voice in the back of my head would start to ask me “how can you write at such a messy desk? So many distractions! Maybe if you sorted it out you could focus better”. Try as I might I just couldn’t focus, so eventually I would give in and half-heartedly tidy up my desk, so the papers were all in one pile and it least looked a little neater, even if it was still completely unorganized. Then I’d sit back down, stare at the computer screen and remember the pile of dishes I had left in the sink down stairs, so I’d run down to quickly get them done, run back up, remember yet another task I had to do, until eventually it was time to cook dinner so I had better leave writing until tomorrow. Of course tomorrow I couldn’t even remember the topic of the blog, let alone the full mental draft, as I hadn’t even typed a word. This used to be a regular occurrence for me, but not anymore, I am finally learning to tame the beast of procrastination, but in the most counter intuitive way.
Most of the advice mentioned above was framed as though procrastination was something to fight against. The problem for me was that trying to block out the guilty thoughts about all the other jobs I was falling behind on took a lot of mental effort and split my focus! I wasn’t able to write any faster, rather than thinking of what to type I was repeating the mantra “stay focused” over and over in my head. One piece of advice I read about trimming down your to-do list was to ask yourself: “what would happen to my life if I didn’t do this?” The answer: my life would start to fall apart. Chores are important, while they don’t tend to propel your life forward; they stop it from falling behind, someone has to do them. Many chores also grow when avoided: bills accumulate late fees; the gunk on your dishes is now dried on and a nightmare to remove; the list of minor repairs around the house just continues to accumulate until the point where you start to consider moving. This is why we feel guilty and distracted by them when we attempt to do something that will help us move our life towards our goals: what use is posting another blog when your house is falling apart?
When reading one of Gretchen Rubin’s books she gave a piece of advice which contradicted the “don’t do it” option: schedule all these tasks so that you know they will be done later. In this vein I started taking days where my goal would be to go around the house and tick off as many items from my to-do list as possible. And while I got things done, the problem was that I was never really getting ahead of the list. In fact I now started to feel guilty and resentful that I was spending so much time on minor chores and not on what could propel my life and business forward. I felt like I didn’t have enough time to do it all, and blamed work for taking up so much time; a convenient excuse since having no income isn’t really an option. I didn’t see a way to step out of the trap and wondered how I would ever move my life forward; it felt like I just wasn’t enough, maybe my goals were always going to be out of reach. So when I had a few minutes of quiet boredom I would go on social media to mute those depressing voices and alleviate the pain, I knew it was an addiction but it’s not like it was that bad for me…
Then came 2020 and the Covid lockdown! Suddenly my work excuse was gone, and so with nothing left to blame but myself my only choice was to do it all. With no excuse I quickly eliminated my to-do list. I then found that I wasn’t procrastinating at all anymore: I was exercising daily, writing blogs again, and reading multiple books a week. I felt happy and accomplished at the end of each day. Knowing that I was going to have enough time to do everything I wanted to in a day meant I wasn’t constantly being mentally dragged in every direction, but could instead focus on the task at hand, knowing for certain that I would have time for everything else later. I was hardly even going on facebook anymore because I didn’t need an escape. But of course that wasn’t to last.
Once our local lockdown lifted I was back at work, with more hours than before to catch up on all the work that had been postponed. Instantly my excuse of being too busy, and my procrastination, both returned. Workouts were skipped, blogs went unwritten and the to-do list started to grow again. And the guilt that I wasn’t able to manage it all came back too, but now endless scrolling of social media wasn’t assuaging my guilt. I knew I couldn’t quit my job and go back into a personal “lock-down”; rather I had to find that time somewhere else. So now, instead of making me feel better by giving me an excuse I started to feel guilty when I was on social media, I had finally realized how I was using it as a time suck so I could use work as a scapegoat for my lack of results. So I went back to the advice of ignoring tasks that would not improve my life and blocked facebook from my phone. Suddenly when I was procrastinating on a big task instead of scrolling five minutes away, I would do whatever small task the voice in the back of my head was distracting me with.
Before long small tasks were hard to come by, I had no ways left to procrastinate. My only choice was to actually work on the large, overwhelming projects I had been putting off for so long, such as redecorating my office. And I as I worked on these large tasks not only did I not feel the guilt of all the other tasks I was ignoring, since there were none to ignore, but they went much faster too because I was able to fully focus. This is actually self-reinforcing: my tasks take less time, which means I have more time each day to complete other tasks and stay ahead of my to-do list. My days seem to be getting longer and longer.
Now I can finally do whatever I need to promptly, without the hesitation and guilt of procrastination. As long as I make the time to get all my procrastination out of the way before sitting down at my computer I can write free of mental distractions. This is a far cry from when I was a teenager: rather than each project having to sit in its box a couple of months before I get around to it, I now annoy my wife by wanting to work on the project as soon as we get home.