I just read a fantastic piece by David Cain entitled “Procrastination Is Not Laziness” on Though Catalog (via Wil Wheaton at http://goo.gl/XVDvh). He describes procrastination in a way that I’ve been thinking about it for some time now. I struggle with procrastination in a pretty significant way. In fact, I more-or-less lost my last job because of it. A year ago this month I started my email marketing business, and to date I only have a handful of clients, most of whom I don’t charge. What am I doing to prevent my success? More importantly, when I am successful, what am I doing to trick myself into finishing things?
At the time of this writing, I have 331 items on my to-do list. To be fair, this list contains everything from “pay X bill” to “build a Gnostic retreat center” so they aren’t all urgent and important. Many of them are longer term. However, the list doesn’t ever get any smaller. I’m constantly thinking of new ideas, tasks, and future projects, and I never seem to get around to crossing many of them off.
As Mr. Cain says in the article, procrastination stems from the belief that failure at a task, in the mind of the chronic procrastinator, equals failure as a person. As a result, it is less emotionally draining to put something off until the last minute than to do it right away and risk failure.
I would actually take this one step further, at least for me. I’ve recognized in myself that if I can put myself in a position to fail on my own terms, usually by not trying, that is far preferable to trying really hard and potentially failing anyway. This way I can say “well I never really put any effort into that in the first place, it wasn’t very important to me, of course I failed. No problem.”
There are a few recent glaring examples of my successes recently, and those would seem to negate everything I’m saying here, but there’s a reason why I was able to finish my book, and make progress on a few other large projects for the church in the last year. I was on Skype with Bishop Tim Mansfield the other day, he is the Johannite bishop who covers all of Australia and New Zealand, and he was complimenting me on all the stuff I’ve accomplished in the last year. My answer to him was that since I’ve been “under-employed” I had more time to work on church stuff. He replied that most people in my situation would sit around and play video games in my situation. I actually felt a bit of panic at that thought. I am never not busy, at least I think that I’m not, but the truth is probably that I fill up my time with stupid small things because those are easier to deal with if they fail. Don’t get me wrong, I play my share of video games on occasion. I don’t think that people should be without some leisure time.
The reason why I was able to finish my book was because I put myself in a situation where people were counting on my to finish. I made a public deadline (which I still missed) and I even asked people to donate to help me finish it. I had people who paid me money for a book by a certain date. That was what motivated me to finish it. I can honestly say that if I hadn’t done that, the book would be yet another one of my unfinished to-do items.
I have to learn to either A) use that trick more often or B) figure out a way to not have to use it and be proactive about the things I want to accomplish. I’ve been using “The Secret Weapon” as a productivity tool for this past year (http://www.thesecretweapon.org). I can credit that for a definite boost in my creativity. Since using it I have generated a ton of fantastic ideas for projects. I haven’t finished a single one of them since I started using it, so the solution isn’t in the tool I use, it’s in the way I think, and that is far harder to change. It’s a process, and I think I’m getting better.
Do you have procrastination troubles? More importantly, have you overcome procrastination troubles?
Photo credit: lazy cat by taomancer on Flickr (http://goo.gl/F63AV)