There are two kinds of people in this world: those who get everything done promptly, without fuss and ado, and those who procrastinate. Most of you, dear readers, are no doubt lovely persons in the first camp. A few, though, are like me: lifelong procrastinators (fellow procrastinators should feel free to bookmark or save this post to read later).
I can’t recall when I first discovered my tendencies towards procrastination. It probably took a while because, you know, there’d be plenty of time to think about it later. It might’ve been in high school, when my mother would wake me up at 9am on Saturdays to the sounds of Paul Simon’s Graceland, our family’s official housecleaning anthem. “Sure mom, I’ll be up in a minute.” “Yes I’ll clean the bathroom, mom, just let me sleep in a little longer.” “MOM, I just want to finish breakfast before I dust.” In classic mom fashion, she was always able to wear me down, and the opening bars of “The Boy in the Bubble” still compel me to pull out the vacuum in Pavlovian response.
But by the time college rolled around, I finally realized the depth of my commitment to a lifetime of procrastination. Mom was no longer there to make sure I got my chores and paper done on time (this was before the days of helicopter parenting). Instead of starting assignments by researching, organizing my notes, outlining and drafting, paper writing became like a choose-your-own-frantic-adventure book: how will this paper end? Let’s find out in the computer lab at 8:55am, 5 minutes before it’s due! All-nighters are pretty typical for college students, but I preferred the early riser approach, setting my alarm for 4am to give me plenty of time (i.e.5 hours) to brainstorm and write. Apologies, English department professors!
Graduate school was a slight improvement – perhaps because I was paying for it myself – but I never completed an assignment earlier than the night before it was due. And by constantly rushing toward deadlines, I was forced to put off the many other things I needed to do (laundry, grocery shopping, housecleaning, post office runs, etc). Regular things like car maintenance? Who needs it! Certainly not the three cars I have owned and basically destroyed through a combination of missed oil changes, ignored warning lights, and exotic suspension problems (the latter is Ford’s fault, not mine).
As I’ve grown older, I’ve tempered some of my tendencies toward procrastination. I’ve experienced enough angst from put-off tasks and delayed starts to question the appeal of a lifestyle of procrastination. Part of it could be the ambiguity – the fun kind of ambiguity – where a situation could go in any direction the closer you get to the final hour, so you wait as long as possible in order to enjoy the suspense. If you have a vivid imagination, the multidirectionality that exists prior to making a decision can be fun. It’s an exercise in creative thinking. Or it could be a healthy type of risk taking, measuring the value of tasks done in advance versus last-minute scrambling. A calculus of brinkmanship against time.
I want to believe that. But too often I wonder how much procrastination is driven by fear – fear of making the wrong decision, fear of commitment, fear of the unknown. Procrastination allows you to feel like you’re putting off the future until you’re better able to handle it. Maybe someone else will swoop in to solve the problem and save the day. Maybe with a little more time, circumstances will change, leading to the perfect outcome. Maybe that difficult task will become easier.
“Ignore your teeth and they’ll go away – they’re the only problems that do.” Yes, it’s a nerdquote, but think about it a little harder: it’s kind of profound. Procrastination rarely makes things better. It often makes things worse (not to mention the stress it causes!). The problems or tasks I avoid tend to be ones I don’t know how to approach or that I’m unfamiliar with. It’s a lazy perfectionism that says if I can’t do it perfectly, I won’t do it at all. But how will I succeed if I don’t try? And not a last minute, half-ass attempt, but a real, solid, researched-outlined-and-drafted approach. Better to fail well than pass half-heartedly. Who really wants to get a gentleman’s C in life?
I love to be advicey in the hallowed pages of TWR, but on the topic of procrastination, it’s hard to. On the one hand, I manage projects at work and keep them on schedule. I pay my bills on time and have gone to the dentist every six months for the last four years (after an 8 year hiatus. No cavities, though!). On the other hand, I haven’t put away my winter clothes from 2011 (just in time for winter 2012; sometimes problems do go away), and my computer menacingly warns me “your startup disk is almost full!” every time I turn it on. It’s a lot of little annoyances, like not being able to download the latest Emojis for my iPhone because I haven’t updated my iOS (and lord knows I’m waiting for Apple to work through their maps issues before I update to iOS 6). #firstworldproblems: yes. It’s waking up at 4am wondering why I didn’t get my laundry done before a big trip the next day. It’s the occasional $25 FedEx overnight charge to send in a bill the day before it’s due.
What’s the answer? Face your fear and get things done! Write things down, make lists, do things when you think of them. Don’t put things off. It seems simple, right? And you, dear sweet non-procrastinator readers, no doubt do all of these things every day, sleeping like cavity-free babies with well-organized computers, sending hilarious Emoji-filled texts. The rest of us, like Icarus, fly too close to the procrastination sun. When will we learn? Great question! Let me look into it. I’ll get back to you later.