I need to do it, but I don’t want. I should do. I’m going to do it. Lemme just finish/start/lookit/listen to one more show-game-movie-post-blog(hi)-article-chapter-poem-song-video-clip. No really, just one more and then I’ll totally…not work.
Ahh, procrastination. Midterms loom, NaNoWriMo swells, colds catch, and the will withers. It must be November. As a writer, chronic academic, and person plagued with a petri dish of family members, I feel your pain. I’m not sick yet (‘yet’ being the operative word; they cough everywhere, the air is a minefield, every handle a tripwire, and every coworker leaving early an enemy surrendering to the feeble cause of my healthiness, though parents, nieces, and nephews are against me…coughing…always coughing). I get it. I mean, I started this blog on the 6th, then the 9th, then again the 12th (because apparently I’m into multiples of 3), and now the 16th. Seriously, though procrastination is a plague, particularly given NaNoWriMo.
I mean, c’mon: We’re on Day 16. That’s over halfway done and I’ve fallen more than a bit behind. According to ye olde desktop calculator, if I were writing 1,667 words a day I would be at 26,672 by midnight tonight. I’m not even in the neighborhood. If 26.6k can buy us a white picket fence, green my grass into an actual lawn, and give me a porch to view it from, then our paltry 6k (of actual story, not the behind-the-scene research, plot, and structural bits), plants us on a dirt patch with a wobbly umbrella. At least We’re not going to get sunburned…in Colorado…in November? Whatever.
You know what? I’m actually okay with it. I knew the start was going to be slow and rocky, and right now my personal life, and the personal lives of way too many people close to me are in turmoil for a shockingly diverse and unrelated number of reasons. The universe is out of whack. Familial conflicts and responsibilities, domestic chores, illness, social commitments, day job drudgery, sleep deprivation, depression, global tragedies, and relationship woes have sapped all my time and will pushing me into procrastination’s janky playground. I’ve argued more words this week than I’ve written in the last month. But shit happens. Life happens. We carry on. We get shit done. And we get the fuck over it.
So, be honest. How angry did that last bit make you? I’m hoping for “pissed off” or at the very least “rebuffed.” Dismissive statements like “Shit happens,” “Carry on,” “Just do it,” “Get over it,” “Try harder,” etc. are one of my ugliest, snarliest and least house-broken pet peeves bred in the amateur (and sometimes professional) advising community. Those statements completely minimize and dismiss the complexities of life and individual struggles and circumstances. So while bucking up may be a viable solution for some, for the rest of us, it’s simply offensive. There so many reasons why we fail to work and often they form patterns unique to each of us. Once we realize they’re there, the obvious question then becomes: How do we break them?
Well, first you identify the pattern’s pieces and consider what causes them, why you default to them, and what you could do instead. I’d like to get more specific than that and really nitpick at the grit of self-improvement and the cultivation of personal sagacity, unfortunately, the fact that, as aforementioned the patterns are somewhat snowflaky and unique, means addressing everyone’s personal pathways to self-destruction in one blog is out (that said if you’re interested in my advice, feel from to comment or email me, and we’ll see what happens). Instead, we can examine the most tangible and familiar effect of all those distinctive, destructive patterns: Procrastination (re: why we don’t do).
Procrastination, as defined by the original Webster’s is “The act or habit of procrastinating, or putting off to a future time; delay; dilatoriness.” Check that synonym: dilatoriness. I can’t handle it out loud. I mean, I know the root, but that’s a cumbersome bugger to tongue. Anyway. Procrastination: tomorrow’s problem. But it’s not really, is it?
When we procrastinate, we’re actually taking part in psychological self-harm. Whether we want to do the thing we’re putting off in the long run or simply must because of external commitments (school-work-family-promises-to-time-thieving-friends), when we avoid it, we create a mental weight that pressures our awareness. This weight crushes half of the joy out of whatever we’re doing when we should be doing something else. The weight increases with every passing moment until you’re pinned beneath it in a purgatory of pissed and panic. So why do we do this to ourselves?
Well, a while back, M. K. Darcy gave me two magnificent articles on procrastination. They’re actually by the same person (Tim Urban) and connected. The first focuses on why and the second looks at how to beat it (spoiler: brick by brick. Seriously, don’t build a wall; lay a brick). You should really read these articles in full (yes, they’re lengthy, but if you read them you can bask in the irony of procrastinating by reading articles on procrastination and learn a something or two), but the main reason I bring them up is because of Urban’s catchy concepts and telescopic metaphor for procrastination and its pieces.
First we have the Rational Decision-Maker (RDM): This is the voice in your head who knows what you have to do, when you have to do it, and how to do it. This is also the voice that nags you when you aren’t doing it, and swears at you when you continue to not do it. The RDM thinks of life in the long term and knows to the best of her ability what will make you happy not just now, but continuously.
Then there’s the Instant Gratification Monkey (IGM): This is the Facebook-YouTube-Twitter-Netflix-Text-Phone-Dogwalking-Paperclipflicking-Anythingbutworking child-brain that makes grabby hands and shiny desu eyes at anything that isn’t your current work. The IGM thinks solely in the now, never glancing back or further the road, and thus, shouldn’t steer your course. Unfortunately, he’s a monkey, so he’s great at grabbing the wheel.
This odd couple is stuck together, driving your brain through the Dark Woods, trying to navigate the perilous nature of doing. At the end of the road RDM sees completion, but alongside it, IGM sees the delights of distraction dancing around the Dark Playground. Naturally IGM drags RDM, and you along with her, into the playground. Here’s the unfortunate part: you can’t really have fun here. This is the place where that aforementioned weight hops on your back (…a lot like a monkey) and crushes your joy along with your vertebrae, forcing you to pony it around to booths with riveting games like “Build a Small Fort Out of Pens,” “Smile Vaguely at the Cat Video that Wasn’t as Amazingly Adorable as the Title Promised,” and the ever-popular “Keep Hitting Refresh on Facebook at 3:15 AM Because Everyone Will Surely Be Posting Soon.” With each booth the weight gets heavier as IGM gathers more prizes and eats more crap carnival food. Your guilt grows and your wallet empties of spoons (re: Spoon Theory or tl;dr spoons are essentially energy).
So what do you do? How do you break the cycle? To be honest, breaking it once you’re in the Dark Playground is hard, really hard. You’re hemorrhaging energy, you feel guilty, you’ve psychologically berated yourself for hours, and you’re likely almost out of time to do the task. But you can do it. Depending on what it is and the time you’ve allotted yourself, you may not be able to finish it, but you can at least start it. How? Try to do it for 1 minute. That’s it. 60 seconds of work. See what happens. Often times once you’ve made the hard call to drop the IGM, and gotten over the fear embedded in the idea of work, you’ll start to gather momentum. This momentum has the magical ability to give you spoons back, ease your breathing, and minimize the weight of the task. Yes, you still have to do it, and yes, there’s a lot to do, but now you’re doing it, so it’s not that scary. This is because the first step to failing is not trying, and so by starting, you’ve sucker punched the voice that says “You’re bound to fail, so why bother?” You’re making progress.
By challenging yourself to 60 seconds of work, you also sneak productivity into the ADHD roulette roster of the IGM. He’s constantly switching tasks anyway, so he’ll hardly notice if you say you’re going to do something boring for 60 seconds because he assumes he’ll have the wheel again afterward. In my experience, he’s usually wrong about that. But the best part of your newly achieved forward momentum is that its force flings the little monkey, who naturally failed to buckle up, to the back of the brain, letting RDM drive unimpeded.
Hooray! Victory in the moment! Cue the kazoo solo! We’re back on course. But that only addresses how to stop procrastinating once we’ve started, doesn’t it? So how do we beat procrastination before it happens?
Obviously there’s no one-size-fits-all-monkeys solution. That said, the closest to universal monkey-leash I’ve encountered is the use of planning and routines. When you break down what you have to do into pieces, into the smallest, most base parts, from L. Alexandra down to L. Alexandra’s big toe’s atoms, you’ll find things to be much more manageable. Jot down a list, or better yet, do a mind map. Start with the core goal (ex: NOVEL) then branch out to the nearest necessary and related concepts (ex: Characters, Plot, Research). Here’s my initial mind map for NaNoWriMo:
What do you do first? Well, what is the most pressing part of the task? What needs to be done before anything can be worked on? If all things are equal there, then what do you feel most passionate about? Do that first. And when you finish it, cross it off. Urban notes that lists can be a double-edged sword, but he and I both agree that they’re still necessary.
Organization aside, the simple act of crossing things off gives you a lovely jolt of dopamine and a sense of accomplishment. It can also help you gauge what you’ve done in comparison to what you still have to do, and thus makes a lovely visual representation of your progress. However, be careful when writing your To Do lists. You need to be very specific. Make one list per task. Don’t put grocery shopping, book writing, house cleaning, and planet saving on the same list. Each of those tasks has individual steps and very different needs associated with it. So separate the tasks, figure out which is your priority, then break it down and prioritize again.
My preference is to use the Passion Planner (if you share it on social media you can download a printable version for free), which has a stacking-doll-esque system for layering your priorities by the year, month, week, and day. It’s amazing for clarity and also lets you bypass having to develop your own system, which always seems like a good idea until you try it. The image of my mind map above is actually from my Passion Planner’s November calendar. While you obviously don’t need to use the Passion Planner if it doesn’t jive with you, I do recommend finding a system or organizational tool that does. Throw some method in with your madness and you’ll be amazed how quickly your habits can change (disclaimer: still working on sticking to those changed habits myself). Brick by brick we can build this wall-novel-betterself. And make no mistake, this is, ultimately, regardless of the task, about the self. It’s about you and why you do things.
The answer to why we procrastinate is a complex one, but basically it comes down to fear of failure. As I mentioned before, if we don’t do the thing, then we failed because we didn’t do it, not because it wasn’t good enough, not because we weren’t good enough. Now, admittedly, this applies more to why we procrastinate on work that requires concentrated mental or physical effort (writing, arting, doing taxes, creating a professional presentation, training for an event) rather than things like taking out the trash or reading that chapter for history. In the case of the latter two, we procrastinate because we just don’t want to do it. But given I’m a writer (particularly this month) and we’re supposed to be talking about NaNoWriMo (you thought I forgot, didn’t you?), I’m focusing on the former situations.
So how do you best the fear of failure? Change your mental script. You aren’t going to fail to write a novel. You only do that if you don’t write a novel. If you don’t complete it this month? That’s cool. Seriously. Take a breath and ask yourself: Why do I have to finish my novel during this arbitrarily selected month of November? What will happen if I don’t? Did I accidentally put my address into the NaNoWriMo release form thereby providing the means for the Novel Police to hunt me down and extort my back owed prose? No? As I said before: Cool. Novels take time. Setting goals for yourself is healthy and often productive, but beating yourself up and throwing out insults like a schoolyard bully is not (I’m talking to you, RDM. At least the monkey is nice).
Learn to accept your missteps with grace. Examine them and reflect on why you stumbled in the first place. Did you overestimate your time? Did you underestimate the difficulty of the subject? Did life jump out of a dark alley, shank you thrice, then root about inside for spare kidneys? Why did these things happen? What can you learn from them? How can you apply those lessons going forward? What I’m saying is this: Be mindful. Pay attention to your choices and act deliberately. Intuiting isn’t a bad thing, but when you lose awareness of it you often lose perspective, and avoidance of biology homework because you struggle to pronounce the vocabulary even though you understand the concepts morphs into a mantra of “I’m too stupid for this class.” By being mindful you can find the true source of complications and with a bit of work, their solutions. This allows you to be kinder to yourself. If you’re aware of your problems and their roots, you can work on them instead of judging yourself for their existence and avoiding them, both of which are negativity that you really don’t need in your life. Seriously, be kind to you. You’re the only you you’ve got. If you constantly harp on what you haven’t done or failed to do in an aforementioned arbitrarily designated amount of time, you won’t have the spoons left to do anything, let alone drum out the thing you want.
Life happens. Procrastination happens. But somewhere in between, so does progress. So be mindful of it and you’ll find yourself not only more prepared to push on, but less broken by the occasional fall. Now, I don’t know about you, but I really should be writing…