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On Procrastination

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Photo by Pedro Forester Da Silva on Unsplash

I read a blog post on Bang2Write, one of my favourite sites, about how to deal with procrastination. I disagree with it completely, so I thought I would explain why. There’s a link at the bottom for the article if you’re interested in reading it, but I didn’t want to link it before I explain why I disagree.

The article is by a guest writer, Chantelle Torres. In the article, they list seven ways to deal with procrastination. There’s a cutesy illustration to help remember and everything. My issue is that all the ways listed in the article are productivity tricks and that, generally, Chantelle treats procrastination as a productivity problem. But procrastination is not a productivity problem. It’s an emotion regulation problem.

Procrastination isn’t about being lazy. It isn’t about being distracted, and it isn’t about a lack of self-control.

In many ways, procrastination is a bit like an addiction. We feel bad and distract (or self-medicate) ourselves to stop feeling bad. Then we feel bad about distracting ourselves, and so on. Basically, procrastination and addiction are both coping mechanisms. They are not great coping mechanisms, but they help us feel better in the moment, which is why they are so difficult to overcome.

So, what are ways to deal with procrastination? The first step is not to treat procrastination as “something is wrong with me” or “I’m doing something wrong”. People struggling with addiction won’t benefit from telling themselves to “just stop”. Similarly, when we tell ourselves we procrastinate because we are weak or lazy, we just make things worse. One of the reasons I was annoyed by the aforementioned post is because it makes my brain think that if I “just do” some surface behaviour like make a list or record an affirmation, then everything will magically be better. Even worse, sometimes, these productivity hacks work, which makes me feel like a failure when they don’t. Making a to-do list is essential for productivity. But, again, procrastination isn’t a productivity issue; it’s an emotional issue.

The second step is to be mindful. Mindfulness is an incredible tool that can help with several skills, such as emotion regulation and attention. In particular, mindfulness helps with addiction. Mindfulness training teaches us to sit with difficult emotions, and that’s why it’s helpful in this case.

How does this work? Here’s an example. I sit down in the morning to write a blog post. Say, about procrastination. I don’t know where to start or what I want to say about it, so I start trawling the interwebs and find very helpful things like Tim Urban’s Ted Talk (which I already watched, but it’s good, so I watch it again) or an NYT article where they interviewed someone who used to be my professor. Then I go look him up, see what he’s up to these days, and reflect on how time passes and how everything changes. Then I remember I once wrote a blog post about writer’s block, which is kind of related to procrastination but isn’t really and go read that. Then I go into a bit of a wormhole on Tim Urban’s site (which is great for procrastinators, by the way) and have random ideas for blog posts like comparing his work with Oliver Burkeman’s, and oops, it’s time for me to read something I said I’d read before the meeting I have in ten minutes. By the time the meetings end, it’s the afternoon, and I really want this post to be written already, but I still have no idea what I want to say.

Here’s where two things can happen. The first thing that can happen, and frequently did when I was younger, less confident, and hadn’t yet started meditating, is that I go back to the websites and don’t finish the blog post. Later, I feel bad about it and get angry with myself that I didn’t finish it (and I had a deadline and everything!), which will escalate into getting mad at myself for never finishing things and always being lazy and not having an actual job. And next week, when it’s time to write another blog post, there will be that much more anxiety and negative emotions attached to it.

But more and more frequently, I manage to get this second thing to happen. I sit with my negative emotions. I look at all the fears I have about this particular post at this particular time. I let them all come up: what if no one read it? What if no one liked it? What if I don’t know what I’m talking about? How dare I contradict Lucy when she has so much more experience than me? Who do I think I am? How can I lecture other people about procrastination when I can’t even finish this frigging post? I notice my body and how these fears feel in the lower belly, solar plexus, chest, and throat. I relax my jaw. I notice the temptation of diving back into the wormhole of procrastination. I notice the temptation to say this whole writing thing isn’t for me. And these emotions, like all emotions, fade away after a while. And I notice that, too.

This is not an exhaustive list, by the way, but I detailed all of these fears, emotions, and thoughts to make a point. It’s not easy, and it’s not a shortcut. I can’t put it into an 8-easy-steps article, nor do I want to. The AI can do that for you, or you can read Chantelle’s practical post on Bang2Write. In fact, in the moment, procrastinating is much easier than not procrastinating. That’s the point. Managing procrastination, on the other hand, takes time, it takes effort, and it’s painful. That’s (one of the reasons) why many people procrastinate.


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