I am an expert on my own procrastination. When I can’t write essays I write about not writing. I am not alone in this.
Somewhere in that sidebar over there is a little field that says “ask me anything.” It moves around a bit as one article or another tells me pinterest should be on top or social share buttons are most important but it is always there. I put it up there instead of the “contact me” form. I am notoriously terrible at listening to voice mails. But written questions I tend to answer.
To my great pleasure it became an easy source of job opportunities.
I found that it (slowly) filled with strong responses to the blog. Some were grateful for my honesty.
Many were damning. And then apologetic.
One even threatened my children. After that I dreaded reading them. Yet the prompt stayed up there (or over there if it has been pushed down.)
Earlier this week I received the following question.
I was quite pleased to receive it because it was neither about my children nor my underwear. Also it seemed to play in my head with a British accent. Which is always quite lovely.
I’ve been enjoying your article on procrastination, perfectionism and depression. I am in the final year of a journalism degree at The University of Sunderland, UK, and as part of my dissertation I am researching ‘hidden’ symptoms of anxiety and depression disorders – procrastination very much involved. I was wondering if I might ask you a couple of follow-up questions to your article, as part of my research?
Looking forward to hearing from you,
The logical thing to do would be to sit on this message for a week or more…but I don’t like to be predictable so I answered him RIGHT AWAY. I took some time composing my response so he knew that I was a serious individual capable of adding my voice and perspective to important research.
I even included the winky face. I want you to note that a. I have disabled yellow emoticons on my phones keyboard keeping me hip and old school. And b. there is no other way to ask about due dates on a dissertation regarding procrastination without a jolly self deprecating wink. (yes, something can be both jolly and self deprecating see above wink.)
Whilst not trying to prove this either way in my dissertation, I am discussing whether procrastination itself is a symptom of anxiety, depression, or both – do you think it fits more as a symptom of one or the other (or both, or something else) and why?As somebody who spends a great deal of time writing, so you have any techniques you adopt to avoid or recognise procrastination (and if so, what are they)?You describe the arrival of the ‘panic monster’ – have you ever found that you thrive on this frantic mindset, and if so, would you say that sometimes procrastination might even pay off?Have you ever found, during a period of procrastination, that your mind wanders to the ‘what if’s’ of a given situation, and starts to project possible, even far-fetched outcomes of doing/not doing what you’re supposed too? I’m talking here about projection (not the psychic, telekinetic kind!). Do you think projection is linked to procrastination, or is in itself a separate anxiety or depression based symptom (or, again, both.)?
Interesting questions right? But most importantly…no due date. Not one at all. I haven’t had a due date in life since the birth of my boys. Both of which I ignored. (The due dates not the boys) (Well not all of the time.)
How would I handle this? Would I possibly ask a SECOND time for the due date? Ha! Would I compose a thoughtful response right away? Ha HA! Would I….
Before I could even come up with a third option (which most certainly would not include waiting some super long amount of time until the work and worry of answering a few questions loomed large) he seemed to have caught his error.
Additional – in response to query re: due date – if you could respond before the end of the working week that would be wonderful. My deadline is a little later, but that would give me time to draft and redraft (and procrastinate!) and finalise my paper. Thanks again,
Damn. But again with the s instead of the z. How British. Doesn’t finalising something sound lovely and possible whilst finalizing it sounds horrid? In any case I had until Friday. My flight was due to arrive in Denver Thursday at 1am. Which technically is already Friday but you know, lets call it Thursday. So I would arrive home by 2:30 and then sleep a while. Less than I wanted probably and then give myself an excuse to drive to the coffee shop and then banter with the cat sitting barista and then write this guy. It would be done by early afternoon which, if we didn’t take into account time differences, would give him plenty of time to procrastinate. Done. You might note that I probably could have DONE the work in the time I took planning WHEN to do the work. If you find that interesting you are not a procrastinator. That is procrastinating 101. So basic.
So the next day I woke up in full bitch mode because it was a travel day and everyone knows that a snappish family member is necessary if you don’t want to miss a flight. I barked orders about laundry ignoring all the shit I brag about about letting my kids do things on their own. I had really poor sex with my husband. To my credit this at least was following my own advice. Then I sulked through a breakfast with a friend while my cold kept me from having the best bloody mary in the world. I actually yelled at her about yoga pants. Yelled. She is the kind of friend I can yell at and she will laugh. Which she did. So then I did. So then I coughed because I had a cold (which I think I forgot to complain about already.) If you are noticing that I am bossing around my family while I am having brunch you are right. But I didn’t have the bloody mary so that is suffering ENOUGH.
So I dropped the kids at the playground and as I drove down my least favorite street in Vermont telling myself how naive I had been about its bad-ness (I now live 2 blocks from Colorado BLVD which could eat Shelburne Rd for breakfast) I tried to chill out. What was upsetting me? The cold? The travel (tin can, how do you stay in the sky) the sluggish children? no…it was answering the questions for that British guy. He makes it seems like such a little thing it can fit in an email but instead he wants me to come to some sort of understanding that has eluded me for 25 years and write it up for him by Friday! The nerve. Also- could I dig out my college journal, cause all of that stuff is in there. I’m pretty sure I can’t write at all on this topic without my original source material. There it is folks. I have created from my very own imagination an insurmountable task. I have now fixated on finding this journal which if it still has physical form is in neither of the two states I will be in between now and Friday. So that is that really. Done. Also, by the way, it doesn’t really matter if I answer these questions. I’m sure this British guy wrote to like 75 bloggers on this topic. Maybe it is all just a numbers game. Maybe he is tracking how many people respond to his query and that in fact is the data he wants. Not my words. So I could do nothing and be as good a data point as if I wrote answers. In fact it might even help prove his hypothesis (which although he pretends he doesn’t share it anyone who reads his email can see that he DOES think procrastination is a hidden side effect of depression/anxiety.)
So I’ll do nothing. That’ll be fine.Or maybe not. What if it isn’t fine. Maybe I can find someone else to write it for me. Someone who is approximately like me so he can have his quotes or whatever but I don’t have to provide them. That would be good. I’m sure I can find someone, explain the situation, have them write a response that would be similar to but better written than mine and let it go at that. Hmmm…let me make a list of writers who have some sort of procrastination issues.
My list includes every writer who isn’t Steven King.
Now I need to narrow the list to writers who I could access before friday. This is a smaller list, but somewhere in this list is my savior so it will still work.
At about this time Steve arrives to return a car we borrowed for our two weeks in Vermont. I hurry up. He won’t be much more than 5 minutes and I need to hit on a solution of who can do this other than me. Wait, what about Steve himself? He could sit at the computer and write something. Then I could edit it. Editing is much easier than writing (please ignore the fact that I never edit this blog- that does not contradict my statement, because I don’t edit anything I obviously know for a fact that editing is easier.) Steve is not depressed, does not procrastinate and is not a writer. But he MARRIED one. Thats enough to drag him into this quicksand with me obviously.
But no, this whole line of thinking has to stop because Steve is here to say that our flight got cancelled and we are flying from VT to Denver Friday. Fuck. a. I wasted half a day of being a bitch and now I might not have enough bitchiness left to get my family safely on the plane. b. now I couldn’t write back to this guy on Friday.
So I guess that means I can’t respond at all. Phew. That’s settled.
Except. Maybe I could do it Thursday.
Today is Thursday.
I could respond to him Thursday.
This is a frightening word to the procrastinator. It is the second most frightening word. The worst?
A brief word about now. It is always now. always. See it follow you as you read this sentence. Now. Now. Now. It sounds sort of like a gun shot, doesn’t it?
So if you dread now, if now is scary, then that is not ideal.
I guess it is time to answer his questions. But see, I used the time to write about how it was time. So now there is no time. I need to have a re-do on the breakfast. This time I will not yell at my friend. This time I might have the bloody Mary. In fact if I think about it…skipping the bloody mary might have been the problem all along.
I went ahead and answered him. If you are interested here it is. I can already think of other things to say or things to say in other ways but the best way to beat procrastination is to just get working. So I did.
Whilst not trying to prove this either way in my dissertation, I am discussing whether procrastination itself is a symptom of anxiety, depression, or both – do you think it fits more as a symptom of one or the other (or both, or something else) and why?
My gut says that procrastination and depression and anxiety are neither causes nor symptoms of each other but rather fruits of the same sad tree. I’d like to propose a branch of perfectionism which seems to be tangled together with at least the two that I have a lifetime of experience with…procrastination and depression.
Comparing the sensation of depression and procrastination makes them seem far from each other on the spectrum of suffering. When I am in the midst of a depressive episode I feel detached and numb. Nothing seems to have meaning or significance. Procrastination feels like the opposite. The job to do seems to have tremendous importance that dwarfs all reason. It is so important that I can’t get my mind or arms around it. I let it loom over me and that in itself makes it larger still. The similarity between the experience is that both take me away from normal function of life. When I am depressed I am doing very little. When I am procrastinating I am doing many things, just not one particular thing. I find both states to be exhausting. Neither my brain nor my body is working at a healthy sustainable speed, in one case too slow and in the other too fast.
I am not in treatment for anxiety, but my depressive tendencies come with a manic component as a result of my medication. My doctor and I do a lot of psychopharmecudical and therapeutic work trying to turn down the volume on the mania without dampening my ability to function on the lower end of my moods. When a project enters into my procrastination queue my response recalls the feeling of uncontrolled mania. Whatever I am focusing on at the moment is too important to look away from. With procrastination that leaves the “job” unattended. With mania that leaves all other parts of life out there as “other.”
When I was school aged I suffered from perfectionism. I loved spelling tests and multiplication tables because there were finite ways to be right, and also finite ways to fail. Outside of structured school work I floated in a sea of possibilities. Each essay, autobiography, diorama held the likelihood of being terrible. And by terrible I mean not the best. And by likelihood I mean guarantee. In an effort to avoid the feeling of producing something terrible (and at that stage each piece of work that I produced felt like a piece of my self out there in the world being judged) I would avoid it altogether. Then it would be too late. There would be too little time. So the reason for low quality work came from circumstance not authorship.
As somebody who spends a great deal of time writing, so you have any techniques you adopt to avoid or recognise procrastination (and if so, what are they)?
It doesn’t take much for me to recognize procrastination. If anyone (including me) has expectations for some physical output of quality (article, sewn pillow, tax report) my first line of defense is to procrastinate. I have three ways to deal with this. One is the technique of diving in. The other is living a life with few external deadlines, and the last and most effective one is realizing that my work product is not the same as my heart or my head.
Diving in. I can’t set a time to write a particular article. If I say I will write on Friday my entire week between then and Friday becomes clogged with worry about Friday. What I do do is set aside blocks of work time every morning. I work then. I don’t expect to work at other times. So when I get an idea or assignment I start it the very next available work block. No tip toes. Just dive in. Then I have to keep swimming. If I get out of the water patting myself on the back at my “progress” I might as well not have started. So I keep swimming. There is a big and obvious downside to this. Everything I attempt needs to be broken into pieces small enough to be done between 9am-11:30 am. This (amongst other reasons) is why I am not a surgeon, and why if I ever publish a book it will not be a beautiful narrative but broken observations
Choosing my battles. I am lucky to get to choose my work. I do not need to show up every day and punch a time card (although occasionally in my least clear headed times I imagine that might be a relief). I can say no to assignments that involve subjects that don’t engage me. And I can afford to lose jobs if I miss deadlines. For the most part I fit deadlines into the regular rhythm of my life. But it doesn’t last long. I have abandoned my weekly writing for websites. I can create a myriad of reasons, but the bottom line is my creativity is crushed by the regular expectation of an editor with space to fill. So I have very few deadlines in my life. We have family meeting Mondays at 6:30. Most of the time I make it.
That essay is not me. It took a long time to realize that my perfectionism (which I feel is the root of my procrastination) derives from the idea that any piece of work of mine that exists needs to reflect all of my values and my value. That is a huge expectation to have. Too huge for a second grader. Too huge for an essay. Once I realized that things could suck and I would live I made some progress. Not only did it improve the feeling of drowning while trying to work but it also improved the work itself. It turns out trying to reference everything on the planet and be relevant to everyone is impossible. Saying one thing to one person was easier. Then if other people are interested I might say something else some other time. And even if I end up saying lots of things to lots of people gathering them all together does still not make them me. So its OK if those things suck. Just like me they will suck sometimes and not others.
You describe the arrival of the ‘panic monster’ – have you ever found that you thrive on this frantic mindset, and if so, would you say that sometimes procrastination might even pay off?
The panic monster (as I referenced in my original post) is not my creation even if he does keep me company. He is a concept and drawing that borrow from Tim Urban of the blog Wait But Why. I thrive on his arrival in the sense that I would NEVER DO ANYTHING if I am in procrastination mode and he didn’t arrive. I need to be scared to get going. It is a little different when it is depression rather than procrastination. Here the monster is carrying my life preserver. I have had to teach myself not to like the frantic mindset. It has taken a while to realize that it is simply the flip side of my depression and even though I feel supercharged and powerful I am neither. When I am down I am almost literally so. I have compared depression to drowning from the inside out or being buried not so alive. Often when I emerge from that state I fly too high. Being able to breathe and see and hear is so strong that I feel untouchable. The trick is finding the middle of it all. For a long time I felt that I needed that fear to work at all. Now I have realized that I can live and work between the ups and the downs. It is tough to remember and practice it, but it happens sometimes. I don’t think that procrastination has ever paid off. There is not a single case where the work that I produced couldn’t have been better researched or edited if I didn’t spend 90% of my work time finding ways not to work.
Have you ever found, during a period of procrastination, that your mind wanders to the ‘what if’s’ of a given situation, and starts to project possible, even far-fetched outcomes of doing/not doing what you’re supposed too? I’m talking here about projection (not the psychic, telekinetic kind!).
I had an ongoing joke with my college roommates. This was in the days before cell phones when five of us shared a phone in our suite. Before I would answer the phone (which I would always do because-hey-procrastination) I would call out. “Its your econ professor he is calling to say stop studying he decided just to give you an A on the exam.” Or “Hey Debi don’t write that semiotics paper- your professor has decided it is all a construct so everyone gets an A.” It was a running joke but a piece of me always believed that if I suffered long enough on one project I would end up with an instant A on another. In graduate school my father got sick and I commuted back and forth for 4 hours twice a week between school, work and his bedside. I ended up taking an incomplete that term from a professor who had appreciated my work the semester before. I met with him to go over what his expectation were to turn my “I” to an “A” (perfectionism again) He told me he would email his assignments. The next day I received his email. It said: Don’t bother doing anymore work, I have given you an A for the semester and the year. So that one came true.
Do you think projection is linked to procrastination, or is in itself a separate anxiety or depression based symptom (or, again, both.)?
Is there a way to feel anxious without projecting a negative outcome? I really don’t know. I don’t live in the world of anxiety the way I do procrastination and depression. In the depths of my depression there is no projection at all. Nothing. Procrastination requires a lot of thinking to get started. Meaning if you think the procrastination will start…not the work. If I just get going on an assignment I rarely imagine either great or horrible results from the work. If I am invested in the outcome I am much more likely to procrastinate. Procrastination is caring…too much.