Problems With Procrastination? Maybe Not

Lazy Cat at Tum Bur in Hattingen Ruhr
Image via Wikipedia

Around this type of year in any post-secondary education environment, there’s only one thing on students’ minds: exams (or as I prefer to call them, “knowledge exploration invitations“). It’s a bit of a shame, too, as there’s other, happier things to be thinking about around this time of year. Nonetheless, amid bulging auras of festivity as December quickly progresses, students learn that their holiday cheer must take a back seat to these evaluative academic tasks. Stress, sickness, and a bevy of other physical and emotional tolls are common and expected experiences.

In particular, one such experience seems to stand out prominently: procrastination. Yes, that unrelenting, all-consuming desire to defer certain tasks to a later time; that failure to delay the gratification of doing something more fun or less effortful; that most persistent voice in your head that does such a great job convincing you to put something off, then chases you into a guilt storm so dampening you don’t even enjoy what you ended up doing anyway.

How unpleasant.

I’m currently suffering from a cumulative form of procrastination: I’m putting off work doing data analysis for my thesis by completing the less unpleasant task of writing this blog entry. I’m writing this post today, instead of earlier in the week, because there were more immediately appealing things to do at work at the time, like allowing myself to have a lunch break and going to the office holiday party. How this might affect what I get up to tomorrow has yet to be seen, but I’m not holding out too much hope for a super-productive Sunday.

If you’re human, you’ll admit to having procrastinated about something. If you’re an honest human, you’ll admit to having procrastinated about a lot of things. I’ll even go out on a limb and say that you’ve often put some salt in that wound and felt guilty about your procrastination. Fair enough, if you’re not accomplishing something that’s important to you, there’s an appropriate degree of guilt that’s bound to go along with that. However, there’s also a point where this guilt can get out of hand, which can lead to a shame spiral, a remorse vortex, or… worst of all – an ignominy helix.

Generally speaking, we don’t want to be involved in any sort of emotionally taxing rotational psychic motion. When it comes to feeling good about ourselves, straight lines tend to be easier to handle. Fortunately, there are some ways to reduce procrastination, or if that’s not a reasonable expectation (and I include myself in this camp), to reduce the feelings of guilt that go along with it.

I have some tips for dealing with procrastination that I’d like to list below, but I’ll first  make a clarification by stating that there are two distinct groups for which these tips apply separately.

Group 1: Procrastinate Less

If procrastination has seriously and routinely impaired your ability to accomplish major tasks in your life (i.e. you’ve repeatedly failed exams/assignments as a direct consequence of your procrastination), you fall into a group that I would say needs to consciously reduce their time spent procrastinating. Here are some ideas on how you might do just that:

1. Make sure you’re setting SMART goals.
You might be so inclined to put tasks off because they seem daunting, too large, unrealistic, or overly vague. Setting specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, time-sensitive goals might help to take the stress off a bit.

2. Try the “10-minutes of work” trick.
If you’ve ever sat down to work on a big project, realized it would take several hours to finish, and collapsed into a self-defeating heap of despair at the thought of spending that much time and energy on something so soul-draining, this one’s for you. All you need to do is commit to spending 10 minutes on the task you’re procrastinating on, which should reduce the psychological gut-punch you get from thinking about it, allowing you to actually get started. Here’s the thing: once you’ve actually spent 10 minutes on the task, it’s going to be much easier to keep working, because you’ve already got some momentum. Think of this as if you were pushing a heavy, round boulder down a flat street – once you’ve got the boulder rolling, it takes much less energy to keep it moving as it would to get it started from a full stop.

3. Procrastinate, but that’s all.
So, you’ve set some SMART goals, you’ve tried the 10 minute trick, and you’re still stuck. It’s time to give in – so let yourself procrastinate! But here’s the thing: if you’re going to procrastinate, that’s all you’re allowed to do. Don’t allow yourself to do anything other than straight-up procrastination. No TV, no computer, no reading, nothing. Just sit there and think about procrastination. This should be sufficiently boring enough that you might actually prefer to get down to work.

Group 2: Continue Procrastinating, and Feel Less Guilty About It

This is the group that I’m a part of (as you may have guessed from some of my previous writing). You belong in this group if, like me, you’re a chronic procrastinator, but it’s never interfered with your ability to accomplish the important things in your life. Crammed for exams and passed satisfactorily? Check. Finished papers/assignments hours from the submission deadline without ill consequence? Check. Written blog articles a day or two after you said you would, but still write once a week? Check. Took six years to propose to your girlfriend, and she hung around long enough to say yes? Check.

If you are a member of this group, there’s really only one tip I have for you: don’t change anything. Procrastination is working for you. In fact, the only thing you would do well to change is the amount of guilt you feel when you procrastinate. It’s a part of your process! If getting an early start was the only way to accomplish things and succeed, you would have learned that lesson the hard way many times over by now.

So, with that said, it’s clearly time to go make some stew and watch some hockey. There’s nothing I can do for my thesis today that I can’t also do tomorrow.

*Cross-posted at the Career Services Informer.