It turns out procrastination is not typically a function of laziness, apathy or work ethic as it is often regarded to be. It’s a neurotic self-defense behavior that develops to protect a person’s sense of self-worth.
You see, procrastinators tend to be people who have, for whatever reason, developed to perceive an unusually strong association between their performance and their value as a person. This makes failure or criticism disproportionately painful, which leads naturally to hesitancy when it comes to the prospect of doing anything that reflects their ability — which is pretty much everything.
-David Cain, “Procrastination Is Not Laziness”
I used to take a long time to get started on major projects. When I was in school and they’d assign us a term paper, I’d spend a lot of time trying to think of the perfect idea. And not just something perfect for a high school or undergrad course, but perfect-perfect. I wanted to write literary criticism that’d make Harold Bloom jealous. Something James Joyce could have nodded sagely at in his day.
Usually, I had a few solid ideas that came directly to mind, but I was always skeptical about those early thoughts. I felt like their swift entry was likely a sign of their low quality. In those days, I firmly believed that the best ideas weren’t the first ones you thought of. No, genius took a while to show up. So I’d wait and wait, waiting for true inspiration to strike.
But it usually wouldn’t. And then it’d suddenly be the day before the paper was due. So I’d run to the library to grab some secondary source materials, freaking out the whole time. Speed read through them while chugging caffeine. Skim, hop, skim, hop.
Harried poring, to be sure. But I’d inevitably find enough quotes that seemed to work and plop them down in a draft in MS Word. Once my supporting quotes were in place, I’d start desperately trying to thematically connect these disparate passages like a game of connect the dots. I’d begin to stretch oblique justification over the thinnest gaps in my logic. Hoping to dazzle my prof with a counterintuitive tangent or two that shouldn’t work but impressively did. And would, if you built a critical bridge strong enough to get there. But building that bridge was never easy.
The whole time I wrote these papers, I was sweating and shaking. And trying not to look at the clock to see how much time I had left because I knew it would just slow me down.
It was a horrible feeling, crawling into school the next morning. But I always made it by the deadline. I’d been up all night and probably looked like hell, but my paper was on time.
And in some ways, it was an incredible high, the feeling as I handed it in. Knowing how hard I’d worked and in so short a time. And it also helped make me feel like I could handle failure, if my prof decided to mark me way down. I knew I wasn’t doing my best, so they weren’t really judging me but my most mediocre attempt.
Giving Up the Need for Greatness
A lot of people are afraid to accept mediocrity because they believe that if they accept it, they’ll never achieve anything, never improve, and that their life won’t matter.
This sort of thinking is dangerous. Once you accept the premise that a life is worthwhile only if it is truly notable and great, then you basically accept the fact that most of the human population (including yourself) sucks and is worthless. And this mindset can quickly turn dangerous, to both yourself and others.
The rare people who do become exceptional at something do so not because they believe they’re exceptional. On the contrary, they become amazing because they’re obsessed with improvement. And that obsession with improvement stems from an unerring belief that they are, in fact, not that great at all. It’s anti-entitlement. People who become great at something become great because they understand that they’re not already great — they’re mediocre, they are average — and that they could be so much better.
-Mark Manson, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck
When I tell people I used to be a terrible procrastinator, they often don’t believe me. Because these days, I have a regular writing schedule. I publish a post to my blog every day. Follow strict personal quotas for writing on new book projects. And meet deadlines for my other writing jobs. These days, I’m very consistent and reliable. I stick to a schedule. I don’t sit around waiting for inspiration to strike. And between all of it, I write more during some weeks than I previously wrote over the course of certain years.
But this level of consistency is a fairly recent development in my life. A product of the past few years. And my past self would likely be amazed that I’m like this. In the past, I was considered bright and talented but a total flake. Interesting but unreliable.
And I had the hardest time picking a topic and writing about it in a straightforward way, a basic skill expected of all freelancers (pitching, outline, and delivery within a deadline).
I had it in my head that this wasn’t something I was capable of. That I might have had other strengths as a writer but that consistency and control weren’t in the cards for me. Not realistic. Not feasible.
My brain just didn’t work that way, I told myself. I’d always been a weirdo. And I told myself that things are different when you have PTSD. You don’t get access to the same patterns of emotional regulation that others have by default. Which means you have to start eliminating such bougie truisms as “if you’re serious about being a writer, you should get in the habit of writing every day.”
My old self-story went a little something like this: “Bitch, I’m screaming and sobbing because a rock I saw in a grocery store parking lot this morning looks like my ex-boyfriend’s tattoo. I don’t have time for your milquetoast life hacks that you probably came up with while Instagram-ing your Grecian cruise paid for out of your trust fund…I mean, C’MON. Some of us are broken and don’t have anyone around to fix us.”
And you know, I guess I had a point. There were a lot of people giving that advice who were in a profoundly different boat than I was in (and sure, sometimes their boat was a yacht visiting the Grecian isles versus the plastic yard sale toy with a hole in it that I seemed to have inherited).
But I was wrong about one aspect of it: The fact that my own situation was different didn’t mean I couldn’t do it. I’d just have to find a different way to make it work.
And the fact that I had to do it differently was probably a sign that I should. Since the world needs more writers who aren’t necessarily the ones who have the easiest time making it work.
Learning to Stop Accepting My Own Bull and Instead Start Putting Pieces Together
But that realization took a while to get to me. I bought my own bull for years. And years. And years. It took me a long time to figure out that I wasn’t really doing myself any favors by waiting so long. By procrastinating. By accepting the premise that I had to be inconsistent. Last minute. And always hiding behind the self-story that what I was putting out wasn’t my best effort, more of a last minute scramble (so if someone judged me, I wouldn’t take it to heart).
I had to realize that basically none of my ideas are going to seem like perfect ones in my head. My brain is like that; it sees the flaws in what I do and concludes that everything I write is going to be trash.
The moment everything really started to change for me was when I gave myself permission to write work that wasn’t great.
I realized what I should really be doing is going with an idea that seems okay or fine and just starting on the work then. That it would be easier to do the work in stages. Start by writing an outline of what I roughly want to say, well in advance. And then let things incubate a little. Over time, I’d think of other sentiments naturally. Ideas that should be included. Academic papers (and later books) became more like puzzles that were sitting on the dinner table, partially finished. I’d find myself walking by and snapping a few pieces into place without even realizing that I was doing it.
The most important thing for me in all of this was to stop worrying about whether I was a great writer or not. And to stop worrying if any given work were going to be a masterpiece. I just needed to focus on getting the thing written.
Everything changed when I started to tell myself to not worry about the quality while you’re getting the words down on the paper. If you want, you can go back and edit it later, once you’ve had a few days away from it and can see it with fresh eyes.
A fully formed masterpiece doesn’t need to jump into your head. You’ll probably be fine working on something that just seems okay when you dive in. Sometimes you’re sitting with a puzzle an awfully long time before you finally get it where you want it to be. The important thing is to keep working on it.
My Remaining Procrastination Feels an Awful Lot Like Masochism
I’d like to say that I don’t procrastinate anymore. But that wouldn’t be true.
I still struggle with procrastination. However, these days it’s less related to writing (although it occasionally happens) since I have a lot of external pressure to keep going since it’s my job, and a lot of people are counting on me to keep going.
But for example, I’m more likely to find that I leave little messes sitting on my desk for longer than I really should. Even though I know my life will be lower stress if I just take two minutes and organize them.
This tendency of mine is a large source of stress for my cohabitating partner, who finds clutter to be a huge anxiety trigger, even clutter that’s ostensibly in my personal work space. It has an atmospheric effect for them, which hurts their mood.
So I try to keep it under wraps, even though if I lived alone, I’d probably leave it right where it is. Actually, if I lived alone, it would probably be worse.
Because even now, I’ll sometimes find myself creating secret messes in personal spaces that I don’t think my partner will ever access. I’ll leave my purse in disarray. Or leave my closet in chaos. On purpose.
I wish I understood exactly why I do this, why I need to have secret messes in my life. I think part of me enjoys that form of distress — the struggle I experienced with term papers. The way your heart beats out of your chest when you can’t find something right away. That sick anxiety that you’ll never get what you’re looking for.
The tension. And then the release — when you inevitably find it.
It’s such a familiar dynamic. It reminds me powerfully of how I experience masochism (both physically and emotionally).
Part of me wonders if this persistent need to have a little bit of procrastination isn’t a form of masochism — emotional masochism. A response to the present lack of emotional pain and distress that I got used to in the past. I used to live a life that was often more lonely, insecure, and downright scary than the one I have now. My life is wonderful now, so wonderful sometimes that it can feel a little “off,” like something that shouldn’t be happening to me but to someone else.
Part of me wonders if I haven’t really accepted how stable my life has become. If I need something to be unsettled. Perhaps life has conditioned me to find stability to actually be scarier than instability. To think of stability as the real terror, the most terrifying thing I can imagine.
I’ve mostly kicked my procrastination habit, but part of me wonders if what remains could be a form of masochism.
Whatever the case, I suppose I can deal with it later.