If, like me, you’ve looked for answers to procrastination and found only directions to 'make a schedule', 'just do it', 'prioritise' and other seemingly simple-sounding tasks, then you’ll understand how frustrating and hopeless it can appear. These instructions don’t work. But I can tell you what helped me.
Procrastination is something I've suffered since I started high school. Assignments became less of a curious and creative joy, and I took less and less pride in my work. I might have been saving my honour, because if I didn't try as hard as I could, I couldn't really 'fail', could I? After I started university, which brought with it a new freedom, I left assignments 'till closer and closer to the deadline, until I got to the point where I finished them with just minutes to spare. Sometimes I went one step further and thought, 'What's the worst that could happen if it's handed in late? I need more time, so it's worth the late mark deduction.'
I'm still a student, trying to finish off my Arts degree during gaps in the rest of my life. I'm taking the current semester off and will resume it next year. At the moment I'm working solely on my clothing line, heidi and seek. So when the procrastination beast crept into my making life, which is meant to be an endless motivation, I knew I had to try harder to fight it. That meant not just looking for quick-fix tips, but unearthing the real root of my procrastination problem.
Years ago I bought a book called The Now Habit, a guide to overcoming procrastination. I read a little of it then and all I took away was one quote that I thought was inspiring. This time I approached it with a new perspective, and found it incredibly helpful. I don't believe that self-help books have all the answers. The authors don't know you personally and they write for a wide audience, so they generalise their advice. I skipped over parts in the book that I thought were irrelevant to me, and used the case studies and other information to determine my own answers. I didn't fit completely into any of the profiles given.
I want to share with you some of the things I learnt and found helpful, because I know procrastination affects most people at some point.
#1. Humans are naturally curious and creative and have a natural motivation for meaningful work. Procrastination happens when negative habits get in the way.
#2. Procrastination is a learned response to anxiety about doing something. Have a good think about why the task makes you anxious. Why don't you want to do it? You might fear success, failure, or imperfection. You might want to live up to someone else's expectations, rather than choose your own path.
I found that I felt anxious about making clothing because I placed immense pressure on myself. I turned one task - getting up and starting to make something - into a massive dilemma because I felt it was a measure of my worth as an entrepreneur and as a productive person. My ability to do that one task was the deciding factor of whether I was lazy or not, whether I was cut out for working for myself. It's no wonder I resisted it so strongly. I can now see that this not rational. One task is one task, and I’m now trying not to put any more meaning on it than that. I accept that I am not a lazy person and that I am capable and productive. I also realise that I do love to create, and I’m bringing the joy back into my making by letting go of the baggage it previously brought.
#3. Find out the root of your anxiety. Try talking with someone or writing down your thoughts. Think about how you were treated as a child. Were there high expectations? Were you criticised a lot? Was your good work ignored? Were you allowed to pursue your own interests? Were your siblings or parents high achievers? You might have learned to be critical of yourself, to judge yourself, or strive for perfectionism. Reading a book like The Now Habit might help you find answers, too. Once you find the cause of your anxiety, you can start trying to resolve it. If you procrastinate in more than one area of your life, there might be different underlying causes.
#4. Procrastination temporarily eases the anxiety. Each time you do it, you reward yourself with immediate relief, and over time this response gains momentum as your go-to defence against the anxiety.
#5. You are not lazy. That is not the reason you procrastinate. Don't label yourself or use it as an excuse. People aren't born procrastinators, they're born wanting to learn and work. If you think about it, there is some area of your life that you don't procrastinate with, and that's because it doesn't hold anxiety for you. It might be making something, writing or journaling, doing chores, or something else. Once you resolve your anxiety in your problem area, you'll be able to apply your true level of motivation to it, like you can in those other areas.
#6. Be nice to yourself. Listen to your inner dialogue. Thoughts like ‘I can't do this’, ‘I'm just lazy’, or ‘I'm not smart enough’ all work against you. Don’t allow them to fester. Cut yourself some slack. Understanding the reason you procrastinate might help. Accept that it's not as easy as it might look from the outside and acknowledge that your response to the anxiety is understandable. Replace negative thoughts with positive ones.
#7. Don't fight yourself. Every time I encountered procrastination, one side of me thought ‘You have to do this. If you want to be successful you'll do it. Just get up and do it, or you might as well give up now.’ It was as if that one side wanted to beat the other side into submission. But threats don't work for long, if at all. And they definitely don't make you feel so good about the task. It worsens the anxiety. I changed my thoughts to ‘I'm not lazy, I'm creative and curious. I don't have to do this. But I choose to. This one task is not a test of my worth. It's just one task. I want to do it, so when can I start?’
#8. Talk yourself into being a producer. Change your ‘I have to,’ to ‘I choose to’. Change ‘I have to finish,’ to ‘When I can start?’ Change ‘This is so big,’ to ‘I can take one step’. Change ‘I don’t have time to play’ to ‘I must take time to play’. Change ‘I must be perfect’ to ‘I can be human’.
Once you’ve found the cause of your anxiety, you can question it, try to resolve it and begin to change how you talk to yourself. When you feel good about yourself, you feel good about producing. And if you have this foundation to your procrastination problem, those scheduling and prioritising tips might actually come in handy.