Procrastination Flowchart

Procrastination- What Are You Putting Off?

What is it about putting things off?  Is this the norm or just an excuse to not act on what we need to do or think we need to do?  Truth; I have not sat down to write in a few weeks, I just keep putting it off and off  and off.  It’s not because I haven’t had some time to do so.  All of us have things we love to do but put them off until the right time comes along, which, inevitably never does. 

So, I got to thinking- why do I not write more?  Fear of having absolutely NOTHING to say of any value immediately springs into my mind.  Creating the right moment, good lighting, great seating, a few quite moments etc..  I have heard that the biggest barrier to writers is just “getting to the writing.” It’s no different than exercise- the hardest thing to do is just put on the shoes and get out the door.  You see, that’s when physics takes over and momentum kicks in.

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:

Procrastination is the deferment or avoidance of an action or task and is often linked to perfectionism.. For the person procrastinating this may result in stress, a sense of guilt, the loss of productivity, the creation of crisis, and the chagrin of others for not fulfilling one’s responsibilities or commitments. While it is normal for individuals to procrastinate to some degree, it becomes a problem when it impedes normal functioning.

One of my favorite quotes comes from a great Canadian philosopher, Steve Smith, AKA Red Green- “Thank God we only have 100 years to live; we procrastinate so much already, if we had more time, we’d get nothing done!” 

We tend to feel that life is infinite and we keep putting things off.  Or, is it that we just don’t want to do some of these things.  It probably is a combination of several things. Here’s what I want to suggest; Test your procrastination resistance and make a commitment publicly to act on all things that come to mind for one week. That means if a load of laundry comes out of the dryer, it has to be folded and put away immediately. If you see a plant that needs water, water it. Or if you notice dust on something, get rid of it.  As mail comes into the office, open it and deal with each piece. I don’t know about you, but I’m starting to get a bit of a headache…  hey, I’ll take some Advil right now!

For one week, there is no putting anything on the back burner.  The purpose behind this craziness is to see how it feels.  Will I feel better or worse than I normally do when I put things off?  I will keep you posted. Now remember, this is just a test.

One week later: now the only reason it is actually one week later is because I put off picking up this article again, until just now.  My test of doing things as they came along really only lasted for about a day and a half.  Then it was back to putting things off.  My laundry room has tons of clothes to fold.  This article is still not quite done yet and so on…

Ok, so my research was not very sophisticated. However, as I dug deeper to find out why so many of us put things off, I found some good info on this ailment most of us suffer from.

Adapted from an article by Paul Graham

The most impressive people I know are all terrible procrastinators. So could it be that procrastination isn’t always bad?

Most people who write about procrastination write about how to cure it. But this is, strictly speaking, impossible. There is always an infinite number of things you could be doing. No matter what you work on, you’re not working on everything else. So the question is not how to avoid procrastination, but how to procrastinate well.

There are three variants of procrastination, depending on what you do instead of working on something: you could work on:

(a) nothing

(b) something less important 

(c) something more important.

This last type, Paul would argue, is good procrastination.

That’s the “absent-minded professor,” who forgets to shave, or eat, or even perhaps look where he’s going while he’s thinking about some interesting question. His mind is absent from the everyday world because it’s hard at work in another.

That’s the sense in which the most impressive people I know are all procrastinators. They’re type-C procrastinators: they put off working on small stuff to work on big stuff.

So What’s “small stuff?” Roughly, work that has zero chance of being mentioned in your obituary. This may be the funniest line I have read in a long time.

What will turn out to be your best work?  The answer to this question would probably continue to remain unclear as we all evolve, but you can safely rule out: shaving, doing your laundry, organizing your knives and forks drawer, cleaning the house, writing thank-you notes, or some of my favorite ones:  doing the cookie exchange, insisting that all holiday baking be done by you; anything that might be called an errand.

Good procrastination is avoiding errands to do real work.

Good in a sense, at least. The people who want you to do the errands won’t think it’s good. But you probably have to annoy them if you want to get anything done. The mildest seeming people, if they want to do real work, all have a certain degree of ruthlessness when it comes to avoiding errands.

Some errands, like replying to letters, go away if you ignore them (perhaps taking friends with them). Others, like mowing the lawn, or filing tax returns, only get worse if you put them off. In principle it shouldn’t work to put off the second kind of errand. You’re going to have to do whatever it is eventually. Why not (as past-due notices are always saying) do it now?

The reason it pays to put off even those errands is that real work needs two things errands don’t: big chunks of time, and the right mood.

I’ve wondered a lot about why “startups” are most productive at the very beginning, when they’re just a couple guys in an apartment. The main reason may be that there’s no one to interrupt them yet.

Errands are so effective at killing great projects that a lot of people use them for that purpose. Someone who has decided to write a novel, for example, will suddenly find that the house needs cleaning. People who fail to write novels don’t do it by sitting in front of a blank page for days without writing anything. They do it by feeding the cat, going out to buy something they need for their apartment, meeting a friend for coffee, checking email. “I don’t have time to work,” they say. And they don’t; they’ve made sure of that. And I am a perfect example of it.  This article alone has taken me 4 weeks to get back to,  and a total of one hour to write.  I have a book 80% done on my laptop and it’s been there for 4 years.  Now that is an errand distraction.  Perhaps I could actually call myself an “Errand Engineer”  as I am pretty dammed good at the job.

The most dangerous form of procrastination is unacknowledged type-B procrastination, because it doesn’t feel like procrastination. You’re “getting things done.” Just the wrong things.

In his famous essay You and Your Research (which I recommend to anyone ambitious, no matter what they’re working on), Richard Hamming suggests that you ask yourself three questions:

1.  What are the most important problems in your work and home life?

2.  Are you working on one of them?

3.  Why not?

4.  What’s the best thing you could be working on, and why aren’t you?

Most people will shy away from this question. I shy away from it myself; I see it there on the page and quickly move on to the next sentence.

I think the way to “solve” the problem of procrastination is to let delight pull you instead of making a to-do list push you. Work on an ambitious project you really enjoy, and sail as close to the wind as you can, and you’ll leave the right things undone.

Well for me,  I also think of it this way.  I recently interviewed one of my favorite people- Colin Hiles.  He is known as the midlife maverick.  He suggestes as adults we look at and answer;  What do we really want?  Get very clear. What are you tolerating in your life?  And illuminate tolerations.  But what I want to emphasise from his interview is all the stuff we have on our plates to get done.  Ask yourself, does this item/task energize me? Is it neutral to me or does it an unenergetic task?  Does it burn me out?

Eliminate all things that burn you out.  Move more towards those things that energize you and only do a few things that are neutral.  Then procrastination won’t be such a big issue for you.

Here’s to you in getting things done this week.  What have you been putting off?  And why do you think so?  Send me your answers to this question.  You know I love to hear from you!

Linda Edgecombe, CSP
Motivational Speaker
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Linda Edgecombe
Canadian Speaker Hall of Fame