The Perils of Being a High Functioning Procrastinator…

…and the perils of starting things and never finishing them.

At any point in time I have 5,000 ideas for completely different projects: Baking the perfect yellow cake from scratch with strawberry buttercream frosting; Making indigo dyed textiles that can be framed or turned into pillow cases or even lightweight blankets; Choreographing a parade piece to a song that is so good you can’t sit still when it’s on; Running a quantitative analysis on police homicide data and trying to get it published…There are fitness goals, flexibility goals, diet goals, academic goals, hair goals, reading goals, home decor goals, yard goals, garden goals, travel goals, language learning goals….goals, goals, goals, goals, GOALS!

There are so many things I want to do that I can’t do any of them. Or at least I can’t work on them in any meaningful way.  And it is one of the most frustrating things in my life. It isn’t because I don’t have enough time–time is a factor–but it’s usually because I ALWAYS PROCRASTINATE! I am the queen of self-sabotage. I know that if I just worked on one thing for even 20 minutes a day, and made consistent progress, it would be so much more effective than waiting for four months (feeling guilty that entire time) and then binge-doing whatever it is at the eleventh hour. Also, if I could get done the things I HAD to or NEEDED to do more efficiently, that would leave more time to do the things I WANT to do.

For some of the things I procrastinate on, there aren’t any consequences. Others, just make me look like I’m not taking my life seriously. For example, I’ve had this paper I’ve been working on for nearly a year now. The intention was to improve on a final paper I turned in for a class assignment and submit it for publication. I’ve had nothing but support throughout this process. And yet, I have a draft of a paper with comments from TWO faculty members that I haven’t touched since they sent it back. Time has absolutely been a factor, but there’s something else there too…

One thing I’ve learned about myself, is I procrastinate the hardest for one of two reasons: 1) I’m truly not interested in the task at hand and am unable to admit it to myself, or 2) If I am interested, I’m not confident that I can actually do it. It’s both a good and a bad thing to know about myself, because when I start procrastinating and finding the idea of doing something to be overwhelming and exhausting, I know that I have to ask myself one central question:

Do I want to do this?
No?–Then why are you doing it, and what would you rather be doing?
Yes?–Then what’s stopping you?

Sounds simple enough.

But if you add in my overachieving, paralyzing perfectionism, those simple questions quickly become a never ending, convoluted diagrammed web of “if/then” statements with arrows going in four dimensions. Usually my answer to whether I want to do this is yes, BUT…

To make things worse, I usually set goals with unrealistic deadlines; a sure way to set myself up for failure. And yet, I do it. Every. Time. Herculean Task, meet Minuscule Timeframe. The two will never get along. And that last stretch of time right before my deadline is always filled with stress and anxiety, which further assures that I won’t finish the project or make my goal, because I start stress eating, stress sleeping, or avoiding work altogether. How does this toxic relationship end? In self-deprecation.

‘I should have risen to the occasion, become the literal embodiment of superwoman. I didn’t meet my deadline, this must mean I’m a failure. What am I doing with my life?’

It’s a mess. It’s a complete setup. I know I thrive off of personal challenges, but I need to reframe the objective of these challenges. I can’t look at it as failure because I didn’t finish doing the impossible within an arbitrary timeline. I have to look at the journey, the lessons learned, the progress that was made–I motivated myself to stretch and develop in ways that are markedly different than before; I may not have made it from A to Z but I got to M. Be proud!

So yea, the combination of habitual procrastination and setting unrealistic deadlines sucks. But, as much as I criticize myself about my procrastinating, maybe the real problem is the unrealistic deadlines. An article written a few years ago found that a study conducted on the impact of procrastination demonstrated that the habit actually encouraged divergent thinking and sparked better, more creative ideas. Of course, it went on to talk about how procrastination can be taken to the extreme and have the opposite effect, of producing either terrible or completely unoriginal work, much like pre-crastination (which I didn’t even know was a thing). It ended with offering a few tips for how to move from the extreme to that sweet spot of procrastinating genius:

  1. Imagine yourself failing to the extreme; it may motivate you to start
  2. Temper your expectations so that you’re “less paralyzed by perfectionism”
  3. Work for 15-20 minutes at a time

Maybe these tips could be useful for someone else, but I don’t find them to be particularly helpful: I already imagine myself failing spectacularly and it does nothing to motivate me to work, tip 2 is a daily/lifelong struggle for an overachiever, and tip 3 is commonly suggested as if it were a remarkable concept, it but never comes with any strategy for how someone whose mind wanders would actually do this in practice. (Also, I may have some form of adult ADHD.)

Tired advice aside, it is reassuring to hear that the my procrastination isn’t the end of the world, and may actually make me a more successful person, if I can move out of the death-grip of extreme procrastination. What was ironic and humorous about reading this particular article, was that the author talked about how other writers will intentionally stop mid-sentence and come back to the work another day as a form of purposeful procrastination, a way to give themselves distance from their work and force them to re-read it. I constantly do that. Not intentionally, but again, because my mind wanders. And usually when I come back to what I’ve written I end up re-writing most of it. I did that several times in writing this post–yeah, I procrastinated on a post about procrastination–but hopefully it’s written better because of it.

So now if I can just figure out a plan for practicing tip #3…