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The Vicious Cycle of the 3 P’s: Procrastination

May 25, 2012

Round Tuit

You say you’ll do it when you’ll get around to it? Here’s a round tuit, just for you.

Do you ever procrastinate?

97% of people report that they procrastinate, and the other 3% lie.

Clearly, you are not alone.

But do you wonder WHY you procrastinate, or wish that you could stop the cycle of procrastination so that you could spend more time feeling good about what you accomplish each day?

There is a huge difference between the way we feel when we make progress toward our goals (regardless of how much progress- every step counts!) and when we spend our day spinning our wheels because we are procrastinating!

To lighten the mood of this mildly depressing topic, I thought I’d include an excerpt from one of my favorite poems:

“Procrastination is All of the Time.”  by Ogden Nash

That the innocent joy of not getting things done
Simmers sulkily down to plain not having fun.
You smile in the morn like a bride in her bridalness
At the thought of a day of nothing but idleness.
By midday you’re slipping, by evening a lunatic,
A perusing-the newspapers-all-afternoonatic,
Worn to a wraith from the half-hourly jaunt
After glasses of water you didn’t want,
And at last when onto your pallet you creep,
You discover yourself too tired to sleep.
O torpor and sloth, torpor and sloth,
These are the cooks that unseason the broth.
Torpor is harrowing, sloth it is irksome—
Everyone ready? Let’s go out and worksome.

Much like what is described in this poem, the cycle of the 3 P’s IS a vicious one.  We can’t relax and enjoy ourselves when we know we have things to get done… and yet we put off working on them for what seem like good reasons at the time.   (After all, that junk drawer really is a mess, and you deserve a break, right?)

In my last post, I talked about how perfectionism contributes to the vicious cycle of the 3 P’s.  (Miss that blog post? Read it here: “Do you aim for perfekshon?“)

Today, I’m focusing on the second P: Procrastination.

Remember, perfectionists hold themselves to impossibly high standards. When we subconsciously believe that the work we are doing should set the world on fire and that it will be talked about by our friends, family, and colleagues for years to come, we are setting ourselves up for failure. At some level, we know that this degree of achievement is unlikely.  But like lemmings driven to walk into the sea and drown, we are still driven to be perfect.

Almost predictably, the horrendous task of turning out a perfect product causes us to pull a Scarlett O’Hara.

[“I can’t think about that right now. If I do, I’ll go crazy. I’ll think about that tomorrow.” Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell]

We awake the next morning to not only the reality of the undone task, but the depressing fact that we’ve put it off yet again.

And then we have set ourselves up with an invisible, critical audience. The next time we work on our project, each step we take causes our inner audience to murmur, “She thinks THAT’S worthy of clients buying it? Or, “He’s sending out THAT blog post?” Or, “You call that ART?”

When we are faced with that level of self-criticism, we lose our energy and excitement for our project. It causes us to curl up into a metaphorical ball and cover our ears.  It slows us down, stifles creativity, and interferes with our thinking process.

Being intelligent, however, it is hard for us to ignore the fact that we are not living up to our own high expectations. This makes us feel inadequate and ineffective. That critical audience doesn’t help either. We find ourselves thinking: “I’m lazy.” “I have no will power.” “I could kick myself.”

And the next time we think about working some more on that project, we feel slightly nauseated, and therefore, put it off again.

Knowing all of this, WHY do we still procrastinate?

Here are 6 underlying reasons for procrastination, and some specific suggestions for conquering each of them.

[Because I never procrastinate, I will now switch from “we” to “you.”  I know it’s messy writing to switch like that, so I’ll fix it tomorrow.]

  •  Anxiety.  You think you “can’t” do it, that you’ll do a terrible job, or that you’ll hate working on it. You imagine the pain and humiliation of people finding mistakes, and you just know that you’ll be drummed out of town with a big dunce cap on your head (or something of that magnitude).  All of these negative thoughts increase your anxiety level.
    • Suggestions: Monitor your thoughts, and just as I explained in last week’s post, counteract them! Write them down. When you  think “I’m going to do an awful job with that”, write that thought down. Then, answer it with a specific rebuttal. “The main reason you feel that you are going to do a bad job is that you don’t really want to do this task. But you KNOW you can do a good job, and getting it out of the way will feel great!”
  •  Bad work habits.  A study by Robert Boice in 1989 found that “bingers” – those who believe you must work in long, multi-hour work sessions to make progress – were the worst procrastinators of all!
    • Suggestions: The secret is to take action steps: teeny, tiny, and non-intimidating action steps! By taking small, painless steps first, you ARE taking action. And over time, these tiny steps add up and the magic starts to happen!
  • Perfectionism. If you are never satisfied and therefore ALWAYS wanting to do more or make changes in what you’ve done one more time… it becomes very difficult to keep moving forward.
    • Suggestions: Allow yourself to “do it badly before you do it well.” The first attempt doesn’t have to be “good”! Your long-term goals HAVE to be realistic, and progress toward them regularly, with support.
  • Time. It’s easy to underestimate how much time a task will take.  You may always feel panicked because there isn’t enough time, or you can delude yourself into thinking that you have all the time in the world.
    • Suggestions:  Set aside a small amount of time every day to work on your project. Fifteen minutes is a good starting point, and you can always increase that as you go. Schedule it, protect it, and utilize it. You will find that you can commit to a short period of work and feel good about it when you are finished.
  • Overwhelm from feeling too busy.  Boice found out something else very interesting.  Those people who had the biggest projects hanging over their heads reported feeling the busiest, even if they were not actually the busiest people.
    • Suggestions:  Once you start to move forward toward your goal, you will feel less and less overwhelmed. Breaking your work periods down into such small intervals will help fight the overwhelmed feelings.  Be aware of engaging in “busywork;” work that makes you look busy but isn’t really getting your high priority work done.
  • Not allowing others to support or help or provide structure.  A final mention of Boice’s study – he found that the people who were most able to change their procrastinating ways were the ones who allowed for social supports, to motivate them into action.
    • Suggestions: Become part of a supportive, open group. When you can identify with others who are facing the same struggles and challenges you are, you feel much less isolated. You find motivation to keep trudging forward, and you are reminded that we are ALL imperfect- so it’s OK for you to be, too!

Take these small steps to begin conquering your procrastination NOW.  Because guess what happens when you don’t? You enter Paralysis — the third P in The Vicious Cycle of the 3 P’s!  And that’s where you REALLY don’t want to be.

More on Paralysis next week…

And in the meantime, join the conversation! Do you procrastinate in every area of your life, or just certain areas?   How do you fight procrastination?

And most importantly, what’s your favorite Ogden Nash poem?

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