Learned #24: Procrastination Station

In which we try to figure out why we put things off.

Exactly 23 hours and 19 minutes from now, I have to hand in a well-researched, annotated, and comprehensive research paper complete with citations and appendices. Naturally, I haven't started on it yet.

The thing is, I'm not a kid anymore. This is not my first time at college and the only reason I have for not being finished yet is that...I'm not. I have put this off and put it off. And, unfortunately, this is a pattern in my life. I tend to wait until the very last minute and then frantically rush to meet deadlines.

I'm not alone in this. Douglas Adams quite famously said, "I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by!"

Right there with you, Doug.

I don't really want to be like this anymore. I want to be the kind of student, the kind of person, who doesn't pay attention to deadlines because I've had all the work done weeks prior to it being due. I'm not sure how to do this. I'm not sure why I procrastinate in the first place. But, that's what this column is all about, right?

In this issue:

  • What We're Learning: Just Under the Wire

  • What We're Reading: Moby Dick

  • Down the Rabbit Hole: Famously Late

Let's get to it.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

What We're Learning:

Procrastination Station

It turns out there are lots of reasons why we procrastinate and many of them are available in list form! (Can you tell that exclamation point was sarcastic? It was.) Here are a few:

P.M.

Under the project management issues, we get things like,

  • can’t manage time well

  • can’t plan well

  • don’t know how to break big tasks into small ones

  • don’t know where to start

Those are all real issues and are not to be taken lightly, but, the good news is, those are all easily* fixable. Each one of the four issues listed there is a learnable skill. There dozens upon dozens of books, blogs, self-help gurus, and, uh, listacles about each issue. Even better, they are all things we tend to learn naturally as we get older and gain experience.

And hey, if you’re reading this post and thinking “yeah, but” then start googling each of those phrases and reading, just reading, the first four or five results. You’ll start to notice patterns and think of things you can do to improve very, very quickly. Promise.

*for varying values of easily, to be sure.

Psycho

This is where things get a little stickier. And while there are still lots of books, gurus, etc., the following problems can’t be overcome without a good deal of introspection.

The items from the above lists that fall into this category are things like,

  • fear of failure

  • fear of success

  • fear of the unknown

  • perfectionism

Notice a pattern?

Andrew Santella, writing in Time, says:

"I delayed work on a task to give myself an excuse if I happened to make a complete mess of it. It’s not that I’m lousy at my job, I could plausibly say. It’s just that I had so many other things to do at work and at home that I couldn’t give it my best effort."

and

"When I postpone work on a project that I fear is beyond my capabilities, I am creating an obstacle that I can point to as the reason for flopping. It’s not that I’m too incompetent to succeed. It’s just that I waited until the last minute; I didn’t give it my best shot."

Yep. Ouch.

I usually cop to perfectionism as my issue. It’s an acceptable neurosis in today’s society. We expect it from our revered geniuses (Insert Norm MacDonald article and others) and we put it on our resumes to show how good we’ll be for the company. We won’t let any shoddy work slip past us, no sir, we’re perfectionists!

But, if I’m being very honest, fear of failure accounts for a lot more of my procrastination than I like to admit to. I can acknowledge that failure is how we learn. And I can acknowledge that there is no shame in failure because that just means that you actually tried to do something.

But it still sits in the back of my head like a little cardboard facsimile of a guardian angel: Are you sure you want to do this? The result might not be what you want. People might be upset with you. Wouldn’t it be better to just not do it?

Yeah.

Fortunately, we live in the modern age. We know we’re not alone in our confrontations with our demons because we have the internet, and newsletters like this one! And we’ve got a few things we can do.

A lot of the recommendations for defeating psychological issued for procrastination center around re-framing. Instead of worrying about what will happen if you fail, re-focus on how good it’s going to feel to be done with the project. Instead of being concerned with people’s expectations, concern yourself with results, good or bad, that show that you tried.

(Honestly, if people are upset with you for failing after you’ve put in a solid effort, fuck ‘em, they aren’t people you want to be around anyway.)

In other words, the best way to overcome being a procrastinator is to figure out why you’re putting off doing whatever it is, think about how to reframe the outcomes from potential negatives to potential positives, and, most importantly, just do it.

(Insert NIKE ad here, right?)

Here are a few more articles, these with advice and recommendations for re-framing and overcoming procrastination. The best part is that this, too, is a learnable skill.

  • Belle B. Cooper, writing in Foundr Magazine has some good tips

  • James Clear cites a Harvard study by a pair of professors that puts procrastination down to a problem of present-you vs. future-you. Fortunately, the same study gives some advice on how to fix it.


Further Reading:

What We’re Reading:

Moby Dick

by Herman Melville

For reals, y’all. I’ve been putting this book off for just over 30 years now. It’s time to get it read.

It’s not that I haven’t made attempts before. I have. I bought a gorgeous, gorgeous print version off of Kickstarter years ago. I listened to the first few chapters from the Big Read project. Hell, I even read The Art of Fielding, which is not actually Moby Dick, but it’s very Moby Dick adjacent. But, every time, no matter the media…something distracts me. Or, I get too busy. Or, I lost my place in the novel. Or…you get the idea.

Ask most people and the reason they’ll give you for not reading it is that it’s boring. But this couldn’t be farther from the truth. I mean, this is the story of a man’s obsession with a monstrous whale. An obsession to which he is willing to sacrifice everything, including his own life. This is a good story. And it’s one we all know, one that we’ve seen under a thousand different versions. (Most recently, I read and watched In the Heart of the Sea, which is also excellent and recounts much of the real history behind the novel.)

So, why haven’t I read it? Aside from the blustery excuses above, it’s that it’s too big a project. I feel like I need time to study the language and to really get why this novel holds such sway over American literary canon. I need time to get into the nuances and historical details of whaling literature and history. I need time to savor each and every piece of the book…so, in other words, I’m just putting it off because I’m afraid it will be work.

So, here we go. Join me?

*Technically, the link up there goes to the Library of America version, called Herman Melville: Redburn, White-Jacket, Moby-Dick, but it’s the last item that I’m reading right now.


Elsewhere:

joeldavidneff.net | joeldavidneff at gmail | @smileytoad | @joeldneff | coffee

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Down the Rabbit Hole:

Don’t worry. You’re not the only one putting that project off:

Chinese Democracy: First in production in 1994, title announced in 1999, and finally released in 2008. Worth the wait? Not really.

SMiLE: The Beach Boys started recording in 1966 but it wasn’t released until 2004. Worth the wait? Surprisingly, yes.

Planetary #27: This comic appeared a scant three years after #26, a delay of about 35 months. Worth the wait? Yes. Very much yes.

StarCraft Ghost: Announced in 2002 and currently on “indefinite hold.” :(

Sagrada Familia: Gaudi’s cathedral in Barcelona, Spain. Construction began in 1882; completion is projected for 2026. Worth the wait? Absolutely.

That’s it. Stay strong, stay healthy. Learn something.