"Procrastination is like a dandelion. You pull it up, and think you've got it, but then it turns out the roots are so deep it just grows back."
'Procrastination: Why You Do It, What To Do About It Now'
by Burka & Yuen (2007)
It's believed that roughly 20% of the general population suffer from procrastination and even higher for students, at a whopping rate of 70-95% in some cases. Procrastination is voluntarily delaying an intended course of action even though you anticipate that you'll be worse off for having put it off. Although we can all relate, for some people it can be crippling, something that they struggle with for much of their life and, unfortunately, it is not yet fully understood. So why is it that some people, who can show commitment and hard work in other areas of their life, struggle to complete certain tasks? This is especially prevalent when it comes to personal goals; surely those would be the things that matter to us the most and so you would assume one would be motivated to work on? And you'd be right, in a way. Procrastination is, in itself, a motivation-based problem. The goals do matter to you but if you have a propensity to procrastinate chances are you are not good at being your own cheerleader, even if you're a really supportive friend. Procrastinators are prone to a lot of negative and judgemental internal dialogue, which sucks you into a self-defeating hole where you're no longer stressing about getting something done but you're chastising yourself for not being able to get it done in the first place.
I openly hold my hands up and admit that I've been a prolific procrastinator for as long as I can remember. There, I've said it. Feel free to judge me, goodness knows I've done a lot of that to myself over the years, so I doubt there's anywhere you could go where I don't already have an annual membership that's tattered at the edges but I'm always open to suggestions. Some people may come to the conclusion that I'm just...well...lazy and have simply found a way to passively, and without accountability, excuse my 'dallying' approach to life. However, I, like many of my fellow procrastinators, am reasonably adept at the general 'day-to-day' productivity (such as holding down a job, keeping another human alive, and remembering to pack his P.E kit on the first day of term) but I still fall short, namely, procrastinate, when it comes to the 'other stuff', you know, the 'life goals' type stuff - for example, achieving all of my career aspirations, staying in shape, moving to France and becoming a painter, moving to Cornwall and fulfilling my Daphne du Maurier dream of becoming a writer, and finding the love of my life, by living up to the ambition I had, when I was just thirteen years old and naively wrote in my diary one casual rainy day:
'Move to America. Find Leonardo DiCaprio. Start dating him. Get him to marry me.'
The 'get him to marry me' part always tickles me; even then, in my young fantasy, I always knew I was up against it. Now, at the 'ripe old age' of thirty-nine, it would appear, according to online gossip, that I'm almost fifteen to twenty years up against it.
This week, I came up against a writer's block that I'd been wrestling with for longer than I'd like to admit. This was a familiar place...and I didn't like it. Not...one...bit. I was so frustrated with myself, I just wanted to get underneath it, once and for all. I wanted to know the exact location, where I could find the roots of these fluffy-headed little shits, drag them out by their oozing stems, and stomp on each and every one of them, because being a procrastinator can often feel like being stuck in Dandelion-Groundhog-Day and a desire to feel motivated and on it...all...the...time, seems to never end. It's true what they say, perfectionism is the mother of procrastination.
Not only is procrastination related to perfectionism, interestingly, procrastinators also have a different perception and relationship to time. They somehow think that if they can just use time wisely, and make the most of it, then they can somehow trick time and get more out of it than can ever be realistically achieved. That fear that you need to get the absolute most out of life possible, because one day it will all be over and you will have wasted precious time, is the fear of living an un-lived life. Who better for this fear to attach onto but someone who already believes that if they just plan everything properly and execute it perfectly, then they can achieve so much.
Except the clock ticks the same for all of us. Our perception of that ticking is the thing that does not. The pressure you feel, as a perfectionist, to accomplish the most you possibly can every day, coupled with a propensity to seek external validation to an internal feeling (and thus ending up feeling that you must prove yourself to others), whilst also often believing that your worth comes from external achievements, only adds further power to the cycle of your mood regulation strategy (otherwise known as procrastination). On top of that, you may be employing a cheerleader who could understandably be mistaken for belonging to the other team.
Maybe procrastination feels like a dandelion invasion because the roots are the stories that we tell ourselves, often based on other people's perception of us. Will Storr explains this beautifully in his book 'The Science of Storytelling' when he says that - 'The world we experience as 'out there' is actually a reconstruction of reality that is built inside our heads. It's an act of creation by the storytelling brain.' It's essentially the notion that because we cannot realistically take in all pieces of information from the world at any one moment, our brains 'select' what to take in and we often 'choose' pieces of information that reinforce the story that we all weave about ourselves. For example, a discourteous look from a stranger won't even hit some people's radar whilst for others they will ruminate on that look for the rest of the day. For some people it will be understanding why we tell ourselves that we're not good enough - when, and how often, have you heard that in your life? For others it may be that there was a time when you were criticised or shamed for succeeding and may have learned not to shine too brightly. And for others still, it may be not having had a sufficient enough cheerleading team, growing up. to teach you the tricks of the trade.
Procrastinators are influenced by the negative beliefs that they have about themselves, and it has been linked to cardiovascular disease, immune problems, sleep issues, anxiety, and depression. If you have certain personality characteristics - such as impulsiveness, lack of self-control, issues with self-regulation, and conscientiousness - you are more likely to fall into the trap of procrastination. On top of that, situational factors such as how difficult you perceive the task to be, the attractiveness of it, who's set the task (autonomy), and just potential all-round boredom and lack of interest, all have an impact. However, if neuroplasticity of the brain means that your brain is constantly changing, and we know that the way we talk to ourselves impacts our behaviour and even physiology, then surely Will Storr is right when he says that changing the way we talk to ourselves, and the stories we tell ourselves, will change our internal and thus external reality.
You may be at loggerheads with the perfectionist's story that is being narrated in your head, that everyone else is smashing the shit out of life just fine - except you - and if you're going to do it, whatever 'it' is, you better do it to the absolute best possible standards. I always imagine it like being stuck on the motorway, after you've just done a 12 hour shift, with a passenger who is criticising your driving the whole way home, and they don't even have a licence. For some people, identifying who that perfectionist's voice is and how far down the roots go, is easy. For many, it may have been multiple messages you've taken in along the way, which has become a mix, so much so that the individual voices are now indistinguishable from each other.
I'm a big fan of lists. I don't know what it is, I just love ticking those things off. I have made many a big or little decision with a 'Good/Bad', 'Yes/No' List. One study found that listing your positive qualities is helpful because you can then assure yourself, in moments of doubt, that you have the skills to get the job done. This is a good foundational stepping stone for learning how to rectify negative self-talk in the moment. You can also list the reasons why you want to complete the task - the value behind it. I can also highly recommend reminding yourself that even though you may not be where you want to be right now, you are doing the best you can - in this moment - and that that's ok. You're not a superhero. You're just a person, who always needs compassion and empathy just like you show to others.
Try writing a list of signs that you are personally at 'Break-ing Point' (do you like what I did there?! Sorry, too much Wimbledon) and have them up somewhere for you to see every day. Then write another list of all the Self-care things that help you to feel more calm, balanced, and nurtured, and put them up next to it. Maybe your 'Break-ing Point' list might include things such as not making time to walk the dog, eating a lot of carb-loaded food, not working out even though you know it makes you feel better, gradually having less contact with friends and family, picking up old habits (such as smoking or drinking more regularly). One of my own indicators is working in my dressing gown (definitely a massive red flag if in session with a client although I can safely say this hasn't happened yet). Your Self-Care list doesn't have to include yoga, weaving and meditation (although all great activities!). Sometimes it can be as simple as - remembering to shower, making the bed, going outside even if for ten minutes, drinking more water, eating nutritional food, ringing a friend, or one of my particular favourites - listening to Tom Hardy read a bedtime story (feel free to insert your own celebrity).
On the day in question, my inner 'cheerleader' was chastising me, in her judgemental and menacingly nasal tones. It was like Golom had somehow procreated with Professor Snipe,
'You need to be trying harrrrrrdeeeeeerrr. You need to be doing morrrrrrrre than you're doing if you want to succeeeeeeeeeeeeeed...why can't you just WRITE!? Doesn't look that hard to me...everyone else is doing just fiiiiiiine...I bet Stephen King didn't have this problem...'
When I tried to tell this monstrous creation of my own making to 'sod off', it morphed into a loud Drill Sargeant, who frantically waved a wad of blank, unwritten pages above his head, whilst 'motivating' me...
'YOU need to get over this hurdle FOR GOOOOOOD! Stop your whining and get a FUCKING move ONNNNN!'
(I'm using artistic licensing, but you get the idea.)
I convolutedly pondered the mangled, rooted depths of the dandelion dungeon that kept me captive and, as I sat there staring at the twenty-seven procrastination exposing tabs that were open on my laptop, the chores that were piling up, and a dog who was looking at me with such woeful eyes that it's no wonder I didn't take her straight to Macdonalds there and then, and order her whatever she wanted, I started to drift off into a fantasy about owning an animal rescue centre, where I had a bedroom big enough for all the animals to sleep and a donkey named Derek, who brought me my cup of tea in the morning.
So what did I do? Well, I did what any self-respecting well-rounded professional human would do, and I thought...
Fuck this shit.
And I did indeed 'fuck this shit.'
I left this time-obsessed, perfectionist, creepy Golom-Snipe hybrid Drill Sergeant at home, and got in the car, with no particular destination in mind, located some snacks, and drove to the lake, where I sat in the car, eating my comfortingly ripped chunks of baguette and cheese, as great globules of water beat down around me, covering me like a protective blanket from the outside world. As time melted away, I noticed that the ducks who had been bobbing around on the lake in front of me quickly became an almost indecipherable impressionist painting, meshed with a white-shaped haze that was once undoubtedly a group of swans. I felt relaxed and present.
And just like that, I got it.
There is a research methodology called 'Heuristic Enquiry' and it was the bane of my life in my final year of training. It took me a long time to get close to figuring out exactly what it meant but Nevine Sultan aptly and beautifully describes it as being that...
'...which summons us to linger in silence and solitude...' as '...a most tantalizing invitation to self-reflection, self-discovery, and self-transformation...'
Yep, I thought it was a load of fluffy bullshit too, at first and boy, did I dig my heels in when I went through the year long process of waiting for something magical to happen. Just sitting, and waiting. But then, as I impatiently and figuratively tapped my fingers on the desk, it just...happened. I've relied on it ever since when feeling stuck. The act of very uneloquently 'fucking this shit' was the instinctive part of my nurturing brain kicking in and saying 'Listen to what you need...right now'. Trusting your gut instinct about knowing when to stop and be still, so that the work can carry on without your conscious mind, can be really challenging, especially for the procrastinator. It is hard to have faith that sometimes not 'doing anything' is the best approach because it goes against our fear that there isn't enough time as it is. It also raises the question of whether we'll go too far in 'that' direction, and before we know it weeks have gone past and cats are nibbling our finger tips to see if we're still in the land of the living.
If you don't learn to be still though, you will never have the inner resources to push yourself forwards, because pushing yourself forwards is going to hurt a bit. In The Huberman Lab Podcast - 'Breaking and Making Habits' - Dr. Huberman talks about pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone (to tackle procrastination) and that it is always going to feel a little uncomfortable to begin with - and that's normal. You're going to have doubts and try and convince yourself of some, or all, of the reasons you shouldn't or can't do it. Instead, you can observe those thoughts rather than letting them take hold of you. Know that the doubts happen for everyone (except for maybe narcissists and certain MPs, or both) and the other side of discomfort is going to feel really good.
So, I opened the car door and dusted off the breadcrumbs from my trousers, hurriedly shooing them away so that I could get home and begin to enjoy my self-imposed mini-respite. When I got home I lit the fire and sat, wrapped in a blanket, with a cup of tea, three pairs of socks, and two cardigans, whilst listening to 'Rebecca' by Daphne du Maurier. (Don't be too impressed, I listened for half an hour before putting last night's Love Island on. It's human behavioural science...yes it is....yes it is....yes it is.)
I didn't procrastinate about going to bed early, woke up feeling rested, and spent the morning with clients. As I closed the door to my last client, I turned around and saw the cursor throbbing on the blank screen of my laptop, as if having come back to life, challengingly reminding me that its heart was still beating. I hesitated instinctively, before noticing my intimidated reaction, and then I remembered one of my personal characteristics that can always be relied upon in any hour of need...
Some (my parents and many exes) may call it stubbornness. I prefer to call it tenacity.
I stood there, staring at the throbbing cursor, and I thought to myself -
'Well, I know I don't have to write...but what if I want to?'
*Disclaimer - The content that I post is for educational and entertainment purposes only. It does not establish a therapeutic relationship and nor should it be treated as therapy or professional advice.