AS LONG AS the pursuit of our goals threaten the way in which we chose to perceive ourselves, we will consistently fall into patterns of procrastination in order to stop that pursuit, and protect us from that threat. As long as procrastination remains an emotionally driven experience, any attempt to solve it with band-aid solutions will result in failure.
I do not know why I continue to procrastinate. Logically, it makes no sense. I am well aware, knowing emotionally and intellectually, that the achievement of work is the only thing in my life that seems to bring me consistent, predictable and satisfying happiness. So, therefore, it follows that I would pursue this as my primary pursuit above all others, and given the satisfaction in achieving it, I would never be tempted or led astray from the activity of my work.
But as I am writing this article, you already know that this is not the case. Instead of doing my work and achieving my happiness, I procrastinate.*
Happiness is a unique goal. Rather than something that can be achieved on its own, it is rather something that is achieved as a result of other achievements. It requires a degree of nourishment before it can come into bloom. For some, this is socializing, or connection, or exercise, or winning, but for me, this is only work. Specifically, work dedicated to removing whatever is in my head, and actualizing it in some form; like, for instance, this blog post.
Diagnosed with ADHD at a young age, I’ve often found the world incredibly boring. Travelling lost it’s wonder extraordinarily quickly, dating women eventually blurred into one, and socializing with friends always became, and will always become stifling. Not just inclined to easy boredom, I am also deeply internal, an affliction which I struggled with for most of my life.
In school, this manifested as an inability to understand anything that was being taught to me, as my mind was busy doing something else, and refused to be told what to learn. In socializing, this made conversations excruciatingly painful, littered with shyness and self-consciousness, and a stifling degree of overthinking – something that I still manage to this day.*
This boredom and restless mind, when combined, result in a happiness that is deeply tied to the expression of new thoughts that I have had. When I was stuck in school, struggling to focus, it was because my mind was busy with something else; that something else being having ideas like this one.
My procrastination, as I have experienced it, is a deeply emotional issue. Prior to writing this article, I took a look at the landscape of posts detailing the same subject. From habits that can prevent procrastination, to environments that facilitate it – every single post left me with a feeling of disappointment. Like I was looking for a cure for the common cold, and instead, all that was explained to me was how to deal with a running nose.
Procrastination seemed like a far deeper issue than they presented; one that was tied to the way we perceive ourselves, and specifically, the way we perceive ourselves within our work. And as a result of this deep tie, any attempt to apply band-aid solutions to the emotion through habit, would only result in short-term, short-sighted fixes, that make for a great list post, but offer little of actual value.
However, before we leap into tackling procrastination, it is important to understand whether we are accurately identifying procrastination itself. Struggled with since the time of the Ancient Greeks, procrastination has often come to be defined as putting off work that needs to be done. This example is largely sufficient when applying it to say, revising for an imminent exam, but it becomes less robust when applied to work that has a less tangible need.
To combat this, I delineate procrastination into three categories: minor procrastination, false procrastination, and true procrastination.
Minor procrastination is laziness by any other name. It is the deliberate avoidance of work that is neither enjoyable nor easy, but needs to be done, and is avoided for no other reason than the effort required and the lack of enjoyment. Typically, the procrastination involved will entail low effort, high enjoyment activities such as television or video games.
This procrastination is extraordinarily shallow, and what the majority of procrastination advice seeks to cure. It is a result of poor habits and is amended with better habits – whether that being giving yourself plenty of tasks, working without the internet, goal setting, stimulus control, or leaving areas of high distraction or typical relaxation (like your house).
This procrastination is a matter of training, and if I’m honest, not really a focal point of this article. The trick, if you want advice, is to always get the hardest thing done first, and keep a to-do list every day. If you do those, you will not fail to master minor procrastination.
False procrastination is something that is difficult to identify. If we accept that procrastination is putting off work that needs to be done, then false procrastination arises when the nature of work requires a specific amount of thought, or the need of the work isn’t urgent.
I have written about the merits of doing nothing before; that in allowing our minds time to collate information in silence, we give ourselves a far better chance of making creatively inspired decisions. False procrastination is no different. In fact, another name for it might just be thinking.
Some goals require in themselves a degree of procrastination and distraction in order to be effectively actualised. Men such as Tolstoy and Schopenhauer, to the Buddha or Steve Jobs all praised the merits of idleness as a keystone element of work.
In what I think is one of the finer illustrations of false procrastination, Hemingway said that he would write in the morning for a few hours, and once finished, never touch or think of his writing again until the next day, whereupon his rested unconscious would have the necessary material and inspiration to continue.
True procrastination, on the other hand, has little do with the necessity or nature of the work, but instead everything to do with the work’s relation to us.
I’m sure you can think of a time when pressed with a deadline, you have sat at your computer screen, doing any other task but the one demanded of you, all whilst being subjected to the ever-present whispering conscience which takes you to task on your procrastination.
“You shouldn’t be doing this”, it repeats.
But ignoring it, you continue.
True procrastination is essential to identify, because it is not a habit, but instead a relation that we have with ourselves, and the engine through which we exert ourselves on the world; our work. This relationship is fundamentally emotional in nature, which is why we feel so disconcerted when we fail to get started on our work.
When I detailed the elements in my psyche that compose the union between my happiness and my work, I did so for a specific reason – I was attempting to show how our self-concept ties to our work. In mine, it is tied to my need to express what I feel. Yours may be similar, or it may be different, but either way, your work is some form of expression of identity. And herein lies the problem.
If work is an expression of our identity, then any issues with our identity will manifest as issues within our work. If we lack confidence, then we will lack confidence in our work; if we are insecure, then our work will be insecure; and if we feel like what we have to express is fundamentally unworthy, because we are fundamentally unworthy, then we will avoid work that seeks to express that, as we believe it will result in us being hurt.
Just as false procrastination can be relabelled as thinking, true procrastination can be relabelled as protection.
True procrastination, unlike minor or even false procrastination, is the kind of procrastination that occurs when you know you want to achieve a goal that is deeply tied to your identity; like your dream of becoming a novelist, or your aspirations of starting a new business. It is within these goals, that the protectionist nature of true procrastination will begin to arise and attempt to prevent you from pursuing what it is you so badly long to do.
THREATS TO IDENTITY
When we hold a dream of ourselves, that we hold to be ‘the real us’, we tie that dream to our identity. When we attempt to pursue that dream, what we are actually doing is attempting to prove that is who we are.
And it is exactly this reason that we procrastinate.
When we believe that ‘the real us’ is a novelist, failing to become a novelist threatens that belief about our identity. It threatens who we think we are. And that’s terrifying. Whether it’s becoming an actor, an entrepreneur, a fighter, a singer, or a moralist; any goal that is deeply tied to who we choose to believe we are also brings with it a terror that we might not actually be that person.
And if we aren’t that person, then who the hell are we? And why were we pursuing something we never were?
It is the certainty of who we are, that exposes us to procrastination. In deeply believing we are something, we expose ourselves to the terror that we might not be.
The solution then would be to not choose to perceive ourselves in any way and to hold no dreams. But I think this is redundant advice. You, like me, have little control over your dreams, but what we can do is scrutinize them. Challenge our motivations, and challenge the way we perceive them.
Procrastination is an emotional issue, with deep ties to our identity. As a result, it can only be handled by understanding that identity and approaching the issue as an emotional one. The more we come to understand why we are deeply connected to our goal of achieving something, the more we come to understand why it’s important to us to achieve it, and the more we challenge these beliefs, and present alternatives – the less we become tied to their actualisation.
When we accept that we are not our goals, but instead our goals are actions we choose to take, we shift our focus on to the actions we wish to take right now, rather than the fear that we might not be who we set out to be. Because it is only when we take those actions, that we get to find out.
*Whilst procrastinating as I wrote this article, I did an online test that told me I was a highly advanced procrastinator and should seek immediate help. Highly offended, I closed the window and started watching cats leap into boxes on youtube.
*Far from being unable to function in normal society, I actually have a fairly active social life and do well at work. But despite this, I still find these things enormously challenging, as my mind is always elsewhere. The mental equivalent of having one lung.