Here’s Why You Can’t Stop Procrastinating (It’s Not What You Think)

April 24, 2018

Stop beating yourself up for being lazy. There’s something deeper going on.

I had a foolproof plan to get way ahead on everything last week.

I’d finally caught up with my seemingly never-ending workload, leaving me with a manageable number of things on my to-do list and what should have been plenty of time left over to catch up with friends, relax, and tackle a few other tasks– like filing my taxes and unpacking the boxes that have been sitting, unopened, since the last time I moved.

But something happened when I realized the pressure was off and there was open time in my schedule. I started filling my calendar up with meetings, lunches, and appointments, until I felt that familiar, panicky, what-have-I-done-there-aren’t-enough-hours-in-the-day feeling I’ve grown so used to living with. Before I knew it, I was once again rushing to get things done on time and not be late places – always just squeaking by, pulling everything out at the last minute.

I was irritated with myself for falling back into my old habits of what I’d always considered to be procrastination and laziness. But was it really procrastination that was the problem? I assumed it was: being constantly nearly-late and turning work in at the last minute because I couldn’t buckle down and finish until the pressure was on had to be procrastination, right? I didn’t have another name for it.

Procrastination vs. perfectionism

Psychologist Neil Fiore is an expert on productivity and procrastination. In his bestselling book, The Now Habit, he says people put off tasks not because they’re lazy, but because they’re anxious. “Procrastination is a mechanism for coping with the anxiety associated with starting or completing any task or decision.”

Think about the things you tend to leave until the last minute. For me, the main thing I procrastinate is also the thing I care the most about: my writing. I rarely have a problem going for a run, washing the dishes, or doing all the other mundane household tasks that, for me, are easy and low-stakes. But every time I sit down to write, I come up against the fear that this time, I won’t have anything to say. What if I’m a fraud, an imposter? What if I fail at the thing I’m supposed to be the best at? Or at least, the thing I tell myself I’m the best at?

Of course, I always do get my work done in the end – and it’s neither as perfect as I might have hoped, nor as awful as I feared. But that worry over how it will come out, my wish to be perfect, keeps me from getting started until I feel that panicked pressure, knowing that I have no other choice except to get. It. Done.

Laziness vs. busyness

The other worry, that I’m essentially lazy, is equally unfounded when I really examine it. I get up with the sun every morning, I juggle three jobs, I’m a single mom to two daughters, I’m perpetually training for my next marathon, and the list of TV series I want to binge-watch but never have time for just keeps growing longer. I literally can’t remember the last time I sat down on the sofa in our apartment and did nothing.

No, the reason that I’m often running in order to be on time for my next appointment isn’t that I was too lazy to get up on time, or that I was lounging and lost track of time. It’s that I pack my schedule so tightly, I have no wiggle room for anything to go wrong. If the train is delayed, if I get a text from my daughter that requires a quick reply, if I stop to talk to my chatty neighbor – I  might be late. Even stopping to use the bathroom can throw me off my timetable. If I’m early someplace and have ten minutes to kill in the waiting room, I feel like I could have found a better use for that ten minutes – and next time, I try to cram something else in so I’ll have maximized my productivity as much as possible.

Of course, this is a ridiculous way to live your life. So why do I do it? When my friend Tim Kreider wrote a piece on this phenomenon of “busyness” in The New York Times, it went viral. Clearly, people related. In it, he conjectured that we stay busy in order to reassure ourselves that our existence matters. “Obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.”

You are enough

Author David Cain writes that procrastination is more prevalent among “people who have, for whatever reason, developed to perceive an unusually strong association between their performance and their value as a person.” As a result, failing to meet their own standards or receiving criticism of any kind is extremely uncomfortable. Fear of feeling that pain and humiliation – which is ultimately the fear of feeling worthless – leads these people (um, and me) to avoid doing the thing they’re afraid to fail at. Because if you don’t try, you can’t fail. Right?

The key to solving all of this procrastination, which is definitely not laziness, but is, rather, perfectionism, is to know that you, just as you are, are enough. You are worthwhile. Your life has meaning. You don’t have to book up your schedule within an inch of your life, or think that your value as a person depends on the quality of your work.

“You are the one who confuses just doing the job with testing your worth, where one possible mistake would feel like the end of the world,” writes Fiore in The Now Habit. So, stop it. Treat yourself the way you’d treat a beloved friend. Do you love them because they never make a mistake, and because of how good they are at their job? Of course not. And that’s not why they love you, either. Taking that pressure off yourself to perform perfectly might actually to perform better – and to stop procrastinating once and for all.

Image via tumblr.com.

Comment: Do you struggle with procrastination?

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