Help column: Procrastination

January 8, 2017

School has ended early today, and you’re home at 1 p.m. This is exceptional. Yes, you do have a unit test tomorrow, but you have so many extra hours to study. You’ve handled studying for an entire unit a few weeks ago in only six hours, so you make sure you allot that time for later on. And if you promise to remain disciplined with yourself — like, no looking up from the book for the whole time — you’ll make it. You got it. You throw some popcorn into the microwave and get your very necessary dose of Stranger Things on a Tuesday afternoon.

If this situation sounds familiar to you, then you probably procrastinate. And when you procrastinate once, you can never go back. You are either a chronic procrastinator or not one at all.

To me, acts of procrastination are continually failed attempts at trying to manage time. Procrastination is not laziness — it’s an effort to overcome your sloth. Leaving duties off for later grants the procrastinator a few things: comfort, joy, and a sense of control.

First,the procrastinator feels some sense of salutary justification for leaving things off for later. Procrastination is like cuddling a puppy or eating warm soup on a rainy day. Take Sunday mornings, for an example. You’ve already finished your math homework on Saturday, but you went to bed pretty late the previous night. After you wake up on Sunday at 10 a.m., you want to treat yourself to some cartoons to spiritually prepare you for your day. You find yourself snuggled in bed with your laptop and promise yourself to begin working at exactly 12:35 — but then you have to eat breakfast (or lunch?) and do all that other routine stuff that are out of your hands. The next time you sleep is 1 a.m. the next morning after finishing a project that took an unexpected amount of time.

So, how can you solve this first aspect of procrastination? You can start by making yourself comfortable while working. It’s silly to force yourself to study in a stale or restrictive condition that absorbs you entirely into a world of words and ideas. Instead, what seems to work for many  is finding one thing to do while working to mindfully stay engaged — allow for a healthy distraction that isn’t watching an episode of TV or playing Facebook games. The continual small distraction every few minutes actually provides a great continuity to work time.

Next is the issue of experiencing endless joy while delaying work. It’s not so much that we procrastinate so we get happier; it’s just that once we begin procrastinating it’s too hard to stop. By allowing yourself just that one YouTube video, you may find yourself clicking on items in the suggested tab for far longer than expected. You can take breaks, because that’s only human, but if you know that you easily fall victim to enjoying something other than your job, then you should avoid doing it. Find something that allows you to take a break but doesn’t draw you in. For example, you can sit in your chair and take deep breaths for a few minutes rather than run through BuzzFeed quizzes. Find what works for you.

And finally, procrastination is the result of a failed attempt at attaining a sense of control over time. People often set aside a period of relaxation in their schedules. This can be an extremely powerful tool or a horribly harmful one. For those who follow their schedules closely, including free time as an essential part of their day allows them to start and finish their relaxation as planned, therefore leaving the designated amount of time to work and sleep in place. But procrastinators see scheduling free time as a wonderful idea because it gives them an excuse to enjoy their time and save work for later. Actively writing down certain hours to relax or promising to begin work at a certain time is counteractive for those who know can’t manage time well. Procrastination is like an addiction. You do it once and promise yourself to never do it again, but the need to do it just keeps coming back. To avoid fooling yourself that you’ve actually got things under control, eliminate mandatory relaxation from your schedule until you can actually handle it!

I hope that if you’ve found yourself in situations that deem you a procrastinator, this article will provide you an idea of how to more effectively take control of your time. And remember, I’m not asking you to get strict on yourself — find what makes you comfortable, happy, and in-control while you work, not while you waste your time. Good luck!

This piece was originally published in the pages of Wingspan on December 14, 2016.

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