Dateline Portland, Oregon--Amelia J. Wilcox, Ph.D.: We all procrastinate, but working through procrastination by setting clear goals and understanding our underlying worries can help us focus, improve motivation and get important work done.
I went to graduate school decades ago, and for a time during those years lived in a magical little apartment in Mill Valley, California. This apartment was the very definition of quirky, right down to a refrigerator that was ancient, even then. It was so old it didn’t have a defrost function. As time progressed, the freezer compartment became smaller and smaller—not a real problem for me. As long as it could hold a little container of ice cream I was fine! But then I started working on the final drafts of my dissertation. And defrosting my freezer became a preoccupation.
Procrastination means not getting things done, and not fully enjoying what you are doing instead…
Procrastination. It comes in many forms—binge watching the latest Netflix series is a common one for many of my clients and students. But no matter whether you are defrosting your freezer or googling the Top Ten Shows to Binge Watch on Netflix, if you dig down, procrastination has foundations that are common for us all.
Why do people procrastinate?
For most of us, procrastination has emotional underpinnings--guilt, desire, the need to measure up, fear of what will happen ‘if’--every one of us has our own string of emotions and worries. And when that string gets wrapped around a project of any size, it can be pretty hard to untangle. When I work with clients on procrastination in their lives, I do so on two levels: the practical level of how to get to what needs doing, and the hedonic level of confronting the very things that get in the way of our comfort and happiness.
We like to feel happy, in fact for many, the hedonic sense of subjective well-being drives behavior much of the time. In other words, if it doesn’t feel good, it is much harder to get to it. This leaves many of us scrambling at the last minute to meet deadlines we've known about for ages.
How does this relate to me and my freezer? It’s pretty simple. That dissertation represented a great deal in my life: my sense of self as an academic and clinician, the approach of a major milestone, and on a very practical level the big question of what would come next, after spending countless years in school. If you think of it that way, the dissertation wasn’t simply a really hard thing that needed finishing. It brought up many basic, some might say existential, worries. The freezer, on the other hand, suddenly “needed” doing, could be finished in short order, and had no impact whatsoever on my sense of self.
What can be done about procrastination?
Most experts will tell you that the best way to attack a big task is to break it down into small ones, and I work with students and clients to learn this essential skill every day. It is useful, insofar as most big projects (e.g., “find a new job” or “write my senior thesis”) can be turned into very small and progressive steps, (e.g., “search for my old resume in my Word documents” or “choose a thesis topic and find one article related to it”). Stressed by the big project? Do a small, related step and reward yourself with one Netflix episode. It should work like magic, and sometimes it does.
But remember that the human element—the guilt, the desire, the anxiety about measuring up—can get in the way at times of even the small things, imbuing them with meaning, tripping us up in the systematic goals we set for ourselves. This is where it becomes helpful to understand ourselves on a deeper level. And coming to know ourselves this way can reap unexpected benefits, benefits our friends who work in the field of Positive Psychology, with its focus on strengths, and leading a life of meaning, authenticity and purpose, refer to as eudemonic well-being.
There is much to be gained by looking at our motives in life, and by remembering that each of us is striving toward fulfillment, even in the smallest of tasks. And the fact is, that Netflix episode will be even better if you watch it as a reward for taking care of something that needed doing.