We’ve all experienced procrastination. It’s a stone in our mental shoe that’s difficult to kick.
Recently, I’d been talking to my coach and we were covering this topic in depth. I explained to him that I’d had trouble with procrastination since childhood, and it has followed and plagued me in every aspect of my adult life–professional and personal.
Procrastination is seen as bad because it’s construed as an emotional regulation problem; we use it to avoid pain, deal with lack of clarity, and feel frustration. Procrastination is something I’ve always been ashamed of; I lower my eyes when my boyfriend asks me if I’ve completed a task I promised I’d do, I glaze over an e-mail with a sticky task I don’t want to complete, and a painting with sentimental value sits on my floor for months before I consider framing it.
But my coach encouraged me to look at procrastination in a different light. Why not see it as a good thing, he asked. I was intrigued. What if there was a way to see it in a positive light? So I pondered.
Procrastination Literally Made Me Money
There were times when inadvertent procrastination served me well. One example is my Starbucks shares. I owned a small amount from when I worked there and bought some in 2006. Two years later in 2008–as we all know–the financial crisis happened and I saw it plunge to nearly nothing. I’d been meaning to sell them to offset my losses, but couldn’t get myself to go through the pile of mail stacked on my kitchen table to contact the brokerage firm where it was held. I kept putting it off. In fact, I put it off for so long that this simple task became almost undoable for me–my brain grew to dread it. So I ignored it, and eventually forgot about it.
Fast forward over a decade later, and I finally contacted the brokerage firm to realize that the stock gained over 600%! Not only that, but I didn’t realize I was accumulating dividends the whole time and when I checked my account, it came to a few hundred dollars. Who knew? Procrastination literally made me money. As many long-term investors advised, I set it and forget it.
While I don’t recommend not paying attention to your financial holdings, I did learn the value of long-term investing by accident, and I saw all that time I mentally beat myself up for not getting to said task as time not wasted.
Procrastination To Serve Creativity
It took me until mid-afternoon to start this blog post because–you guessed it–I procrastinated. Sure, I was productive during that time–answering boring e-mails, checking my bank statement, looking up flight prices to Puerto Rico, and my fingers eventually meandered to clicking on travel blogs, which I love reading. I also did some major damage on Pinterest, clicked on a bunch of pretty photos of shoes, and got sucked into a YouTube video on Anna Sorokin, the fake heiress who stole all that money from rich New Yorkers.
Somewhere during that time, I came up with some ideas for a travel article I’d been meaning to write and my brain got thinking about how I would do a trip to New York that would explore culinary holes in the wall, which I added to my Discovery List (list of blog post ideas I keep on hand). Sure, those ideas probably would have surfaced eventually, but would they have come to light sooner if I hadn’t read about travel and New York? The fun things we do procrastinating could be clues to our next creative project. This, I find, is a golden time. You’re in fun mode, and the stakes don’t feel as high.
Procrastination to Live Your Life
I thought back to procrastination as mental comfort. It’s a cozy blanket from the dreaded tasks I didn’t want to complete. When I was a child, we had to memorize difficult poems for Arabic class, and I’d put them off until the last hour. It forced me to focus really hard because I was short on time. This was an advantage, because it made me more efficient, and caused my adrenaline levels to rise, but was it worth the stress?
The stress no, but the time I had while I was procrastinating was a total blast. I watched lots of cartoons, ate chocolates, played with my siblings and went shopping with my mother. I wonder if I would have enjoyed all those activities if a deadline wasn’t looming. After all, everything is appealing when you don’t have to attend to your dreaded task.
After completing a dreaded task, I survey how I feel. When I first started exercising consistently, getting to the gym was a pain (resistance). After every workout, I felt energized and motivated. This went on for six months. Suddenly, I wasn’t feeling good anymore afterward. It became a chore that didn’t give me that endorphin rush I felt in the first few months. It got me thinking–was it time to quit?
This form of resistance was a signal–a signal I needed to change my routine. I’d been doing the same workout with increasing intensity for months now and I was bored. It wasn’t time to quit, it was time to switch gears.
Sometimes, procrastination is a sign you don’t want to do something because, well, you REALLY don’t want to do something. At the gym, I hate the bike and I procrastinated going because I didn’t enjoy getting on it. So I switched to the treadmill, and I was happier. It wasn’t that I hated the gym–I hated the activity I did when I was there. Again, it was a simple tweak in gears.
You can apply this to the food you eat, the job you have, and anything else where intrinsically, you know it’s not WHAT you actually want–it’s what you’ve been led to believe you’re SUPPOSED to want. Those two are different things.
The Importance of Reward
The concept of a reward also came up during the chat with my coach. Delayed gratification is usually encouraged, but sometimes it’s difficult to stay motivated because getting the reward feels like such a long time away. An immediate reward can help keep you on track. After completing a tough writing piece I got some fancy sushi for myself, and it tasted more delicious than if I’d just gotten it without having done the writing to begin with.
I will go as far to say that for some people the reverse is more effective. Sometimes I find that having the sushi before tackling the writing is better for me. Experiment with how your mind works. There’s no clear-cut answer suited to everyone. We’re all different.
I don’t think procrastination will ever go away for me–I love hanging out in my head too much, and distracting myself from important tasks is when I generate creative ideas I get excited about. If I go for a nice walk to avoid doing the dishes, I come up with an art piece I never thought of, or a solution to a problem because my brain is relaxed.
The most important thing–as cliche as it sounds–is to be kind to yourself. If your day isn’t as productive as you want it to be and you procrastinated more than you’d like to admit, acknowledge it and just move on. This is important, especially if you’re a creative person. After all, that’s why they call it a practice–because you’re never really done.