Sometimes the reason is anxiety. When the task at hand seems too big or daunting, even though we’d like to begin, it can be hard to figure out where or how to start. So we don’t do anything at all. To a parent, teacher, or employer, behavior like this might look like apathy, but it’s actually the complete opposite: You care so much about doing a good job that you are paralyzed by this desire.
Last year, I had my very first book published. Writing a book had been a goal of mine since I was in the second grade, and as I began working, I felt as though my entire life had been pointing toward that moment. Accordingly, the whole book-writing process was the most terrifying experience imaginable. On one occasion, I found myself so completely stupefied by the magnitude of my situation and the impending deadline from my publisher that an entire day’s work consisted of typing a single sentence (that I ended up deleting the next day). I just couldn’t sit down to write. Instead, I walked to McDonald’s, walked to the corner store, watched TV, paced around the house, read, and called my boyfriend to ask how his day was going. I did everything I could think of to avoid facing what I had to do, because what I had to do meant so much to me that I was terrified.
Impulsivity, anxiety—these aren’t things you can just snap your fingers and change about yourself. Trying to be a more conscientious worker is an ongoing struggle for me. But over the years, I’ve figured out ways that allow my tendency to delay work for me instead of stopping me from working entirely.
1. Forgive yourself.
So, you have an entire semester’s worth of notes to cram into your head. Or maybe because you’ve been playing a long-running game of reverse Jenga with your closet, shoving crap into whatever empty spots you can find instead of cleaning everything out, and now the likelihood of a devastating avalanche is all too real. Don’t beat yourself up. As I said earlier, everyone procrastinates sometimes. The psychologist George Ainslie even says that procrastination is “as fundamental as the shape of time, and could well be called the basic impulse.” There isn’t anything wrong with you, and you don’t have to feel guilty about it. Anyhow, honestly, if you’ve waited until the last minute to get to work, you don’t really have time to waste feeling ashamed of yourself. Try as hard as you can to push those negative thoughts to the back of your mind, take a deep breath, and get started.
2. Do some mental preparation.
Even if you aren’t producing something tangible until the night before your project is due, that doesn’t mean that you haven’t been working. You can use the days leading up to your deadline to mentally formulate a plan of attack. This takes a minimal amount of effort, but it can really help you cross that threshold into doing the actual work. You can jot down notes in your mind while you’re on the bus, or during commercial breaks when you’re watching television, or even while you’re sitting on the toilet—I’ve written entire research papers in my mind in the bathroom. And while we’re on the subject of bathrooms, you can also bring your study materials in there if you have an upcoming exam. That way you can take care of business while you’re taking care of business, then go back to the fun or trifling activities you do whenever you’re procrastinating.
3. Create smaller, less intimidating goals.
If a huge-seeming task is scaring you off, make it less frightening by breaking it down into smaller, manageable tasks. When I have a big project—something that will probably take days to complete—with a looming deadline, I force myself to work on it in nonnegotiable 15-minutes chunks. That’s better than not doing anything at all, and sometimes I get into a groove and work for much longer than I’d planned to. Setting that smaller goal can jumpstart you and push you past the emotional or mental hurdles that might lead to procrastination.
4. Do the easy stuff first.
Procrastination is all about avoiding tasks that we imagine are going to be difficult by doing things that seem more enjoyable or just less intimidating. You can apply this same logic to tackling your work! When I’m writing an academic essay or something like what you’re reading right now, thinking up an introduction is always the most difficult thing for me to do. I’m not exactly sure why that’s so, but because I know this about myself, I’ll usually save the introduction-writing for last.
5. Set personal deadlines.
Since procrastination is all about delaying everything until we absolutely have to get it done, we will just never do the things we don’t absolutely have to do. There’s no deadline on cleaning your room, unless someone gives you one. But that someone can be you! I don’t think it works to just be like “I’m going to clean my room by Friday,” because you know that’s just some made-up hoo-ha. However, if you invited a bunch of friends to hang out at your house on Saturday? That’s a real thing, and is more likely to get you to actually clean up. It’s important to attach some real-life weight to your own imposed deadlines.
Harnessing the power of procrastination requires us to strike a subtle balance between not hating ourselves for putting things off until the last moment—because the last thing we need when you’re toiling away at three o’clock in the morning is to feel like a complete failure—and not letting ourselves entirely off the hook. You’re not a slacker, you’re not tragically lazy. We all intend to do what’s required of us, some of us just have a hard time acting on those intentions. But to stop procrastination from destroying our work, health, life, etc., we have to disregard our emotions. We have to focus on our intentions, so that they can propel us forward.
When you think about it, we procrastinators are a pretty impressive group. Despite crippling anxiety, countless postponements, false starts, sobbing, and the existence of YouTube and Beyoncé’s Instagram account, we somehow find it within ourselves to get it together in the 11th hour. Not everyone can do that! To me, that means we’re extra ambitious. It means we know how to GET THINGS DONE. Compared with what we usually deal at the last minute, tackling our tendency to put ourselves there should be a piece of cake. ♦