On Procrastination

Procrastination is blamed for all manner of work woes. It’s true that putting something off until you don’t have time to do it well is not the best way to work. On the other hand, I think we lump a number of sins (and virtues) under the heading procrastination and castigate them all. If we are going to label and name our sins, let us at least understand what we are castigating and do it properly.

At its heart, procrastination is avoiding something until it is too late (or until you make someone else too late) to do it well. Like a drinking or social media habit, I think you know a procrastination problem by the damage it causes you or others. I become a procrastinator (and not just someone doing work on my own terms) the moment I turn in a report that could have been better if I just had one more day…but I’ve already had three weeks. When that happens I’ve got to wonder if it’s not just that I’m too busy, but that I’m avoiding my work. But why?

Over the years I’ve (slowly) recognized one common denominator in all my procrastination. It isn’t laziness, or boredom, or the need for a deadline to goose the creative juices. It’s the fear of the unknown, and my fear of looking foolish for not knowing something. I tend to procrastinate simple and quick tasks because I don’t immediately know how to do them, or have the tools to do them in front of me. I have put off submitting financial reports because I did not know who at the donor I should send them to, and I was afraid of look foolish for asking. I’ve waited weeks to begin a document because I didn’t know what sort of format it should take. I routinely avoid making phone calls when I don’t know the person on the other end because…well, because phone calls with strangers are always a bit unknowable.

Clearly I have my own issues with procrastination, and my issues aren’t everybody’s issues, thank goodness. But what a look at my procrastination shows is that is isn’t really procrastination that’s the problem, it’s my own discomfort with not knowing how to do something. How to stop procrastinating? Simply exhorting myself to start earlier, or work harder, won’t get my procrastinated tasks done. But realizing why I am putting something off can sometimes get me moving in the right direction. For that financial report I had been putting off, realizing why I was avoiding it made me re-write my to-do list. Instead of putting on the top of it “Send Financial Report,” I put on top “Ask Field for Contact for Financial Report.” Yes, it took longer to write the to-do list than it did to email the field for the right contact. But framing it that way made me face the real thing I had to do, and so it all got done in the end.

And remember those virtues that I mentioned getting tossed in with the procrastination sins? There are things that look like procrastination but aren’t. One of those is thinking. Thinking is not procrastination, though of course sometimes we think too much. Sometimes we can’t start writing or strategizing or planning until we’ve thought things through, and that thinking isn’t always done in a way that looks like work. If I find I need more thinking, but the problem I’m working on isn’t getting solved through active thinking (the kind you do with a marker and white board, for example) I will let the problem be and do something totally unrelated – reading the news online, typically. The New York Times’ health reporting is a favorite diversion, because I can justify it as staying current with general public health knowledge. If I sometimes read the Style section instead no one needs to be the wiser. And after a break I often find that my brain has done its work in the background without my meddling, and I have an idea of how to move forward.

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