I Am Finally Beating Procastination

This will serve as the center for a number of articles I plan to write about overcoming procrastination.

Procrastination is my oldest enemy. I have been a terrible procrastinator since high school. Probably earlier. It has caused me time, money, and potential for advancement in my career. And it has given me so much stress. By far, the most stress in my life comes from procrastination.

Before I go on, let’s be clear about what I’m talking about. By “procrastinator” I don’t mean someone who just puts stuff off. Everybody puts stuff off, and then they’ll say with a giggle “I’m such a procrastinator.” No, you are not. A true procrastinator is someone who puts tasks off irrationally, so the real detriment of their health and happiness. Someone who puts things off occasionally is no more a true procrastinator than someone who has a few drinks every now and then is an alcoholic. It’s serious shit.

A procrastinator truly wants to do the task that he is putting off. More than anything. This is what the world doesn’t understand. They (the non-procrastinators) think that we are lazy. They think that we just need better time management skills. They think we just need to make a list. They think we just need to try. And they are usually pretty forthcoming with their entirely unhelpful suggestions.

What they don’t understand, and what they certainly don’t appreciate, is that we spend more energy trying to do than they spend just doing. Our will, that representative of the conscious mind that tries to get things done through the person, is pulling on the lever with all its might, yet nothing happens. It’s impossible to get traction. We just can’t get ourselves to do the task that we know needs to be done, and that we truly want to do with all our hearts.

It’s a real problem. There are broken lines of communication in the mind and the result is frustration, stress, failed classes, and lost jobs.

I’ve been a procrastinator for over 20 years. I’ve gotten by OK because I’ve learned a lot of shortcuts. I’m a great test taker. In engineering school I relied on my ability to cram for a test the night before and pass it with just enough points to earn me a C or D in the class. I rarely did more than 25% of the homework. This made school hard for me, really hard, but I made it through. It took me 8 years to earn my B.S. in mechanical engineering. 1.5 of those years were co-op assignments, so they don’t really count, but that still leaves 6.5 years, 13 semesters, of undergraduate education. I took some classes 3 times.

I can also apply my ability to work quickly and smartly when the due date on a work assignment is dangerously close. Sometimes, often, I don’t start really working on a project until after it’s due. I am great at apologizing and getting deadlines extended. The better I get at it, the more dangerous the risks I take.

I’ve tried many, many approaches to beating procrastination. Here are a few:

  • Working in an area that is free of distractions. (Laughable. Finding a distraction is never a problem)
  • Working with other people. (This is effective when I can do it, but since I’ve been out of school it’s not usually possible)
  • Diet and exercise. (Great things, and I do know that they help, but they’re not the cure)
  • ADHD drugs. (effective for the first few months, and then your inner procrastination circuits find a work around and the problem gets worse)
  • Hypnosis. (This seemed very promising at first, but my inner procrastination circuits were too strong)
  • Books. Tapes. Blogs. So much reading. (Perhaps ironically, very few authors who get books published on procrastination are true procrastinators themselves. Their advice is often worthless)

Some of these helped, but none of them were truly fixes. I always went back to putting things off. The thing that hurts me the most is my job involves writing long reports. Probably about a dozen a year. Writing is really hard for a procrastinator. This is clearly not a good job for me. Last month I had a client call me with the sole intent of chewing me out for being late with a report. She literally called me just to yell at me and tell me how disappointed she was. She had a right to be upset. It took me 3 months to get her a report that should have been done in 6 weeks.

It felt awful. And it was enough to spur me towards finding a solution to my procrastination yet again. I searched reddit for the word “procrastination” and discovered the Get Disciplined subreddit. There are a lot of posts from people looking for help in there, but there are also some great resources.

I found 3 things to read from authors who truly understand:

  • Why Procrastinators Procrastinate, a wonderful blog post that is very popular among the reddit procrastination crowd. It is valuable because it gives names to the thoughts and feelings we procrastinators have. By giving these things names, it’s easier to think about them objectively. This is a must-read. So is the follow-up post, How to Beat Procrastination.
  • The Procrastination Equation, a book by Dr. Piers Steel. This is a truly scientific look at procrastinators. The explanations in this book for why I do the stupid shit that I do gave me incredible insight. This is required reading.
  • The Flinch, a short e-book that talks about why it’s hard to do the things we know we want to do. There are some great ideas in here, especially about overcoming “The Flinch”, that have really helped me take action against the problem.

Armed with great new knowledge, about 5 weeks ago I set out to defeat this demon that has plagued me for over 20 years. Friends, let me tell you something. The last 5 weeks have been the most productive 5 consecutive weeks that I can remember. I haven’t wasted a single day when I used to literally waste weeks at a time. I’ve wasted hours, don’t get me wrong, as much as half a day here and there, but every work day of the last 25 I have accomplished enough goals to feel proud when it came time to shut down my work computer.

I’m winning battles. Finally. For the first time in over 2 decades I’m beating this thing. It feels great. So I’m going to write about it and maybe what I’ve learned will be helpful to some of you.

For right now, read those things I listed and think about this: stop looking for external solutions to an internal problem.

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