Froma Harrop: Are procrastinators poor planners or victims of overwork?

Froma Harrop

I came upon this article on procrastination and saved it for “later reading.” Ha-ha-ha. Procrastination jokes are one of the best ways of putting off work.

The article’s headline reads, “To Stop Procrastinating, Start by Understanding the Emotions Involved.” It appears in The Wall Street Journal, a good source of pointers on getting us gerbils to beef up our output.

Before we get to the thesis, let me offer this subversive idea: Many who see themselves as procrastinators aren’t really procrastinating. They don’t get around to certain assignments because they are trying to complete other assignments.

Procrastination is defined as voluntarily delaying to do something, thus resulting in future negative consequences. Researchers at Stockholm University believe that chronic procrastination is an emotional strategy for dealing with stress, according to the Journal.

Houseguests and dry plants are time-honored excuses for procrastinating. But some less obvious activities, such as going to the gym, also qualify, the researchers concluded. Procrastinators are doing other not-entirely-pleasant activities as “moral compensation” for not doing job No. 1.

In a similar vein, horror novelist Stephen King once said that calling procrastination research is “the scholar’s greatest weakness.” Procrastinators know all the tricks.

We’ve often heard that procrastinators are perfectionists, that they put off tasks thinking themselves unable at present to operate at virtuoso level. They may assume the magic wand of genius will boing them tomorrow.

But that’s wrong, according to the researchers. It’s not perfectionism but impulsiveness. Anxiety pushes people who are not impulsive into action. But anxiety pushes people who are impulsive “to shut down.”

Thus, better time management is not the fix for procrastinators. Emotional regulation is.

Regulate the emotions? We all can do that, right?

First we have to get past (SET ITAL)denial(END ITAL), a defense mechanism allowing us to ignore certain information in order to avoid painful thoughts.

Next we must deal with (SET ITAL)avoidance(END ITAL), withdrawing from undesirable
situations rather than dealing with them directly.

We must work through our (SET ITAL)ambivalence(END ITAL), the coexistence of contradictory beliefs or emotions toward one thing.

So much to work on. And how many deadlines will have flown by in the time it takes to conquer one’s counterproductive patterns of emotional reactions? Coping mechanisms don’t come in a pill, I don’t think.

Anyhow, there are some tried-and-true means of countering procrastination. One is setting sub-goals — that is, breaking the job into smaller pieces. (Be sure to reward yourself for meeting each sub-goal.)

Set a timer for a specified number of minutes or hours, and vow to sit there till it goes off. That’s what Ingmar Bergman did when the Swedish director suffered writer’s block.

Another is to just suck it up and start the darn project. That sounds pretty obvious, but it is on the Journal’s list of solutions.

Novelist Sinclair Lewis wrote, “NOW is a fact that cannot be dodged.” Of course, his “now” didn’t demand posting on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Pinterest — nor did he have to respond to a load of email that would never have come his way in the form of written letters.

Mars has almost a 25-hour day, but until we humans populate the Red Planet, we’re stuck with 24 hours. To go back to my earlier idea, I’m not sure 30-hour days would be enough to do all that’s expected from many of us.

Overwork may be the problem. If so, labeling an inability to get it all done as “procrastination” is merely blaming the victim.