Ever heard the joke “hard work and dedication pay off with time, but procrastination pays off right now”? It implies there is some kind of reward for putting things off. In reality, putting things off can be a source of anxiety and depression. We find ourselves in a cycle of feeling overwhelmed by what needs doing, then feeling guilty for not doing it.
Unfortunately, our procrastination is frequently interpreted as laziness or rebellion. We end up on the receiving end of accusations such as, “You never get anything done”, “Why can’t you ever finish what you start?”, and “If it really mattered to you” — or worse – “If I really mattered, you would have done it.” We accept the labels of lazy, uncaring, and selfish and our already struggling self-worth plummets.
The truth is, most of the time procrastination has nothing to do with laziness or motivation. Years ago, my sister turned me on to a website where I found helpful tips on cleaning and organization, but the concept which really got my attention was that procrastination is actually perfectionism in disguise. How could that be?
The writer (Marla Cilly) went on to explain it is fear of failure which often prevents us from beginning a task, as well as the reason we get started and quickly become overwhelmed and give up. Our brain tells us “if you can’t do it right the first time it isn’t worth doing”, or “you don’t have time to complete it”. We consider the task at hand and rationalize “I don’t have time to finish this right now, but am off on Saturday, so will do this Saturday”. We feel a flash of satisfaction at having made a plan. Saturday comes and we rationalize, “I’ve worked hard all week and I’m exhausted. I need and deserve a break. This task isn’t critical, so today I will rest and I can take this task on tomorrow or even next Saturday when I feel more rested”. Unfortunately, “feeling good” Saturday never comes, and as our list of the undone grows, so do our feelings of self-defeat. We begin to believe the labels of lazy, unproductive, and irresponsible really do apply…and we accept them.
Some tasks can be delayed with little consequence, but if we are already prone to self-criticism, even these small acts of procrastination can lead to big emotional assaults as we tell ourselves, “I’m so useless – I can’t even do this one little thing.” We become frustrated and confused, particularly if we are well-organized in other life areas, such as work. We wonder, “Why can’t I be this ‘on top of things’ at home?”
The simplest answer is perhaps you feel mentally and emotionally rewarded at work in a way you do not feel rewarded at home. Much of the time, our efforts to clean or repair things around the house go unnoticed, unappreciated, or are criticized. This reinforces a why should I care if nobody else does mentality, which can quickly morph into why should I care about myself if nobody else does? When this negative thinking combines with our fear-of-failure-based procrastination, it can be emotionally crippling, and it is super-fuel for depression.
Try the following steps to avoid the perfectionism-procrastination monster.
- Make a list of tasks. Include anything you feel needs to be done, from pick up the dirty sock to repaint the bedroom. Use different colors (or whatever works for you) to sort tasks into two categories – those which take less than 15 minutes to complete (-15), and those which take more (+15)
- Select one of the (-15) tasks and do it now, then mark it ‘complete’ — use stickers, smileys, whatever – the point is to feel good about the accomplishment, no matter how trivial it may seem, and to consistently reinforce that good feeling each time you add a new sticker or checkmark
- Identify those (+15) tasks which are actually projects, such as those which would take a half day or more to complete
- Identify the steps required to complete each project. In most cases you will find many of the steps are actually (-15) tasks, which can be tackled one at a time. Sure, it may take a while to complete a project, but every step completed is not only another accomplishment, it is progress towards your bigger goals
For some of us, the temptation will be to continue tweaking our list to perfection. The Flylady website has lots of ready-to-use lists, so if you find yourself getting bogged down in your own list-making, consider using one of theirs. As you approach tasks on your list, note those items which consistently get skipped or saved for later, then think about your reasons for the delay. Doing so will help you spot the perfectionism monsters hiding in your list, and allow you not only to conquer them, but to find empowerment in now.