I woke up at 9:00 a.m. this morning with a mission: to write my next Maisonneuve column. But first, I needed breakfast; after all, you can’t write on an empty stomach. As the coffee brewed and the bread toasted, I turned on my computer. I opened up a new Word document and sat there for a few minutes, staring at the blank screen. My mind wandered: Should I “take a break” from writing and go to the gym? Does Ami James, the tattoo artist on my favorite TLC show, Miami Ink, have a girlfriend? How much does an airfare to Sicily cost nowadays? I decided that this last question needed my full attention, so I began checking all the travel websites and cross-referencing their ticket prices. Then I ate breakfast.
By 10:30am, I was back at my computer, ready to write. Just then, the phone rang; it was a long distance call. I raced to pick it up and went on to chat with my friend—for a while I forgot all about my as yet non-existent article. One carefree hour later, I got off the phone and immediately started to panic—the day was already half gone and I hadn’t yet written a single word! Why can’t I just write this thing? I thought anxiously. It’s because my apartment is a big mess, I concluded decisively. I need to clean up my living space and free my mind of clutter. I then proceeded to do some light dusting, mop the floor, hem a pair of pants, iron a dress, wash the dishes and do two loads of laundry.
Needless to say, the afternoon turned into night—I napped, I emailed and I ate lunch. It’s now almost 7:00 p.m. and to my dismay, I have just started writing. In my defence, I’ve been hard at work all day researching the subject matter. Like a true investigative journalist, undercover cop or method actor, I put myself in the shoes of the millions of people who spend more time avoiding work than actually doing it.
Piers Steel, a professor of human resources and organization dynamics at the University of Calgary, has just published a study on procrastination in the most recent issue of the American Psychological Association's Psychological Bulletin. The ten-year long study, entitled “The Nature of Procrastination: A Meta-Analytic and Theoretical Review of Quintessential Self-Regulatory Failure,” notes that 15 to 20 percent of us are regular procrastinators.
Steel’s definition of procrastination is "to voluntarily delay an intended course of action despite expecting to be worse off for the delay." In other words—we’re not stupid; we’re fully aware that we’re making our lives harder by putting off important tasks until later, but most of us just can’t help ourselves. The immediate gratification of talking on the phone, surfing the net or playing Guitar Hero on our Playstation II is just too, well, gratifying—with all those distractions at our fingertips, how can we ever expect to accomplish anything?
Here are some of the main reasons why we procrastinate:
- We feel incompetent and are afraid to start tasks.
- We see our tasks as unpleasant.
- We’re distractible, impulsive and have little self-control.
- We feel impossibly far from realizing our goals.
I’m not ashamed to say it: My name is Daisy Goldstein and I am a procrastinator. I used to rationalize my bad habit by believing that I was a perfectionist; if I couldn’t get the job done perfectly, I would rather not do it at all. But, I recently realized that I was deluding myself when I took a test on Prof. Steel’s website, procrastinus.com. I was shocked to discover that I scored 63 out of a possible 100, which makes me an “Above Average Procrastinator.” Here’s what the site says about me:
“When it comes to putting things off, you often do so even though you know you shouldn’t. Likely, you are more free-spirited and spontaneous than most. Probably, your work doesn’t engage you as much as you would like or perhaps you are surrounded by easily available and more pleasant temptations. Though you likely often still get your work done, there is probably a lot of last minute panicking and unwanted stress.”
That doesn’t sound so bad, does it? It describes me as “free-spirited” and “spontaneous,” and I still get my work done. So, I suffer from little things like anxiety attacks and a guilty conscience when I avoid my responsibilities—what’s the big deal? According to Steel, even the great Leonardo da Vinci was a procrastinator. “The Last Supper was only finished after his patron threatened to cut off all funds,” Steel explains, and “Mona Lisa took twenty years to complete.”
Maybe Leo just worked well under pressure—he pulled a few all-nighters and Voila! He created some of the world’s most famous works of art. Personally, I think he was onto something—perhaps creative minds need some procrastination time to allow their imaginations to flourish. If Leo were alive today, I’m sure he’d be checking his email and watching the latest videos on YouTube while deadlines crept closer into view.
But assuming that laziness is a bad thing, Prof. Steel suggests a few steps we can take to curb our procrastination:
1) Goal Setting
This is one of the most established ways of moving forward with your plans. Take any project you are presently ignoring and break it down into individual steps. Each of these steps should be somewhat challenging though achievable for you. If you can visualize in your mind what you should do, even better.
2) Stimulus Control
What you need is a single place set aside for work. The office or desk should be free of any signs of temptation or easily available distractions that might pull you away (That means: no games, no chit-chat, no web-surfing).
Things are much easier to do when they become habits, whether they involve work, exercise, or errands. If you pencil some of those tasks into a regular schedule, they’ll become easier. Start your routine slowly, a pace to which you can easily commit. Eventually, like brushing your teeth, it will likely become something you just do, not taking much effort at all.
So, from now on I vow to buckle down, get my work done and stop wasting so much time. But first, I just need to make a quick phone call.