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Putting Off

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There’s a song that begins “Anticipa-a-tion…you’re makin’ me wait…” When that tune runs through my head, though, the word is “procrastination,” rather than “anticipation.” It slides right in there, and is much more in line with my life. I’ve always been a procrastinator…long before I knew the word, or understood the concept.

Even as a small child, I put off everything, right down to necessary body functions. I was the kid in the play yard squirming, holding myself and sitting on my heels because I desperately had to pee…but didn’t want to take the time. My sister Brenda, always the sensible one, would chide, coax and encourage me: “It’s not gonna go away, you know;” “Just run and go, then come right back;” “If you wet your pants, you’re gonna get in trouble!” My mother would scold, shame, and warn me about the harm I was doing to my body. It was certainly an uncomfortable feeling, and Brenda was right, it didn’t just go away; still, I was a pretty big kid before I quit trying to put it off.

Bedtimes were another issue when I was a child. I’d argue about staying up, beg for a little more time, dawdle and poke through all the nighttime rituals, then remember that I had to pee…or needed a drink of water…or had an ache or pain that warranted attention.  That tendency has never gone away. I still put off going to bed, and then I fight sleep. No matter how tired I am, no matter how full the day has been, or how much I need my rest for the day ahead. Sometimes I call it insomnia, but I wonder if it’s just another way procrastination manifests itself in my life.

Far beyond just bedtime, procrastination affects my life. I have long lists of things to do in my house, yard and garden. There are projects to finish – and others still in just the conceptual stage – in the studio, the sewing box and the crochet basket. There are books to read, things to learn, places to visit, people to see. All of it is impaired by my tendency to put things off.

“Procrastinator” is one of those low-respect tendencies, like “hypochondriac,” “kleptomaniac” or “airhead.” It carries with it the air of judgment, and the idea that it is based in a lack of effort. Roget’s Thesaurus offers these measly synonyms for those of us who put things off: dawdler; dilly-dallier; idler; loafer; loiterer; lounger; poke; straggler; slow-starter. From my own experience, I know it is often linked to laziness. Still, it is a real inclination that affects many lives, and is not an easy thing to change.

I once read that procrastination and perfectionism went hand-in-hand. The idea is that perfectionists will never be satisfied with the finished result, so they put any task off until the last minute, so that lack of time will remove the torment of aiming too high. That makes sense regarding my penchant for delaying serious work on every single research paper – in my entire college career – until the eleventh hour. Not so much when it’s just a matter of running to the bathroom when nature calls. Comforting, anyway, to see a positive spin on what is widely considered to be a bad habit.

Books on procrastination abound. They have titles that reflect common thinking, pairing it with addiction, equating it with laziness and offering a “cure.” So, obviously, this is something to “get over,” but what are the reasons behind it? What causes procrastination? Well, according to one book, there are four main causes: lack of clarity, overwhelming tasks, lack of urgency and bad habits.

The last one – bad habits – just offers more of the negative self-recrimination I’ve lived with all of my life. Of course it’s true, but it’s only helpful in the sense that we all know bad habits have to change, and most of us have some skills – gained over a lifetime – in how to implement that change. The other three offer insights that may prove to be really helpful.

I used to write, year after year in my planner, under Goals, “finish house.” That directive not only lacks clarity, but – if you know my house – is absolutely overwhelming…and offers no timeline. It kept company with other massive and vague objectives like “get in shape,” “write book,” and “travel.” Now, goals are divided onto separate pages for house, garden, art, writing, and self-enrichment.

The page for house goals has a long list that breaks everything down into manageable tasks: paint window sills and frames of kitchen windows; woodwork around doors and closets upstairs; baseboard in living room; paint stair treads; put up new light fixtures…and on, and on. The list is long, but each item is clear, and do-able. As things get done, I put a line through the item with a highlighting marker, so that I can be encouraged by what I’ve accomplished.

I’m working on the “lack of urgency” aspect by moving specific tasks into my monthly calendar. So far, that’s meeting with less success. I’ve now moved the same three items forward on my calendar through January and February; at least two of them will accompany me into March. That’s okay. As it goes with changing any habits, in my life it’s always a long, slow effort. I just keep plugging away.