Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task. ~William James

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Procrastinating 101: "Low Impact" Postponement

What is it about "handbooks" and "workbooks?"  Like Chicken Man, that great 1960s radio hero, "They're everywhere!  They're everywhere!"  And the field of procrastination is not immune.  Last week's Procrastinating 101 drew from Rita Emmett's The Procrastinator's Handbook:  Mastering the Art of Doing it Now.   This week I cracked open The Procrastination Workbook:  Your Personalized Program for Breaking Free from the Patterns That Hold You Back, by William Knaus, Ed. D.  Dr. Knaus writes the Psychology Today blog "Science and Sensibility:  A Psychological Potpourri," listed in my Procrastination Resources, and frequently covers issues related to procrastination.  He was mentioned in a previous Procrastinating 101 post on the subject of functional procrastination and working better under pressure.

In Dr. Knaus's workbook,  I once again encountered two "patterns of procrastination,"--social and personal--and seven "procrastination styles"--1) mild-impact; 2) promissory-note; 3) behavioral; 4) fallback; 5) lateness; 6) hindrance; and 7) general.  As in most workbooks, many pages are devoted to giving the reader the opportunity to assess their own difficulties, and to "work" on them by filling out "worksheets."  I dutifully took the Procrastination Survey and discovered that I have significant but apparently not severe problems with both patterns and all seven styles of procrastination.  No wonder I can't get anything done!

In a chapter that explains the patterns and styles (which might sound like a fashion exhibit, but is not as much fun), Knaus inserts after each description a repetitious set of four questions that ask the reader:
1.  What is your most pressing [pattern or style] procrastination challenge?
2.  What do you typically do to avoid the challenge?
3.   What do you tell yourself to justify the delay?
4.  What actions will you take to follow through to meet the challenge? 
Of course, lines are provided on which to write one's answers.   But since I am using a library copy of the workbook, I refrained from scribbling my responses in the designated spaces.  In fact, I refrained from answering the questions at all.  Which is probably a symptom of both patterns and at least several, if not all, not-so-stylish types of procrastination.

It strikes me that my ceaseless reading about procrastination is a bit like trying on hundreds of pairs of not-so-different glasses frames at the optician's, searching for the perfect look.  But occasionally I run into a way of thinking about procrastination that moves me forward a bit in my effort to tame this wild proclivity.  

In Knaus's framework, I found his notion of "mild-impact procrastination" most applicable at this point in my rehabilitation process.
In mild-impact procrastination, important but lower-priority actions get put off.  These activities appear to have flexible deadlines where you feel confident that you can stretch the time a bit to do them. . . .In the world of mild-impact procrastination, low priorities can eventually rise to high-priority status to compete with normal daily priorities and challenges.  Your closets, drawers, garage, and basement fill with clutter, and you feel a nagging sense of frustration when you think about the random collection of junk you've kept.  When mild-impact procrastination spreads, people often believe their lives are disorderly and stressful.

Here, Knaus is writing about me, walking over unsorted laundry on my basement floor, eating ramen noodles for the second night in a row because I haven't had/made time to grocery shop, carrying around a headful of nagging minutiae I haven't gotten around to addressing.  And this "style," Knaus warns, can lead to "malaise [and]. . .a pervasive sense of uneasiness," and to feeling overwhelmed.  Sounds about right.  

The tool he offers for dealing with this depressing behavior is our old friend the to do list, which he calls "cross-off sheets,"  and this parting shot, appropriately framed in a "black box" at the end of the section:
Mild-impact procrastination can spread like a fungus.  Vigilance is important to keep this process in check.

Knaus holds out the hope that consciousness of the problem, the intention to deal with it, and an externalized--written--process will move us forward.  But this is Chapter 3 in a fifteen-chapter volume.  He concludes this early chapter with these words:
We procrastinate when we do something else that is less important.  The simple solution is first to do what you are tempted to delay.  But since we rarely can oppose an oppressive procrastination habit pattern with a simple declaration, you are wise to go to the next simplest level, which we'll take up next when we look into procrastination complications.  

I have a feeling my "case" will require such further efforts.  In the meantime, I will try today to do what I am tempted to delay.  Maybe I can squeeze in a trip to the grocery story, and run a load of towels.

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