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

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Procrastinating 101: More "Warning Signs" and a New Approach

In The Now Habit:  A Strategic Program for Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-free Play, Neil Fiore offers this "new" definition of procrastination:
Procrastination is a mechanism for coping with the anxiety associated with starting or completing any task or decision.
In Fiore's logic, 
it follows that those most vulnerable to procrastination are those who feel the most threatened by difficulty in starting a project, criticism, failure, and the loss of other opportunities that may result from committing to one project. 
Friends, family and therapists have been consistently pointing out to me lately (and to be honest, for much of my life) how hard I am on myself.  Fiore asserts that "old" definitions of procrastination are rooted in negativity and self-criticism--not what I need.  Because Fiore promises a more positive approach to this difficulty--and because he has thrown in that "guilt-free play" bait--I am planning to  systematically consider his ideas in these Procrastinating 101 posts over the next few weeks.  This week:  Why We Procrastinate, according to Dr. Fiore.

Fiore does not exactly break new ground in beginning with his six "warning signs of procrastination," but the warning signs he focuses on reflect his more wholistic view of the problem, which encompasses difficulties with "procrastination, goal achievement, [and] inefficient work habits."  I am reproducing in totality his schema of ill-boding indications, because his detailed probes are particularly rich, and likely to be weakened by paraphrasing.  Feel free to read closely only what applies.
1. Does life feel like a long series of obligations that cannot be met? Do you
  • keep an impossibly long "to do" list?
  • talk to yourself in "have to's" and "shoulds"?
  • feel powerless, with no sense of choice?
  • feel agitated, pressured, continually fearful of being caught procrastinating?
  • suffer from insomnia and have difficulty unwinding at night, on weekends, and on vacations (if in fact you take vacations)?
2. Are you unrealistic about time? Do you
  • talk about starting on projects in vague terms such as "sometime next week" or "in the fall"?
  • lose track of how you spend your time?
  • have an empty schedule without a clear sense of commitments, plans, subgoals, and deadlines?
  • chronically arrive late at meetings and dinners?
  • fail to take into account the actual time it takes to drive across town during rush hour?
3. Are you vague about your goals and values? Do you
  • find it difficult to stay committed to any one person or project?
  • have difficulty knowing what you really want for yourself, but are clear about what you should want?
  • get easily distracted from a goal by another plan that seems to be free of problems and obstacles?
  • lack the ability to distinguish between what's the most important use of your time and what's not?
4. Are you unfulfilled, frustrated, depressed? Do you
  • have life goals that you've never completed or even attempted?
  • fear always being a procrastinator?
  • find that you're never satisfied with what you accomplish?
  • feel deprived--always working or feeling guilty about not working?
  • continually wonder "Why did I do that?" or "What's wrong with me?"
5. Are you indecisive and afraid of being criticized for making a mistake? Do you
  • delay completing projects because you try to make them perfect?
  • fear taking responsibility for decisions because you're afraid of being blamed if something goes wrong?
  • demand perfection even on low-priority work?
  • expect to be above mistakes and criticism?
  • worry endlessly about "what if something goes wrong"?
6. Are low self-esteem and lack of assertiveness holding you back from becoming productive? Do You
  • blame outside events for your failures because you're afraid to admit to any deficiencies?
  • believe "I am what I do" or "I am my net worth"?
  • feel ineffective in controlling your life?
  • fear being judged and found wanting?
Having answered "yes" to most, if not all, of the above, it seems I might have a problem, Houston.   (For some reason, the questions reminded me of the classic "I Love Lucy" episode where Lucy is making a commercial for Vita-meata-vege-min.  Her spiel, too, begins with questions: "Do you poop out at parties? Are you unpopular? Well, the answer to all your troubles is in this little bottle!. . . . And, it's so tasty too!"   Of course, Fiore's "product" is nonalcoholic, unlike Lucy's, so we are unlikely to mangle the questions in amusing but nonproductive ways upon reexamination, like she did.  "Do you pop out at parties?  Are you unpoopular?") 

But Fiore's question is why?  He rejects the notion that we procrastinate because we are lazy, or have a character defect, observing that 
. . . even the worst procrastinators have motivation and energy for some areas of their lives--sports, hobbies, reading, taking care of others, music, dancing, political debate, investments, surfing the Internet, or gardening.  So-called procrastinators can be found in every walk of life, accomplishing much in those arenas where they have chosen to devote themselves, but totally unable to get started in others.
He offers instead Denis Waitley's belief, expressed in his books The Psychology of Winning and The Joy of Workingthat we procrastinate "to temporarily relieve deep inner fears." Ah, now we're getting somewhere. But what "deep inner fears?" I have so many. Fiore relies on Theodore Rubin's Compassion and Self-Hate in identifying three key terrors--fear of failure, fear of being imperfect, and fear of impossible expectations that "prevent us from acting on and attaining humanly possible goals and relationships."  Check, check and check.  Underlying all three is the key fear--of judgment.  Checkmate.

Fiore goes on to describe the ways in which many of us sit in judgment on ourselves, and thus thwart our healthy impulses toward work and improvement.  And he recommends compassion as the foundation of changing our procrastinating ways.  It's beginning to look like all roads lead to the cushion.  

Next week:  The Rewards of Procrastination

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