I’m a hopeless procrastinator. When I was given the subject for this post (the assignment was “time”) I literally had months to complete it. Here it is the night before my deadline and I still haven’t written anything. You should feel cheated. I should be ashamed. And I am. I had all the time in the world to write something good. To write something meaningful. To write something, dare I say, important? Instead, I painted myself into a corner with time. I boxed myself in. I vastly limited my possibilities by eliminating the ability to explore. But maybe that’s what procrastination really is; a forced narrowing of one’s options when faced with too many possibilities.
When I was in college (I was an English major) I would often be given an assignment with a deadline that was weeks, and sometimes even over a month away, yet I can’t think of a single instance where I was not up all night the evening before my assignment was due, furiously scrambling to complete the project. And I don’t mean just the writing itself—I mean the narrowing of my topic, the research involved, the gathering of my thoughts, and the actual writing of my essay were more often than not executed in one outlandish sprint of cognitive and creative output that would leave me simultaneously exhausted and exhilarated when I had finished (usually minutes before I had to leave for class).
One particularly painful example of my procrastination while I was in college always comes to mind. It was my junior year at UC Berkeley and I was enrolled in a world literature course. For some unknown reason I decided to write an essay about the novel Bless Me, Ultima, by Rudolfo Anaya. For the life of me, I can’t remember a single thing about the book (or anything that I wrote for that matter), but I clearly remember getting my essay back after my graduate student instructor, George, had read it, only to find it covered in red pen marks. I’m not claiming that I was a perfect student, or that my writing was always flawless, but over the years I had become fairly good at writing essays on the fly, and I was not accustomed to seeing them returned covered in corrections. Upon closer inspection I discovered the source of most of the angry pen strokes—I had been in such a rush to complete the essay that I hadn’t bothered to proof read it for grammar, spelling or punctuation (and I was arrogant enough at the time to believe that I didn’t need to proof-read for content). To my absolute horror I realized that in my haste I hadn’t caught the fact that my spell-checker had automatically replaced the name “Anaya” with the word “annoy.” To this day, the only comment I can actually remember George writing on my essay (although I’m sure he had plenty more to say) was “yes, it is annoying!” after the word “annoy” appeared for the 10th or so time.
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On a lark, I did a Google search for the term “procrastination” and discovered some interesting results. According to Psychology Today, “perfectionists are often procrastinators; it is psychologically more acceptable to never tackle a task than to face the possibility of falling short on performance.” Holy shit! This is me to a T! Or is it? While I do consider myself somewhat of a perfectionist, I don’t feel as if the reason I put off tasks is merely due to some unconscious fear of not living up to my own expectations. But then the article goes on to say, “many procrastinators may contend that they perform better under pressure, but research shows that is not the case; more often than not that's their way of justifying putting things off.” This harkens back to my original thought, that by limiting my options and eliminating the luxury of time, I am somehow forced into performing. The problem with this scenario, as we have seen, is that I definitely do not excel under pressure. I like to tell myself that I perform better under pressure, but that’s really just the lie I tell myself when I’ve taken all the other options off the table and have forced myself to perform under the tightest of constraints. I suppose what I am really doing is allowing myself the ability to say, “Well, the work that I did was pretty great considering I only had one day to do it,” or some such bullshit. But deep down I know that what I’m really saying to myself is “You’re a fucking coward and you’re too afraid to give yourself ample time to do the work because you’re scared that it won’t be that good without the artificial barriers you’ve constructed for yourself.”
However, as it turns out, the reason people procrastinate is not so cut-and-dry. According to the article, thrill-seekers (that’s me!) tend to procrastinate in order to “reap a euphoric rush” by completing a task by the skin of their teeth. And truly, what is more exhilarating that narrowly avoiding disaster? Imagine how alive one must feel when the parachute that has failed to open suddenly bursts forth form its pack and arrests the skydiver’s horrifying plummet towards certain death? Well, as it turns out, it feels fucking amazing! That very thing happened to me the first time I went skydiving—I was jumping solo (as opposed to being strapped to an instructor), and my chute was supposed to deploy via a static line attached to the airplane, but when the chute came out of my pack it was hopelessly tangled and did not deploy until I had fallen a few hundred feet in a state of horror and confusion. Luckily I did not panic and I remembered my training, so I was able to “rock the toggles” (super cool parachuting lingo!) and get it to deploy. The instant it opened my horrifying plummet was transformed into an exhilarating, yet gentle downward journey towards terra firma. The feeling of narrowly escaping death was absolutely invigorating and I couldn’t wait to go back up and jump again. But is this really the same sensation that thrill seekers get when putting off a task until the last possible moment? Not by a long shot. The sensation is more one of relief that the task is finally finished than a “euphoric rush” akin to narrowly cheating death.
Which brings me to my next point. According to an article in The New York Times, procrastination is really about “managing negative moods” associated with a given task. In a study conducted in 2013, researchers determined that procrastination is “the primacy of short-term mood repair...over the longer-term pursuit of intended actions.” In other words, one is privileging the immediate sense of relief one gets from putting off a task over the possibility of a future sense of satisfaction, accomplishment, or relief that will surely result from finally tackling the long put-off endeavor. In essence, what we’re really doing when we are procrastinating is saying, “fuck you, future-me, present-me is anxious/uncomfortable/stressed out about this thing we have to do, so we’re gonna put it off and make it your problem!” Of course, all this does is compound the negative associations we have with the task, and increases our sense of guilt, shame, and anxiety we get by avoiding the task. This, in turn, creates a snowball effect—the longer we put off a task the more unpleasant it becomes because of the sense of anxiety and self-loathing we experience by putting it off in the first place. So in order to experience some relief from these negative feelings, we put the task off even further. And so on, and so on. To quote Dr. Fuschia Sirois from the aforementioned New York Times article, “the thoughts we have about procrastination typically exacerbate our distress and stress, which contribute to further procrastination.” It is truly a vicious cycle.
And then, as I continued my journey down the procrastination rabbit hole (who knew that looking up the word “procrastinate” was a way to procrastinate in itself?) I came across this savory nugget: according to recent studies, on a neural level we perceive our future selves as complete strangers more than a continuation of our familiar, everyday selves. When we procrastinate, our brains literally think that the discomfort we are creating for our future selves belongs to someone else!!! So It makes all the sense in the world from a neurological perspective to say, “fuck that stranger in the future, I’m uncomfortable in the here-and-now.” Of course, this is completely irrational and only complicates matters further. However, because of the way we’re wired, the “threat detector” area of our brains known as the amygdala views tasks that make us anxious, uncomfortable or stressed out as actual threats to our existence. So even if we realize on an intellectual level that putting off a task is only going to cause us more stress and discomfort, we are hard-wired to remove the immediate threat regardless of future consequences. This is known as “amygdala hijack,” and even though we realize that it is happening, and are aware of the fact that it is completely irrational, we are somehow helpless in its unyielding grasp.
So in the end, what does all of this really mean? It means that even though a couple months ago I was thrilled at the prospect of writing a piece about “time” for the It’s Personal blog, the irrational, stress-avoidance mechanism of my brain instantly kicked in, and for a variety of reasons, prevented me from embarking on something that I had actually been looking forward to. I was truly eager to write about my personal relationship with time—how I see it as both the most overwhelming and horribly destructive force in the universe, and at the same time, a truly bizarre concept that I don’t actually believe in on the deepest intellectual level (I have this crazy idea that the entire history of the universe, some 14 billion years or so, is actually an illusion and everything that has ever happened, is happening, or will ever happen is happening right now, in this eternal instant). I wanted to be able to explain how only yesterday I was a little boy watching sailboats race on the San Francisco bay, and today I am somehow a middle aged man occasionally overwhelmed by the simple act of existence. I wanted to explore the idea of the ever-divisible present (take the smallest known increment of time, then halve it)—I wanted to discuss my notion that time and space are precisely the same thing (and no, I don’t mean space-time), and that reality is just an illusion—I wanted to discuss the idea of an infinity that simultaneously spreads outward and inward, expanding in both directions so that the concepts of “outward” and “inward” are rendered meaningless— but the hard-wired stress-avoidance mechanism in my primitive, sluggish ape-brain took over and now all I’ve got is a semi-coherent, rambling piece about my lifelong struggle with procrastination. At least “future me” can rest easy now.