If there’s a list of ranking topics that have been beaten to death in Contentland, procrastination must be in the top ten, if not the top five, on that list. Every self-help writer and their Mother has touched on this topic, produced an ebook, or at the very least tweeted about it. You can understand why — it seems like most who are younger than forty complain about their anxiety and how much they struggle with procrastination.
I’m not any different. I could tell you about how I gave myself panic attacks in high school, or how I practically tore my hair out in college because of procrastination, but I won’t, nor will I regale you with practical advice on how to beat procrastination and deal with anxiety in any sort of helpful, bullet-pointed format. The ultimate dead horse to beat won’t be beaten any more today. And, truthfully, I don’t think that kind of advice is of much use anyway. It’s tactical advice. If tactical advice could help people solve this problem, then there wouldn’t be so much of it.
Instead, I’m just going to tell you a bit of a story about some of my most recent experiences with procrastination, and hopefully by doing so explore some of the deeper issues at the heart of why people procrastinate, or at least why I do.
My Current Mess
I moved into my current apartment in October of last year. I only moved across town, to get out of an apartment I moved into the year prior. Living in that place had been depressing — a big apartment complex tucked away off behind a hotel, off a big road lined with chain restaurants and shopping and such. I hadn’t been out much, mostly because there was nothing to tempt me. All around was barren concrete and concrete, a wasteland. So, when my lease was up, I left.
I found a place in the historic district. A neighborhood full of Victorian houses and big, tall trees, and when spring came, a riot of flowers blooming everywhere you looked. As each species finishes its bloom, another starts up to take its place. It’s now late summer and there are still flowers blooming everywhere. I’ve never lived any place quite like this, and it gives me plenty of reason to get out and walk around, enjoying the gardens wherever I go. However, inside my apartment things aren’t so great. I never truly unpacked, you see.
I’ve never had issues keeping spaces that I share with others clean, but when it’s a space I only I use, I have never cared to take care of it. Alone in a new apartment with no one to help me unpack, things got out of hand pretty quickly. For the first time in my life, I realise I’ve become a bit of a slob. So, start cleaning, right? Well, no. The disaster is so enormous, I don’t even know where to start. Just thinking about it gives me anxiety — and as anyone who has procrastinated should know, you can keep thinking about something you’re worried about indefinitely without ever doing a thing to make it better.
Finally, I talked to some friends about this issue, and one of them told me: “Start cleaning. Don’t think about it, let the sponge do the thinking for you.” Peculiar advice, but after so many years of running myself ragged trying to figure out how to deal with my habit of procrastination, it was strangely appealing to be told “just don’t think about it”. And, even better, it works too. I’ve made more progress cleaning in the last week and a half than I have in months, and the spaces I’ve cleaned have stayed clean.
Thinking vs Doing
Now, has this been a miracle cure? No. I’ve still got a lot left to handle before I can claim the apartment is clean. I haven’t turned into a cleaning Ubermensch overnight. Most of the time, I still don’t want to clean. But, when I do decide to clean, I actually do. I don’t feel overwhelming anxiety when I simply think about trying to clean my apartment. And, isn’t that the ‘Holy Grail’ of self-improvement in a way? Resolving the internal confusions and anxieties that hold you back from doing what needs to be done?
The key thing my friend pointed out to me was the anxiety is based on the thinking about cleaning. The actual act of cleaning itself is not what produces the anxiety. This is the case with everything. For instance, try moving your hand consciously to perform a task, say, grasping a cup. Normally, this is something you do without thinking about it. You don’t think, “OK, now extend my elbow, stretch out my fingers, reach towards the cup, close my fingers around the cup”, you simply grab it. You aren’t a thing that thinks about grabbing a cup, you are a being that can grab a cup, and when you wish to do so, you do.
When you think about each step in a task, you introduce a layer of abstraction between what you are doing and what you are. This is fantastic for planning and problem solving. But, what if there is no problem to solve? What happens when you think about how to do something then? This is what you’re doing when you to try and mentally command yourself through the process of grabbing a cup. Now, this kind of action is so ingrained in us that it’s difficult to really think about doing it instead of doing it, but you can also see this when you repeat a word over and over. Eventually, the sounds coming out of our mouth stop being the word and simply become sounds. We disassociate the action we’re performing from the meaning behind it. The sound is no longer the word. A confusing experience. Disconcerting, even.
Abstractions Create Vacuums
Language is so ingrained in us that if we just stop repeating the word like a lunatic and wait for a bit, we’ll re-associate the sounds and the word with no problems at all. And, as we noted earlier, disassociation is an essential prerequisite for abstract problem-solving.
You must be able to separate your being from the act of doing something in order to be able to come up with better ways of doing it. Which is great, if there’s a problem to solve. But we should recognize what it is that we’re doing: effectively, we are creating a ‘space’ between the self that is conscious and thinks, and the self that is embodied in the world and takes action. A vacuum within your psyche, if you will. And vacuums must be filled.
When you are solving a problem, that is what fills that space — your abstract reasoning concerning how to perform this task. And, once you find a solution, you execute it, re-associating the part of you that thinks with the part of you that is. But if there’s no problem to be solved with abstract reasoning, what fills that space?
Confusion. Anxiety. A myriad of other unconscious emotions and desires. The mind is full of forces and pressure — empty space will be filled by something, and if we aren’t going to fill that space with something constructive, then something destructive can fill it instead.
A good analogy for this can be found in grappling-based martial arts like Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. In any grappling art, the way to victory is through gaining leverage over your opponents center of gravity before they gain leverage over yours. How do you do this? By creating and closing space between yourself and your opponent. You open space so that you can move to gain leverage, and then you close it to try and use that advantage. And, vice versa, you try and stop your opponent from doing the same. Space must be opened, and then filled. If you don’t utilize space you create, it will be used against you.
Our psyche works on that same principle.