When I was a child, I never struggled with procrastination. I was the bizarre kid that would wake up early on a day without school, and spend the greater portion of it organizing my room and belongings. I would get up without much issue to do some final last minute studying for a big test at 4 AM before school. I would sit for hours and cut out coupons for my family to use. I may have been weird and excessively neat and psychotically detailed, but a procrastinator, I was not.
But something happened between adolescence and adulthood. I learned the “art” of procrastination. And because this is so unlike me, I have spent the greater part of my adulthood so far trying to figure out where this came from, and why I am suddenly prone to being so darn lazy.
I learned the first part of the psychology of my procrastination a few years ago. I have always been known as somewhat of a perfectionist. Yet, often my more recent behavior does not reflect that—why? Why the dichotomy? I cannot possibly exist as both a perfectionist and a procrastinator at the same time, right? Alas, I realized that I can. My great realization is that my perfectionism has indeed caused my procrastination. Sounds weird, right? But here’s why: If you are a perfectionist, you desire to do everything perfectly, completely, and to your high standards. How do you obtain that? Doing things as slowly and meticulously as you need to, spending as much time as you feel is necessary, and having the circumstances just so as to establish the ideal outcome. But life is not ideal. I may not have a whole day totally uninterrupted to clean the house—instead, I may need to spend a few minutes here and there getting a few small tasks done at a time. For a perfectionist, this is hard to swallow, so instead I may put it off until some “better time.”
“My desire for perfection leads me to procrastination”—J.L. Lopez
I did the same thing in a work setting. I would have projects to do that I would just put off until some “good time.” Guess what? Often, that “time” never comes, and soon your boss is questioning you on why the project is not finished, even though you have had months to do it.
This realization that my procrastination was stemming from my innate perfectionist nature was, to me, very influential in learning how to deal with and overcome this dreaded handicap. Life does not always happen the way you want it to, but things still have to get done. I have spent the last few years digesting this realization and learning how it fits into my recovery. My husband thinks it a ridiculous excuse—I consider it a personal epiphany (i.e., a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or experience– yes, that is definitely it).
I looked up the word ‘procrastinate’ in the online dictionary, and this is what I found:
pro·cras·ti·nate (pr-krst-nt, pr-)
v. pro·cras·ti·nat·ed, pro·cras·ti·nat·ing, pro·cras·ti·nates
To put off doing something, especially out of habitual carelessness or laziness.
To postpone or delay needlessly.
I definitely agree with the second definition, but the first one really does not seem to fit with me, though I can be careless or lazy from time to time. Maybe we need to add a new definition of procrastination for those people like me that put things off because they want to wait until the perfect time to accomplish it to the utmost of its potential outcome. Sometimes it is not as simple as someone not doing something just because they do not feel like it—sometimes there are other reasons.
Recently, I came across a quote that hit me almost like a bolt of lightning, and I realized that it was the second half behind the psychology of my procrastination and clutter issues.
As strange as it is, I have always loved the feeling of chaos—not necessarily “we-are-minutes-away-from-dying” type chaos, but upheaval has always had somewhat of an enjoyable quality to me that other people would probably not agree with. I quite enjoy moving every 2 years or so, and the chaos that it brings. I totally hate snow, but I like the concept of all life coming to a halt because of a huge snowstorm. I am one of those “unique” people that quite enjoy feeling at least temporarily out of control.
When I saw this quote, I was struck at the oxymoron aspect. How can you both be in favor of chaos and order? But, I realized that the author of this quote totally understood me! I am that dichotomy, that oxymoron. And I realized that, in addition to my perfectionism that causes me to push things to another better time, it is also my liking of temporary chaos with the possibility of newfound order that causes me to put off projects. There is something strangely gratifying about knowing that I have 3 projects that desperately need to be done, and whenever that perfect time comes and I am able to accomplish them in the perfect way that I plan to, everything will be wonderfully in order and life will take on a whole new meaning. But that day is not today. It also ensures that I will never be bored.
This concept explains why I fail miserably at cleaning on a regular basis. Why clean when I cleaned yesterday and generally everything still looks good? No, I like to wait until it is an all-and-out disastrous mess so that when I do clean it, there is a good reason for it, and the results will be most noticeable and gratifying. Or, why clean if my household family members are the only ones that are going to see it? There is no greater motivator to clean your house than when you are within two hours of guests walking through your front door.
I also mentioned about clutter. Well, clutter and procrastination are best friends with each other, and with me—they go hand in hand. When you procrastinate on throwing things away or putting things where they belong, you end up with clutter. Clutter is a lifelong upward battle that is only exacerbated by the habit of procrastination. That’s why I end up with heaps of papers on the countertop instead of neatly filed away. Why take that one paper upstairs to the office and file it away, when instead I can wait for a few to collect and cover the countertop, and then when I have a great deal of free time, I will spectacularly uncover the countertop so that there is a real noticeable difference and very logically reorganize all of my office files and subsequently file the papers away? Do you see it—the need for chaos so that I can create order -and- the pattern of perfectionism leading to procrastination? These two tendencies that I have uncovered in myself are the reason behind my procrastination, and in turn, clutter, and they can be very debilitating.
However, I am most grateful for these discoveries about myself, and how I “work,” because it was very frustrating to me to behave in ways that appeared to be so opposite of my general personality and not know why. I do realize I am one big oxymoron—one big collection of opposite forces.
But these two realizations have helped me to understand why I act the way I do, and therefore given me some ways to work around it. I have since been able to help myself realize that things will not always be perfect and that habitual cleaning is a lot easier than planning a whole imaginary day to do so. And that getting two small tasks done in a day is a lot better than just thinking about accomplishing twenty someday. I have been teaching myself to take advantage of those snippets of down time that we all have to accomplish things on my “To Do” list. And speaking of “To Do” lists, I do those even more now, because it is difficult to do what needs to be done if you do not know what you need to do. In addition, it spurs me on to more productivity when you have the feeling of accomplishment that crossing things off a list can bring. It boosts your confidence, and makes you say, “Yeah, I can get things done.”
These strategies have helped to increase my productivity, and also reduce my stress level. Oh, you did not know? It is stressful being a perfectionist. Call it a type of psychological anxiety disorder, because it might as well be. Being life is so flawed, it can be very stressful for a perfectionist to not have things exactly the way they expect it to be. Or when I put things off, and more and more tasks are left undone to the point that they are daunting to even the most ambitious individual, that can lead to a lot of anxiety. But learning these concepts about myself has allowed for understanding, and, in turn, modification of my behaviors. That does not mean that I am perfect, by any stretch of the imagination—it just means that I am working on it, which is sometimes all that you can ask.
I have been meaning to write this post for awhile now, both for myself and for you, in the hopes that you may learn something about yourself, as well, that can help you function more efficiently.
I knew today was the day to do it, even though I only had a few minutes between activities, when I received this article from one of my favorite magazines.
It talks specifically about clutter, and the reasons that we have so many problems preventing and getting rid of it. Some are sentimental, some appear to be logical, and some are even anxiety-based. But basically this article explores what I have been exploring in my life and have talked about here—the psychology behind why we do what we do (or, in this case, don’t do on many occasions). You cannot fix something if you do not even know how it works in general and why it is malfunctioning. For me, learning how I function and why I work that way is key to molding myself into the person that I want to be.