I have been a moderately severe procrastinator for more than a few years now, but after I found myself playing a video-game for entire days when there was important work to be done, I felt that I had gone too low. That led to some introspection on the mechanics and nature of procrastination. Since then I have taken steps to change my ways, but as any serious procrastinator knows, taking steps to change is no guarantee that one will not fall into the same old habits in a few days.
Here are some of the things that I have observed about myself and the process of procrastination:
1. There is no one true self
This may sound like an extreme conclusion to make, but I could think of no better way to express it. The central problem of a procrastinator is that there is a gap between intention and action. When procrastination is sufficiently deep-rooted, the gap is strong enough to fracture your sense of self-hood. On a certain level, you know what is the right thing to do, and you want to do the right thing, no doubt. But for a chronic procrastinator the self that knows the right thing from the wrong isn’t the self that actually does something. The self that is in control most of the time is the one that cannot resist the temptations of internet addiction and savors the feel-good of escape from responsibility.
This leads me to think that what we perceive as the true unwavering self is not really a solid, whole entity. At different times, at different ‘levels’ of the mind, different forces are in action. And these forces work in contradiction to each other.
2. My brain is really vulnerable to attention hijack
In 2018, it feels like almost everything I spend time on online is designed to be addictive. Without preventive measures, these attention hijackers easily consume large swathes of my time. I use a browser extension to block my YouTube feed, the suggestions panel and prevent auto-play. Another browser extension to block the Reddit front page. I have recently set strict time windows within which I can browse my Instagram and Twitter feeds. I still find myself semi-consciously reaching for my phone and opening the Instagram app or entering Reddit.com or YouTube.com on the browser URL bar when I’m working on my laptop. Before, when I didn’t have preventive measures in place, this would make way for a session of mindless consumption lasting from a few minutes to several hours.
Earlier I was not sure I absolutely needed intentional barriers in place beforehand to shield my attention from addictive influences, but now I think preemptive measures should always be in place. The attention economy, as it is called, is exploiting weaknesses of the human mind itself. However mentally strong I may become, evolution has not prepared me for endless and effortless stimulation.
3. Emotions can influence actions without explicit awareness of them
When I think about the projects and tasks that I have procrastinated the most on, I find that thinking of them almost always triggers a small bout of negative emotions in me. With some tasks it is the fear of not doing a good enough job, with some it is the apprehension about risks I would have to take, and with a lot it is the fear of social encounters that I would have to make. And to alleviate these negative emotions, I turn to some easy distraction. And in the age of the internet easy distractions are highly rewarding in the short term. A pattern forms, a habit reinforces itself. Many times, it is the very fact that I have procrastinated a lot on some project that makes me feel bad when I think about it. Naturally, I don’t want to feel bad, so I do something that makes me forget for a while. And the vicious cycle continues.
Before I took a moment to think what was happening, for all these years I never realized what was happening. That it was my fear of failure that was motivating me to procrastinate on something. Or my social anxiety. Or my low-self esteem about being a procrastinator. Because I don’t pay attention, a lot of what makes me is subliminal - and therefore out of my direct control.
4. There is no escape from making decisions
Something that really aggravates my procrastinatory behavior is my near-inability to make decisions. Thinking about making major decisions makes me really uncomfortable, and I can’t make up my mind about even small things. This is one of the many things that procrastination is - the perpetual running away from decisions. Sure enough, a lot of the things I procrastinate on involve making decisions of considerable importance. But try as I might to run from having to make decisions, I can’t escape them. Not making a decision is itself a decision. Not deciding about what to write in the blog amounts to writing nothing. Not deciding what career path to take amounts to being stuck with whatever you have now. There is no escape from decisions.
I have recently become a fan of Dr Timothy A Pychyl’s articles on the topic. He is one of the world’s leading researchers on the psychology of procrastination, and writes with cutting insight. In one such blog post, he writes:
Even indecision and inaction are really decision and action. Your indecision, your inaction, becomes your choice, your act, perhaps your whole life.