On November the 10th, 2018 I published a post on this blog as a ‘commitment device’, promising to myself (and to the internet, I guess?) that I would publish one post every week on the blog for four months. It has been well past four months, and I published 9 posts in that time. That averages to about one post every 14 days. So obviously, this endeavor has been a failure. But in these four or so months, I have learnt things about myself and about this Achilles’ heel of human nature called procrastination. I’ve not yet overcome procrastination, I’ve got long long way to go. So take anything that sounds like advice on this post with a grain of salt. But I think I’m at least walking in the right direction, slowly making progress, taking the tiniest step towards recovery each day. Here are a few observations I’ve made in this time:
Humans understand themselves very little
It has been some time since I started a habit of meditating a little every morning, and even though I’m really bad at it, there are few things that meditation has helped me about. The kind of meditation I do involves trying to hold your attention on something (usually your breathing) and observing the thoughts that your minds drifts to, gently bringing yourself back to the subject of your attention. Essentially, this is turning your mind’s eye inwards and towards your own thoughts and feelings. Since starting, I’ve come to understand better some crucial things about myself - most importantly, the fact that how little I understand about myself. Other things I realized are how even a small lack of sleep makes me really bad at focusing on things. Or how social media and online news takes my mind from relative calmness to an anxious and jittery state.
At times I am surprised by how unaware I am of things like even how tired my body is and how that’s affecting my emotional state. Throughout the day, I’m paying very little attention to what kinds of feelings I am feeling or what thoughts I am having. And I suppose most of us are the same. While developing the skill of awareness and mindfulness is one way to better understand yourself, another really good way is to read. Read anything about how the brain works, how the body works, what activities are good for mental and bodily health, anything that is backed by proper science. We as a species know a tiny amount compared to what there is to know, but what we can do right now is work with what we have.
What you do now will be a tiny bit easier the next time
Anything you do is practice. The next time you do it, doing the exact same activity will be a little bit easier. Repeat it enough times, it becomes a habit. We tend to understand the ‘becoming a habit’ part easily enough, but I think that the key insight to have is anytime you’re doing something bad for yourself , you’re making it harder for yourself to not do that thing the next time. For things that you don’t want to be doing forever, as time progresses, what you want to be doing becomes more and more difficult. If you feel the temptation to binge on your favorite TV Series while your exams are near, the next time you feel the temptation it will be easier for you to give in instead of to resist. However, if you manage to resist, resisting will be easier the next time than it is now. Thinking of habits - especially bad ones - in this way is something really powerful, and it has certainly helped me.
Addictive stuff should be identified and stayed away from
There are so many things in our life that have the potential to be addicting, and so many things we are already addicted to without realizing that it’s a problem. As Paul Graham writes in his wonderful essay, as technology as developed, there are more and more addictive things around us. The things that are already addictive are getting more so. For a chronic procrastinator, these new-age addictive stuff like video games, social media and internet porn can be the largest share of their wasted time. In my opinion, the only thing we can do to deal with these is to identify the most addictive stuff and stay religiously away from them. For me, Reddit and Youtube are the most problematic. Nowadays I seldom open Reddit and have decreased the amount of time I spent on YouTube by a lot. Even doing this much has been really difficult and have required a lot of failed attempts. But it’s not like there’s any other way than to keep trying.
Managing time is something new
What I have recently discovered is that having been a chronic procrastinator for so long, my long-term perception of time is very distorted. Estimating how long some task will take, knowing when it’s too late to finish something in time, how much free time I really have - these are things I’m horribly bad at. Probably because chronic procrastination has never let me do any of these properly. I didn’t have to learn to make such choices and estimates, because procrastination made all the choices for me, even if they were the worst possible choices. In other words, I was too busy procrastinating to have any time to manage. So once you’ve got a little better at not procrastinating, the problem you’ll soon face is that of being absolutely unaware how to manage time effectively. I think I am at this stage, slowly learning a better model of how time passes, how long things take, and what should be done when.
There will be struggle, a lot of it
Trying to change your long-standing habits is essentially trying to fight what you have been for your entire life. I think about for how long I have been the way I have been, and how crazy it is to expect my behavior and habits to change in mere weeks. In the beginning, during your first attempts at changing your habits, the overwhelmingly more probable outcome is that you are going to fail, and fail spectacularly. The important thing is not to beat yourself over failures and try again with more resolve and from a more informed state of mind. Throughout the early stages, it is going to be really hard, and you are going to fail a lot. Even if you learn a little about yourself and the nature of procrastination and addiction, all the time you spent trying wasn’t wasted. You got to keep trying, because this is not a fight you can give up on.