Procrastinator’s Dilemma

Happy Friday to you!  If you’ve been reading this blog, you’ll find that I’ve moved to publishing on Fridays now.  My goal starting out last year was to publish a post of between 1000-1500 words once per week.  In the blogosphere, that’s pretty infrequent (and probably too wordy) but it’s worked for me since I’ve started blogging more regularly.

To confess, my previous goal was to publish on Wednesdays or Thursdays.  But over the year, it’s pretty much been pushed out to Friday mornings (and those super productive Friday afternoons!)  Not a great time, especially since I live on the West Coast, which means fewer eyeballs online when I’m publishing.

But better late than never, right?

Which got me to thinking about how and why I inevitably always end up pushing things back.  Like many of you, I’ve always been a procrastinator.  And I’m pretty sure you are one too.  I don’t think I know anyone who doesn’t admit to some level of procrastination.  And those of you who don’t procrastinate are probably the same fictional people who admit to being popular in high school… and we all know that super efficient popular people can’t be bothered to spend time reading or writing blogs!

I think back to high school, college, and graduate school and all those hours spent studying for final exams and writing term papers.  How did you study or write papers?  I don’t know about you, but most people I knew studied like me, cramming last minute.  And I’ll admit that I felt a certain sense of pride in getting a B on a test I spent very little time studying for, versus the A I scored on a test I spent a ton of time studying for.  The ratio of time spent studying vs. outcome was much more efficient and favorable in the B test scenario.

That’s basically what I learned in school.

When I started working, I tried to be more diligent and productive, but I found that I inevitably seemed to work better when I had an impending deadline looming over my head.  I also found that when my deadlines miraculously got moved or extended by even just a few hours or a day, I tended to greedily use up the additional time rather efficiently.

So I finally sat down this morning and drew out a simple chart of my typical Productivity Cycle:

Productivity Graph att

You’ll see my chart has 3 basic areas which I call: 1) Forgone Productivity; 2) Actualized or Realized Productivity; and 3) Theoretical Productivity

For someone like me, there is always an inherent loss of productivity in area 1) Forgone Productivity, because this is the time I spend thinking (worrying and bitching and moaning) about how and what I need to do rather than simply tackling said project.  I guess you could say I have some perfectionist tendencies, and so I spend a lot of time up front thinking and worrying about a project.  Not a lot of tangible stuff gets done, but I find that this is still an important time to simply think about and outline how to tackle a task.  It’s a loss-leader in terms of productivity, but I’m the sort of person that needs this type of strategy or worry session to get warmed up.

The only problem is that I’m also the sort of person that tends to spend too much time in area 1) and I only manage to move into phase 2)’s Actualized Productivity after an “Oh Sh*t!” moment, when I’m physically startled into action by the passage of time, where I simply just can’t wait or study and analyze the problem any longer.  The second area is an extremely productive period where stuff gets done and words written in a pretty short amount of time.  Usually it’s far shorter than the amount of time I spend worrying about/bitching and moaning about a certain project, but I’m usually so frantic, that I don’t realize I’m actually being productive because I’m working against a loudly ticking clock and an imminent deadline.

Once the deadline has come and pass, I’ve often found that the state of frenetic energy in stage 2) is often a little hard to ramp down from.  Sometimes when an external deadline is shifted back a bit (through powers beyond my own control) I relish the additional time and find myself being just as productive and efficient in using up the additional time.  This is what I call 3) Theoretical Productivity.  But Theoretical Productivity is often just that, theoretical, because most times, deadlines do not get shifted back, despite our desperate hopes and wishes.  But if they miraculously are, I find that it is also a fruitful and productive time to edit and revise.

By the end of the process, my perfectionist tendencies have been completely thrown out the window, and usually I find I’m relatively ok with the outcome because of a finite deadline and limited time.  Something is always better than nothing.  And usually the something produced isn’t absolutely terrible.

A few weeks ago, I read a terrific article about relaxation and productivity where the author, who runs this company, talks about the concept of recovery, and how in today’s society and culture, we’re shortchanging ourselves at the ultimate expense of overall productivity with expectations of more, bigger, better in an environment of 24/7 ADD through email/twitter/social media and non-stop chatter.  He talked about a new method he discovered in writing his last two books versus his first three books: “For my first three books, I sat at my desk for up 10 hours a day. Each of the books took me at least a year to write. For my two most recent books, I wrote in three uninterrupted 90-minute sessions — beginning first thing in the morning, when my energy was highest — and took a break after each one.”

In my natural state, I’m a lazy person.  I’m relaxed and oblivious most of the time until the panic of an impending deadline motivates me to overcome my natural inertia in order to spring into action.  My mantra is “strike while the iron’s hot, because it doesn’t seem to be hot very often.”  But when I’m finally on, I’m super-productive.  I just can’t really control the productivity to suit convenient timetables and conventional sleeping schedules.  So I for one really appreciate the 90-minute rule which helps me to cut off hours in front of a blank screen, and isn’t so intimidating that it’s totally unachievable.

In going back to my little chart, it would be way too easy (and frankly unrealistic) to have a productivity chart look simply like a straight horizontal line, or increasing steps because we are human beings and not robots.  But a version of the horizontal box is what seems to be demanded by today’s firms and companies in their quest for more, bigger, and better.

Robot Productivity Graph att

So, the procrastinator’s dilemma is simply that it’s impossible to optimize or maximize the total square area of “Actual or Realized Productivity” in the graph, unless you’re a robot.  With this in mind, you can’t really realize section 1) of the first graph, because without 1) you’d never reach the “Oh Sh*t” tipping point, and you’d never reach section 2), not to mention section 3).  The second chart is simply unrealistic, unless you’re a robot, and employers should recognize this.

Most procrastinators like myself are nice enough people.  But inside, I subconsciously think of myself as a quiet sort of rebel.  I can only speak for myself, but like the relationship between perfectionism and procrastination (which has been written about extensively) I suspect there is also a strong relationship between rebellion and procrastination, given my own personal experiences.

I like to think of myself as an outside-the-box kind of person, but truthfully, I’m just not overtly rebellious enough to completely ignore rules, assignments, and duties.  So my personal form of gentle rebellion is to wait until the last minute to complete mundane tasks.  In doing so, I get my adrenaline rush in completing a task with the clock ticking, and I’m utilizing my “B grade time ratio” on said task.  The larger and more complex the task, the larger the rush.  The resultant chemical high coupled with the inherent joy and pleasure in physically crossing things off lists with pen and paper (yes, more dopamine, please) is a pretty unbeatable combo, like Oreo cookies with milk.  And so I find it very hard to stop the vicious cycle.

Now I admit that this is totally a #FirstWorldProblem, but I think that in our mundane and ordinary lives, meeting deadlines has become sport, almost a kind of entertainment for people like me.  When do you return your library books?  I return them on the day they’re due, just before the library closes.  The feeling is a lot like the days of VHS rental video stores, and waiting until the last minute to return the movie to the store.  Many of you have no idea what I’m talking about, so here’s a funny video that explains the concept of a video store to those of you who weren’t alive or conscious before the age of digital video streaming:

I hope you all find your own rhythms in being productive and getting stuff done.  And for all you procrastinators out there, don’t hate yourself.  The beauty is that while we’re all wired a little differently, there seems to be room for all of us… so long as we always make our deadlines.

Happy Friday, and hopefully what you’re working on can wait till Monday!