Might as Well be a Drug

A while back, I wrote about how the relative ease with which I traversed the education system led to a lifelong habit of procrastination. Suffice to say, the bad habit’s not yet kicked.

It’s not a terminal condition, to put it crudely. I have a job, and I get things done. But every minute I spend wandering YouTube or TV Tropes is a minute of a finite life pissed away. And while I’m not likely to go to the extreme of never indulging in these largely useless pastimes, the balance in my day is pretty badly skewed at present. It’s too much, and often at inappropriate times when I’m clearly putting off more important matters. Something’s gotta change, and that something is me.

Cue Zen Habits, a book whose Kickstarter I chipped in on last year and which has provided me with a great framework for bumping up my sporadic writing to a daily practice. Most of the book is dedicated to the formation of new good habits, but there is a chapter and an accompanying worksheet for helping quit a bad habit. So I’m putting that to use, in similar fashion to how I used public accountability, a Zen Habits tip, to goad myself into finishing last year’s NaNoWriMo. (Maybe I can come up with a similar stinger of a punishment for failure, eh?)

The goal starts this Saturday, Feb 22, with a super-easy target: 25 minutes a day of effort in which I indulge no digital distractions. Succeed with that, and I’ll add on another 25, and another 25, and so on until I have my work day full of wall-to-wall productivity. I’ve sketched out a whole plan beyond that according to the above worksheet, but that I’m sharing only with my accountability compadres on Habitica. For you folks in the blogosphere, I will instead post updates to Twitter.

Wish me luck and keep me honest!

Put Off

Procrastination is a curse of the gifted.

That may not always be the case, but it was for me. I’ve always been one of those infuriating people who could turn in a paper late and still get an A- or B+ on it, or omit a project entirely and still comfortably pass the class. I can remember procrastinating as early as the first grade. There was an assignment to write a story about a picture of a castle and to color that picture. I fretted so much over the fact that my stories about castles (of which I certainly had many) were too full of violence to include in a first grade Catholic school assignment that I didn’t leave myself enough time to actually color the picture. A few years later, I dawdled over a book report to the point where I ended up writing my assignment against just the first few chapters. In neither of these cases did I end up suffering much repercussion for my heel-dragging.

High school and college were no different. In Psychology 101 I even facetiously wrote a paper about procrastination at the last minute, in which I describe the phenomenon as a kind of conditioned emotional response. The thought was that anticipating critique on one’s assignments created a kind of performance anxiety that would lead a person to seek distractions instead of the work itself. There may be some truth to that, but in my case it’s a bit disingenuous; bad marks were seldom a concern.

In addition, my natural flow of work was described in a personality test I once took as “bursts of energy powered by enthusiasm.” I can be extremely prolific with effort on a project at its outset, when interest is high and its newness makes it novel. But in the hard dull work of the later phases of a project, or if the project was never terribly intellectually stimulating to begin with, motivation is hard to find. That applies whether it’s a work assignment, an area of responsibility, or a game design.

In the adult world this sort of nonsense won’t be tolerated forever. Bosses ask for explanations when deadlines are missed, even if the work is top-notch (besides, if done last-minute, there’s no guarantee it will be; some things have a lower limit on time to complete). And the procrastination mindset begins to seep into other areas of life, too: debt spirals can be thought of as “deal with it later” on money matters, and waking up realizing that you’ve put off your dreams until your deathbed is the very picture of end-of-life regret.

Slackerdom is so at odds with my self-image that I beat myself up every time I get into a put-it-off slump. My bookshelves commemorate every wake-up moment of the cycle: Eat That Frog!, The Now Habit, focus, etc. But habits this old are exceedingly hard to break free of. Will I manage to turn the ship around?

Maybe tomorrow.