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The Procrastination Puzzle: To Do, Not to Do or Deep Doodoo

Mark Gorkin, LICSW

Can you relate to this couplet from one of my "Shrink Raps"?

Deadlines, deadlines all that aggravation
Whew...You only have time for procrastination!

When it comes to procrastination, most of us are quick to acknowledge the problem and, of course, are slow to do something about it. What's needed is an inspiring guide to break the chains of putting things off, mental paralysis, missing due dates, diversionary dusting, hiding out in the bathroom, along with CNN and remote control compulsion or AOL addiction. You have been shackled by fear, shame, rigid perfectionism and overt or covert temper tantrums way too long. So forthwith..."The Sermon on the Mental Block." Believers...There can be life after deadlines! Here are "The Stress Doc's Seven Guiding Principles and Strategies for "EMANCIPATION PROCRASTINATION."

  1. You Must Be Tortured and Made to Acknowledge Your Sins. Trust me...I know procrastination. When I was up late with homework or an overdue book report, I had a mother who would thrash me with a quote from the ancient Roman poet, Horace: "To begin is to be half done. Dare to know - start!" (And you wonder why I'm such an expert on stress, guilt and neurosis.) What's worse, she was right. And now I'd rather do almost anything in a timely manner than let her, or her voice in my head, have the last word. (Just kidding, mom. ;-)
  2. Counteract the Micromanager. Try this strategy for disarming an overbearing mother, spouse, colleague or boss. It's a subtle ploy: recruit this person as a "designated nagger." If they agree, the antagonist is doing your bidding. Now you can be critical when they're not nagging enough (or you're not doing enough). Clever, eh?
  3. Discover the 80/20 Principle. 80% of our results are achieved by 20% of our activities. The implication is clear: you can drop or ignore 4/5 of what you are doing without feeling guilty.
  4. Be Out to Lunch. Liberation from procrastination means recognizing mental exhaustion; what I call having a case of the "brainstrain." Give your mind permission to take the tactical taxi retreat: sit or walk around all day with an "off duty" sign on your head.
  5. Pursue Productive Procrastination. In the face of undesignated nagging, the proper retort is: "I beg your pardon. I am on an existential journey. I'm exploring and embracing my 'creative doubt.'" Remember, we often need an "incubation vacation" to hatch a new perspective.
  6. Wield a "Stress Doc" Affirmational Aphorism. "A time for waste is not a waste of time." (Now whether reading this column is a time waster...) And finally,
  7. Practice The Basic Law of Safe Stress. "Do know your limits and don't limit your 'no's!" Amen.

Declaring Your Emancipation Procrastination

Here is the Stress Doc's liberating commandments for "Emancipation Procrastination":

  1. Honor the Basic Law of Safe Stress. Now just what is "Safe Stress?" Ah, it's one of those ephemeral concepts that will always elude precise definition. Sort of like love, chemistry, spiritual truth, the real Elvis, etc. (Hey, let's have a contest. Send in your own definition - 100 words or less - of what it means to "Practice Safe Stress." I'll post the most imaginative and insightful responses.) Still, this preamble should help clarify the concept: These days, we are often reminded to be careful in our sexual activity...but what about dealing with stress? Be honest, do you still engage in casual stress? In the relationship, are you always demanding to be on top ? Or, as a constant moaner and groaner, do you give others oral stress? Finally, when it comes to expressing anger, do you hold back or, even, withdraw using "conflictus interruptus?" Really now!

    If these apply, it's time to start "Practicing Safe Stress!" And the Basic Law decrees: "Do know your limits and don't limit your 'no's!" Or another aphormation: "A firm 'no' a day keeps the ulcers away, and the hostilities, too!"

  2. Practice "N & N." Of course, just saying "no" is not always easy, nor is it sufficient. The key is to say "No" and to "Negotiate." And negotiation means when someone asks to pile more work on your plate, you don't immediately push the peas into the potatoes. And if you mush your mix with your main course to make room for string beans or, especially, for a piece of liver (who wants to do liver?)...If you keep adding to your load, you'll likely get indigestion, if not drop the plate.

    Let the delegator or cook know your work load. Don't have big eyes with a small mouth. Renegotiate timelines. There can even be life after deadlines. For example, I've had undergrad and graduate students gang up on me to reschedule a midterm as they had too many back-to back exams. (They somehow knew I'd be the softhearted prof.) So, build an alliance or network - add this "N" to "N and N" - when confronting an authority about changes in work scheduling. You don't have to be an isolated protester. Remember, there's strength in numbers. (And please, don't speak up with your mouth full!)

  3. Push for Priorities. When adding to a tight workload, ask the person in charge what are his or her priority assignments. Explain that you are willing to put some work on the back burner for a high priority, time-sensitive project. Don't promise to complete the new work and perform your ongoing assignments without making some adjustments in your overall delivery schedule.

    Some people always try to "do it all." These folks often are: a) reluctant to define their boundaries or set limits with authority figures, b) afraid of disappointing others, avoiders of conflict and/or excessively need to be liked, and c) over controlling perfectionists who either mistrust people's motives or fear being negatively judged and humiliated by others.

  4. Confront HE MAN and SHE MAN Tendencies. I call the above personality types the HE MAN and the SHE MAN. The "H" stands for "Humiliation" and the "E" for "Emptiness." The "S" is for "Savior," the person who enables or rescues out of a denial of others' issues and to avoid confronting one's own anxieties and dysfunctions. Like the aggressively controlling "Type A" HE MAN, the SHE MAN allows his or her fears of humiliation and emptiness to obscure a basic principle of the ultimate procrastination state: "Burnout is less a sign of failure and more that we gave ourselves away." Of course, I don't discriminate. Both the HE MAN and the SHE MAN can be male or female.
  5. Lubricate the Ebb and Flow. Always revving up at the eleventh hour is for adrenalin junkies. Doing your best and most creative work on a project or paper requires advanced research and preparation, thinking out of the box, getting stuck trying to form new or unusual relationships among your project elements, having time to sleep on the problem and to attack it again and again, and then, hopefully, the "aha!" - a novel or elegant solution or design.

    If you are mentally dry or exhausted, put on the "stress brakes" and take a creative juice break: go for a bike ride or a jog in the woods. Take a nap or listen to Mozart. Read an old Calvin and Hobbes book. (Laughter doesn't just relieve stress; it also frees up creative energy.) Don't only muscle your way through an intellectual barrier. Take that "incubation vacation" to hatch a new perspective.

    And if you can't get yourself in gear, or give yourself a rest, appoint a self-regulator. Select a "designated nagger." Per your instructions, this person will, on schedule, remind or cajole you to ebb and flow. With this arrangement, of course, you now lay the blame for any procrastination on the other's dereliction of duties. Pretty clever, eh?

  6. Mother Knows Best. Learn to break up a big project into smaller, manageable pieces. If highly anxious, start working for five minutes on a complex assignment, then back away. It's amazing, but with this new small window, upon your return to the battlefield, you'll likely feel less intimidated by the overwhelming project dragon.

Of course, as a once big procrastinator, I had to learn the hard and humbling way. I was subjected to my mother preaching the words of the ancient Roman poet Horace: "To begin is to be half done. Dare to know - start!" (And you wonder why I'm such an expert on stress, performance and neurosis.)

Just remember...don't wait for your mother or that internalized mother, or father, voice to "hock" you (Yiddish for "drive you crazy")...emancipate yourself and Practice Safe Stress!