London - As a writer and former magazine editor, I can deal with deadlines. Most of us can. But when it comes to anything that doesn’t have one, it’s another matter - I often start to procrastinate.
Consider this sorry chain of events, which happened when I sat down to write a recent assignment, which had no firm deadline.
First, I went to buy a cappuccino - I needed caffeine, I reasoned, to shake up my brain cells - followed by some wrapping paper for a child’s birthday present that I remembered had to be delivered that day.
Then, when I got back, I rang the doctor (before the surgery shut for lunch) and listened to a recording of ‘your call is being held in a queue’ before giving up and browsing the local estate agent’s website for an hour (we’re not moving, I was just nosy) and picking at last night’s supper from the fridge - which was surprisingly good cold.
Then I read the newspaper (research), washed my hair (so it could dry while I worked) and texted a man about a long-standing problem with the roof. A free magazine on the hall table beckoned - more research. By then, I’d lost two hours.
In short, or rather at length, with a growing knot of anxiety in my chest, I procrastinated. Everything else seemed infinitely more pressing, or at least more doable, at that minute.
And although I told myself I was clearing my slate of all other tasks that might distract me from work once I was sat down at my desk, the diminishing hours I had left became rather panic-stricken.
I’m far from alone with this bad habit: about a quarter of people say procrastinating is a defining part of their personality. In fact, it’s a trait that’s been with us for a long, long time - a magazine reported this week that Egyptian hieroglyphs dating back to 1400BC have been found that read: ‘Friend, stop putting off work and allow us to go home in good time.’
But thanks to the rise in social media and the ease with which we can spend hours on the internet (there are even sites where you can take tests to find out how much of a procrastinator you are), it’s never been so easy to put things off.
Procrastination has always been my pet demon, sitting on my shoulder suggesting non-urgent activities to delay the one at hand.
When I was at school, I filled up my homework book with lists of projects until there were so many outstanding tasks that I threw it away in the end, overwhelmed, work unfinished.
At university, I spent far more time drawing up a multi-coloured revision timetable than doing any studying.
I’m so used to this demon, I’m even slightly fond of it, kidding myself I work best under pressure.
But this love/hate relationship recently developed from one of indulgent self-tolerance to deep annoyance. Late one sleepless night, going to extremes, I had this thought: ‘What if I keep deferring everything I need to do until I’m dead, so I don’t do any of it?’
After sharing this thought with a novelist friend, she put me in touch with personal coach and business mentor Fiona Harrold.
‘People who procrastinate are most likely to be high achievers who set high standards for themselves, but perversely never feel that they’re good enough,’ she says. ‘They are often creative types and self-expression is part of the job, so they feel their work exposes a part of them. The task builds up and they became fraught with anxiety and concern about being judged.
‘We become so scared of the task at hand, that putting it off becomes an easier option. The problem is that we can’t put them off for ever, so we end up doing things in a rush, then feel far worse. It’s a perfect example of being unable to exhibit enough self-control to resist something that feels good at the time, even though we know it is bad for us.’
She tells me that a classic example of this is ‘second novel syndrome’, where the fear of it not being good enough is so overwhelming it takes years, or can’t be written at all.
‘Elizabeth Gilbert, who wrote Eat, Pray, Love, said she was actually relieved when her second book failed, because it liberated her to write a third without the pressure of expectation,’ says Fiona.
Procrastination is fed not just by perfectionism, but a hazy grip on the notion of time. ‘People get attached to the idea that you have to have a certain time-frame to complete something really well - say, an hour. If they can’t see a clear hour to do something, they’ll keep putting it off,’ says Fiona.
‘Drop that idea and you’ll get results quicker - sometimes it’s more important to get things done at all, than to do them perfectly.’
It makes sense in theory, but how do I stop myself from procrastinating in practice? ‘Give yourself a shorter deadline, because work will always stretch to fit time allocated,’ says Fiona. In other words, if you don’t have one, or it’s too far away, make a deadline up - any task with uncertain timing, no matter how mundane, can grind the mind to halt with its uncertainty.
‘Do first the thing you’re most likely to put off, even if you only do it for 15 minutes,’ she adds. ‘Not knowing how long something will take can make it feel unbearable.
‘Especially since we all now have a shortened attention span, thanks to the internet, smartphones and screens in every room.’
No one ever feels like going for a run, she says, but if you commit to just 15 minutes, it seems less scary and more do-able. You might end up running for half an hour and find yourself enjoying it.
But you can’t do it alone. ‘Numerous studies on New Year’s resolutions show the people who give up quickly tend to be those who don’t tell their peers what they are doing.
‘Those who succeed have a strong support network. If you are out of your comfort zone and aren’t sure you can get things done, you need cheerleaders - plus, you lose face if you don’t do it.’
Equally, Fiona says you shouldn’t label yourself a procrastinator, because other people’s expectations shape your behaviour.
‘Be very careful with how you are training others to see you, because it’s a vicious cycle as people often perform as others expect them to.’
For things that really aren’t that important, like ironing, or sorting out your wardrobe, either delegate and pay someone else to do it if you can afford it, or cut yourself a deal. Do it for 15 minutes or with the promise of a reward.
Inspired by this wise advice, I tell my husband that I’m through with procrastinating - he looks dubious rather than encouraging, which is annoying - and put the 15-minute rule into practice.
With enough caffeine in the system, it works. Fifteen minutes of most things is bearable and once you’ve started anything you stop worrying about how well you’re doing it, and just get on with it.
I tidy the dolls’ house with my daughter (yup, even the dolls’ house is a tip in our house) for 15 minutes. I throw away the mound of bits of paper on my desk - I can’t read my own writing anyway. I send lots of outstanding emails. I pay bills.
Procrastination can feel like a treat but actually, as Fiona says, it wears you out. The good news is that you can give it up - so stop putting it off. - Daily Mail