If you’re reading this, you can probably relate.
Procrastination; it’s a dreadful beast, the scourge of students and creative types alike. Easy to understand but seemingly impossible to overcome. The act of putting off something important in favour of short-term satisfaction is almost like an addiction. I personally have frequently been a slave to its steely grip (I’m procrastinating several essays while writing this very article). Yet this is not quite as much as some of my friends who have seriously suffered, through not handing in assignments, handing them in far too late, and failing topics they’ve then had to repeat. If a compulsion is only an addiction once it starts negatively affecting your life, then I say for those people their procrastination definitely qualifies.
But it’s not really treated like a disease, as substance addictions are. It’s almost a hallmark of our generation to brag about our procrastination, often with cutesy names ranging from procrasti-baking, procrasti-cleaning, to procrasti-sewing and proctasti-crafting (and I’ve been guilty of all of those). If the first step to recovery is admitting we have a problem, then posting a facebook status using such a term isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but perhaps it trivialises the issue.
Actually a legitimate strategy.
Procrastination isn’t always a bad thing. Bryan Hutchnison of Positive Writer claims that procrastination is great for recharging the mind and soul, and allowing you to de-stress and re-focus, and perhaps work on something else. That all seems to hinge on your procrastination being productive—and it can be. I procrasti-wrote the first half of my novel while studying my first degree.
Other studies are increasingly showing that procrastination can ultimately benefit your work, my giving you that all-important “fermentation time”, in which you let an idea settle at the back of your mind for a while before coming up with a break-through. This is definitely something I’ve experienced in novel-writing. If I’d finished that story I started back during my first degree, it would be extremely different (and probably completely shit).
However this all changes when you have deadlines. You can only get so many extensions before people just give up on you. And a blank page may be simultaneously the greatest and worst thing ever written, but at some point you’re going to actually need to put words down on it so you can find out.
Why do we procrastinate?
The short answer is because it’s easy. It puts you on a satisfaction feedback loop where you feel good so you continue doing it, putting off the difficult or unpleasant task you don’t want to do until that mystical paradox “Later” which never quite seems to arrive. This could perhaps be blamed on the Carpe Diem or ‘YOLO’ movements which promote living in the now and not worrying about the future, but statistically speaking, you’re probably going to live a long, long life, and if you don’t do things that prepare for your future, it’ll be a lot harder to enjoy the future-present moments. Hookers and blow cost money, after all, so you can’t keep shrugging your shoulders and deciding that essay is future-you’s problem. Future-you is just gonna get pissed at past-you for neglecting your work for so long.
What can I do about it?
A quick google search will reveal any number of tech solutions, especially if you use a Mac (perhaps Apple users are just more distracted?) Some monitor your procrastination habits to give you a run down on how you spend your time, letting you use the information how you will, others let you create obstacles to your procrastination or block it altogether. One worth mentioning, especially for writers, is Write or Die. It’s a text software that you can set to play various alarms if you stop writing, or even start deleting your work if you’re gone for too long. If you’re looking for a stress-free, simplified text editor that cuts out distractions, there’s OmmWriter. And if you like cute things, Written?Kitten! is a browser text editor that rewards your hard work with pictures of some of the cutest kittens on the internet (because if the internet needs anything, it’s more kittens).
For all you gamers, Habit RPG turns productivity into a game by letting you set tasks missions and rewards you for completing them. There’s really too many apps, sites and programs out there designed to help curb your procrastination to mention. Just be sure not to procrastinate by spending hours searching for anti-procrastination tools. That’s far too ironic to be healthy.
Ultimately the best way to beat procrastination, especially when you have a deadline, is to just not do it. I freely acknowledge that that’s obviously not as easy as it sounds. But with any addiction, it’s going to be a constant battle until not doing it becomes a habit. Identifying problem areas and temptations is a good start. I purposely avoid Tumblr because I know I’d be completely addictive and sink entire days into it if I could. The fact you can scroll on forever rather than having to consciously click a “next page” button makes me think the creator designed the site to be addictive. This is where programs such as Stop Distractions or Anti-Social would help, locking you out from your problem sites. Anti-Social is especially powerful as once you set your time limit, there’s no way to turn it off and regain access to social media unless you reboot your computer. Real-life distractions are harder to combat, since you can’t just click a button to take them way, but seeking out a quiet spot, preferably with a desk and power points, is a good place to start. This is why I’ll often stick around at Uni after my classes are over to work on assignments in the library, rather than go home right away, because I know the library atmosphere is better for concentration. Especially if you’re working in the computer room on the second floor, where everyone around you can see your screen. It’s a little harder to flick over to YouTube or Facebook knowing that people around you could be watching and judging you.
Don’t be like this guy.
When it comes to studying sounds, people often say classical music is great for concentration, and there’s definitely some merit in that. Anything instrumental is easier to have in the background than your favourite pop songs that you might be tempted to sing along to (unless you can focus while singing. We all work differently, after all). But if you’re a muso like me who finds even that mad flute solo too distracting, you can try Rainy Mood or a white noise generators such as White Noise & Co and Noisli. Rainy Mood plays the sound of a rain storm on a loop, which is definitely relaxing, while white noise generators play the sound of static. That might not sound useful, but it works by blocking outside noise and is surprisingly effective. Noisli does a bit of everything, allowing you to create your own white noise mix by allowing you to add in tumble dryers, train clacking, coffee shop sounds etc., plus if you create an account it will remember your mix the next time you log in.
Make sure you keep track of all your deadlines. Write them out in a big list, several times. In your diary, in your phone calendar, on the back of the toilet door, anywhere you’ll see it. And make it fun; colour code it, decorate it with images of what you want to do after the semester is over, tear off each item as it’s completed and set it on fire; whatever you want that will help make it feel like an achievement to complete.
Most importantly, if you fall behind schedule or miss a deadline to the procrastination-monster, don’t despair and throw in the towel. I may still be a procrastinator but I’m not resigned to my fate. True failure only happens when you give up. As long as you keep holding on, you’re still in the battle and it can be won yet.
Check out positivewriter.com for more tid-bits.
For the extreme, Write of Die 2 is now up and running http://writeordie.com/
Try http://www.stopdistractions.com/block-distracting-websites-facebook-twitter/ to block the internet for a while. http://anti-social.cc/ for social networks
Customise your white noise (with rain, train tracks, coffee sounds, etc): http://www.noisli.com/
OmmWriter: http://www.ommwriter.com/ It’s like meditation but for your productivity.
Kittens are the best form of reward: http://writtenkitten.net/
For even more software/websites, check out this blog: http://blog.inomics.com/en/top-anti-procrastination-apps-or-how-to-fight-procrastination-using-digital-tools/
Even if you’re not a procrastinator, check out http://www.rainymood.com/. You won’t be sorry.
First published in Empire Times, Issue 41.4