Even when you are clear about your mission, it’s not always easy to figure out how to live it. In my own case I have been waiting for my muse to dictate a book for years, as I sat in confusion about what to write. So I've tried to be patient, continue digging, hone my skills and work on short works all the time knowing there was something bigger I was supposed to be writing. The composting time finally paid off and like a tricky puzzle falling together I am now focused on the book. I’ve done some leg work, am ready with the process and yet another snag. I am procrastinating.
Procrastination is when we put things off intentionally and habitually. We replace high-priority or important actions with tasks of lower priority or something easy and more fun. The psychological causes of procrastination are in debate. But once I admitted to myself I am procrastinating I could at least research why. The views of Dr. Kevin Austin, Director of Student Counseling at Caltech, make sense to me and so I offer them to you if you find yourself dragging your feet.
Dr. Austin believes we procrastinate because we experience emotions we don’t want to feel when we attempt to do certain things. Those emotions can be of helplessness, powerlessness, being overwhelmed, being controlled, sad or resentful. The reasons a person has these feelings are not addressed by procrastinating but the feelings themselves are avoided for awhile. I suspect the emotion I am experiencing is fear—fear of rejection of my work and this big idea I have been waiting on for so long.
But there’s more. Another parameter of procrastination is related to will (desire) and will power (energetic determination). It’s easy to label oneself lazy and without enough will power to move forward. Dr. Austin believes procrastination can be the result not of lack of will power but of uncertain will; that is not coming to terms with or avoiding the difficult question of whether or not I really desire the demanding work it will take to write a book.
Another obstacle is time. In the short term I may be willing to sacrifice other parts of my life to dedicate to a book, but over the long haul will I be able to shoulder the commitment it will take to compile the research, write, edit, figure out how to market, and on and on. There is likely a part of me foreseeing a compromise of my value for time freedom that I am secretly protesting through my inaction.
And there’s the old perfectionism theme that comes from being an overachieving only child. Perfectionism creates high expectations that feel difficult to meet and makes the process of writing too difficult—easy to avoid.
Those of us who are perfectionist tend to think more about how something should turn out, perfectly, and how hard it will be do it. Perfectionism makes a task seem bigger than it is making me feeling overwhelmed at the prospect of starting. In addition the perfectionist tends to scrutinize and critique every word for perfection, making the task tedious and easily avoidable.
So what to do to push through this craziness? I started by admitting I am procrastinating, again. Next, Dr.
Austin recommends getting clear on what I really want; and I am pretty sure I have superseded the important message the book will deliver with the publication of the book itself. Refocusing on the former can only help put the work into perspective. Next, I need to understand the role of the emotions I bring to this procrastination as formidable and reversible. It’s not all logistics and will. Some of it has to do with how I feel and it’s an important acknowledgement. Next, of course is setting some goals and breaking them down into manageable pieces. Overcoming procrastination may also involve learning to say no to others. It is likely to require me to adjust my thinking about progress over perfection and the enjoyment of the journey over the destination. It’s guaranteed to make me appreciate and use small bits of time instead of the big blocks I perceive I need. It’s a new way for me to view myself and my work. And I’m glad I unstuck myself long enough to get informed. It motivates me to move forward.
The full text of Dr. Austin’s speech can be found at: http://www.counseling.caltech.edu/InfoandResources/Procrastination