#39daysofselfcare Day 16: The Cure for Procrastination
Day 16 of my 39-day self-care challenge
Today I woke up early with big plans to be productive and, from waking, was already in the midst of a shame spiral. WTF?! I lay there in discomfort resisting for a minute before asking “what am I feeling right now, and what am I thinking about?” I realized I had slipped back into a Master Procrastinator (MP) habit of ignoring my natural rhythm.
You see, I used to complain a lot to my coach that I couldn’t get anywhere because I had this messed up thing where after a day of mad productivity I’d self-sabotage by wasting the next day. "2 steps forward, 3 steps back!" I'd complain. I constantly felt like I was starting over. Catherine stopped me in my tracks one day and demanded I acknowledge I wasn’t starting over, but in fact I had still done a lot... just not in a sit-down-at-the-desk mainstream way. I mean, I’m an artist. I’ve never had a 9-to-5. I just don’t work that way. But I still get shit done.
The MP habit is not “not doing” it is the habit of self-criticism, and shame.
The craziest part of this habit is that when you’ve been procrastinating your whole life, nothing needs to “happen” for the shame to come!
I hadn’t even said to myself “I’m going to do X today.”
I hadn’t even gotten up and procrastinated doing X.
I hadn’t even gotten to the end of the day thinking “I should have done X.”
I had literally just opened my eyes.
And there it was: the shame of a lifetime of procrastination.
We know actions can be habits. Thoughts can be habits too. And now you have it: feelings are habitual too.
Why I call it abuse
One day when I was really struggling with procrastination, I was talking to my friend, Sarah, for support.
"I remember being seven, and not practicing violin until the day before the next lesson," I cried. "Same with tap dancing, piano, and all through high school, college, and my undergrad... I always did everything at the last minute." The truth is, I did things past the last minute. I’ve kept a journal since I was ten years old, and every New Year I wrote that this year I would change.
I was a straight-A student, and yet I never felt like a success, because the process of getting past the finish line was ALWAYS such a shit show... As I explained all this to Sarah, she had a realization.
"Wait a minute! You were seven? You never learned how to do it differently. That would be like me telling my toddler 'why can't you walk normally?! Why can't you talk properly?!' Don’t you see how abusive and fucked up that would be?"
We both were silent. I did see how abusive and fucked up that would be.
Although I had been taught over and over by teachers and bosses and well-meaning, non-procrastinating friends all the "procrastination tips and tricks".... I had never actually learned it. Never not procrastinated. Never had success in that lesson. I was beating myself up for something I had never learned.
It dawned on me that, saying to myself "why can't you do this – what is WRONG with you?" was abusive and fucked up. That was the beginning of my recovery. Very soon after that conversation, I experienced what I can only call surrender. I stopped fighting. Stopped wishing. Even stopped doing. Just stopped.
Why a recovering procrastinator shouldn't "force yourself"
1. Don't say "I just have to do it."
Since I am a recovering procrastinator I live the delicate balance of doing my work and making sure I cut off the source of the abuse. The way to cut it off at the source is NOT to tell yourself you’ll "just do" the thing you said you were going to do. Procrastinators out there, you know what I'm talking about "I just need to do it." "I just need to deliver those proposals/files/invoices." No. You don't.
You need to forget about "just do" for a moment. Saying the same thing to yourself, over and over, is not going to change anything. Forget about doing it. We will get to that later.
2. Don't "force yourself" to do it.
This is already what procrastinators are really good at. More than anyone else, procrastinators know all about "forcing yourself" because that is the only way to deliver: wait until the very last minute, and then wait some more, and then bang it out under pressure that could crush a diamond. For procrastinators, this is the stage in the cycle we bring ourselves to, saying “why? Why do I do this? Why did I do this to myself? What the fuck is wrong with me? I hate this.” How's that working for you?
The way to cut off the source is DEFINITELY not to “force yourself” to do it. If you do, nothing will change.
You’ve already had a lifetime of well-intentioned, non-procrastinators saying "you just have to force yourself". It’s like a non-alcoholic telling a recovering alcoholic “why don’t you just have one drink and then stop?” They mean well but they have a different relationship with themselves. They don’t realize that’s the cause of the abuse, not the solution.
You see, the truth is, procrastinators get a lot done. They are naturally very smart, high performing people, who get shit done much faster than non-procrastinators (because they have to). Every master procrastinator I've ever met is highly intelligent. (Sometimes I think that's why they got into this habit in the first place – things come so easily that they can get away with putting it off, and then it becomes a habit.)
But they suffer greatly. They do it against their own will. Sleepless, stress-filled, and more importantly saturated in constant, wretched self-loathing. And there are major consequences.
Imagine you've adopted a really sweet, smart, playful little rescue dog. But she was abused by her last owners. When you want to take her out for a walk, she cowers under the bed. What will help her become accustomed to her new home? What will give her the confidence she can trust you? If you pull her out from under the bed by the leash and drag her, terrified and shaking, down the sidewalk? Do you think that will help her, or will it make her fear and trauma so much worse?
As a procrastinator you have suffered a lifetime of abuse at your own hands. You can't "just force yourself" if you've decided to go into recovery. You already know that route. It doesn't change anything.
Self doubt, lack of trust, imposter syndrome.
Can you trust someone who lies to you? Can you trust someone who abuses you? No and no. You can try. You can wish every time that this time they're telling the truth. That they didn't mean it. That they're going to change. Next time will be different. But then it happens again. And you know you can never trust them.
For a long time, I suffered from self-doubt. Procrastinators do. They know they can't trust themselves. When they get an inspiring idea and feel the thrill of possibility, it is followed almost instantly by a quiet voice that says "yeah fucking right." Deep down every new, exciting idea, to a procrastinator, is a lie. That's why mantras and positive affirmations so rarely work for master procrastinators, without stopping the abuse. They work for a period of time, before the habit kicks in again, and that voice says "I told you so."
In my mindset coaching group I learned it's the feeling you get from the mantra, more than the actual words that work. But for procrastinators, when we say the positive words, the feelings are often self-doubt, or even contempt. We hear that liar telling us bullshit again. On a conscious level it sounds great and exciting, but in the nervous system it's almost like "oh no - here we go again." Your system subconsciously knows starting something new means that roller coaster of -- saying you're going to do it -- not doing it -- staying up all night forcing yourself to do it -- living in chaos -- and all the while beating yourself up for it. Starting something new in the subconscious mind signals a new beginning of the cycle of abuse.
What is more, when procrastinators do accomplish your goals, you actually do a great job, because of the high-functioning-ness... and yet you live in imposter-syndrome. You know secretly you could’ve done better if you'd given yourself more time. Or that the great job doesn't really count because it was such a shit show to get there in the end. You never allow yourself to feel successful, even if others think you're awesome.
Can you see the cycle of abuse and self-limiting behaviour? There is no payoff for this. It is pure habit through and through.
So... What’s the answer? What is the fucking answer?
The answer is to cut off the abuse from the source. Not by doing the thing (remember, you've already said you're going to change. It hasn't worked.) Not by forcing yourself (anticipating the force, forcing, and the aftermath of the force - this IS the abuse). No. The answer is to cut off the source of the abuse.
This is recovery. It's not a magic pill that will have you wake up after one day, a different person with different patterns. This is the in-between time when you are slowly changing your habit from the inside out.
It takes time and approval.
What is Approval?
Approval is permission. Your mission in recovery is not to do the thing. The thing will get done when it gets done. Let. It. Go.
Your mission is to stop the abuse and give your system – your nervous system, your psyche, your heart, your soul, the time and space to heal. Remember that small rescue dog. Recovery is the time where you will be learning that you're not a bad person. There's nothing "wrong" with you. You are functional. You don't lie anymore. You don't beat yourself up anymore. Recovery is the time when you are petting the dog gently, going, "it's okay. It's okay." And if she wants to stay under the bed, you slide the water bowl under there and leave her be for a while. Let her calm down.
What does this mean in real terms? It means you give yourself permission to not do the thing.
Look – hold on – slow down. I know it sounds totally crazy. The thing WILL get done. Let go of that, and breathe.
Give yourself permission to not do the thing. You weren't going to do it today anyway. You have to stop the lying. DO NOT say you're going to do it. Say "maybe I will, maybe I won't." Stop the lying.
At the end of the day, the voice will come up and say, "See, you didn't do it!" And you can reply, "I never said I would." And your system will breathe a sigh of relief.
When you've had a productive time, don't pretend tomorrow will also be productive. If your natural tempo is to have a rest after productivity, then schedule rest. Stop the lies. Don't wake up the second day pretending it's going to be another super-productive day, and then spend it in avoidance. Stop the lies. Just schedule in rest. My Jewish friend tells me I'm taking Shabbat. Mother Nature would call it winter, repose, contraction, gestation, germination, whatever. You can't expect every season to be harvest season. Trust your current tempo and schedule in rest. If you're scrolling on your phone, sitting in a cafe, watching tv, eating bonbons, sleeping, masturbating, doing laundry, cleaning, painting your nails, visiting friends, shopping, or working on something that isn't due, instead of the thing that IS due... I don't care. Schedule it in. Stop the lies. Give yourself permission. You're going to do that anyway.
Your goal now is to stop the source of the abuse. I don't know how long this phase takes.
I also don't really know how it works. I've had several teachers explain it in different ways:
What you resist persists.
Trusting your natural Tempo.
The masculine vs the feminine ways of doing vs being.
Mama Gena calls for self-approval in everything we do, be, and feel.
Give yourself permission to do what you're actually doing, and somehow the other shit will get done. In the time that it's meant to. Somehow, when you have permission to NOT do the thing, you feel like doing the thing. Don't ask me HOW. For god's sake, let it go.
Every thing I’ve said, is what I did. It’s my own story. My own real experience, step by step.
Now. This is a long long article, and Lord knows it's a major work in progress. I started out by telling you about this morning's shame spiral. What happened is that when I used to procrastinate, I'd wake up with a million things on my plate, and the knowledge that I was supposed to be doing them, and hadn't done them. I would think all the thoughts – kick that poor dog in the closet – and feel terrible. Then I stopped procrastinating.
Yes, I stopped procrastinating, via the bizarre steps I've outlined above.
But sometimes my system forgets I'm not procrastinating. I wake up with the same feeling. Or I forget: I just plain forget that when I'm resting I'm allowed to rest. So I'm lying in repose thinking "oh god oh god oh god what am I supposed to be doing?" Doesn't sound very restful, does it? I am human, and I need someone to pat me gently and say "it's okay,” so I whip out my various emotional support tools and do some little loving piece of work, and take a breath.
Every new skill takes practice. After being one of the most genius master procrastinators I've ever met, I am now in recovery. I invite you to join me. If you are reading this I know you can relate. There is a different way. It looks different than you imagined it would. It feels way different too. But way better. Freedom. Love. Ease. Things happen easily. No forcing. No lying. No abuse. And when you forget, you just remember to remember again.
You can trust yourself. You can relax. You can own your accomplishments. You can feel proud of yourself. You feel confident. You feel sure of yourself – a deep knowing. And when you get an idea, like "oh I'm going to write about my journey of procrastination!" your inner voice goes "YASSS" because the past is in the past, and this time you'll get that shit done.