I’ve struggled with procrastination all my life. Or at least since homework got real around seventh grade. I was the kid crying over her algebra after delaying it as long as possible. I was the college student starting my term paper 48 hours before it was due. I was the employee moving hard things to the bottom of my inbox every day. (I’m old and am talking about a literal, physical inbox on my desk.) When I’d knock out the easy thing and the hard thing would resurface, I’d find some other task, like ordering office supplies, to soothe me.
God, I loved ordering office supplies. The Office Depot catalog was as thick as one from Sears, and I could make it my full-time job to read it and fill in the paper order form. (See above re: old.) I may not have been getting back to clients or writing the employee handbook like I was supposed to, but I can assure you the supply closet was well fucking stocked.
I consider it a not-minor miracle that I’ve managed to become a relatively successful novelist, given that a novel is definitely not something you can wait to start until a week before it’s due.
But, man, in the writing of those novels, I struggle. I cry. I complain. I say and/or think, “I can’t do this. I can’t. I can’t.” It almost physically hurts to bring myself to sit down and do something that I know will be hard, and writing novels is the hardest kind of work I do. I can spend months on the “knock out the easy stuff” part of the process (tweeting about writing, writing novel-related to-do lists, polling friends on Slack about their process). And I still soothe myself by ordering office supplies. And clothes and kitchen stuff and books and hair products.
Of course, I have read approximately 752 articles about procrastination. I’ve downloaded three different Pomodoro apps, despite the fact I could use the technique with a simple kitchen timer. I’ve installed software that blocks or limits internet access. I’ve tried so many different time management hacks and workarounds to get at the root of the issue, but it wasn’t until I read a recent piece in the New York Times that I grasped the full picture of what was going on and why.
In the article, writer Charlotte Lieberman quotes Tim Pychyl, a psychologist with the Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University in Ontario (by the way, there is a procrastination research group at Carleton University in Ontario): “Procrastination is an emotional regulation problem, not a time management problem.”
Hello! Since embarking on my adult children of alcoholics/dysfunctional families personal odyssey, I’ve become very familiar with the concept of emotional regulation problems.
From infancy, we learn emotional regulation from our caregivers. We are only partially hardwired for it; the rest we learn from what is modeled and transmitted by our caregivers—usually parents. Tian Dayton writes in her book The ACOA Trauma Syndrome, “We are wired to want to imitate, model, and belong.” We observe and absorb from our parents how to handle “negative” emotions, difficult tasks, discomfort, and pain.
Now, think about a parent who is abusing alcohol or other substances, who is extremely anxious or fearful, who is rigidly religious or militaristic, or who creates chaos. How is that parent doing at emotional regulation?
Not good. Not. Good.
What I’ve learned from Dayton’s book and others is that we have no idea just how not good our models are when we’re babies and children. All we know is what we’re used to, consciously as well as in our developing limbic system. And because we are evolutionarily designed to rely on our caregivers for safety, we cannot allow ourselves to fully grasp how bad they are at it. That would be a threat to our safety and belonging.
It’s impossible to count how many times I heard my alcoholic father say through the years that he was “going to” stop drinking. Get his driver’s license back. Get financially on his feet. Move to a different place. Even from his hospital bed months before his death, he was wondering if my husband and I would co-sign on a car rental so he could drive across country and basically start over back in Pennsylvania.
And my mother, the nondrinking parent? Her drug was Jesus. Jesus was going to come back in the clouds, probably this week. Jesus was going to save my dad, very soon. Feeling sad? Talk to Jesus. Feeling scared? Jesus. Feeling angry? No need because Jesus. Everything would be better, at some soon but unspecified point in the future.
My dad had no part of the religion of my mother, but my sister and I did by default. Compared to our dad, Mom was our healthy model of self-regulation. In that drive to imitate and belong that is natural for all children, we were all-in with Jesus. And every Sunday in church, every prayer meeting, every potluck on shag carpet in apartments across San Francisco was ultimately about looking forward to this future point when everything hard would be resolved.
It will probably not come as a shock to learn that the promised someday never came.
Back to procrastination. Lieberman in the New York Times writes: “Dr. Pychyl and Dr. Sirois found that procrastination can be understood as ‘the primacy of short-term mood repair… over the longer-term pursuit of intended actions.’”
My childhood was a virtual master class in short-term mood repair. I suspect this is true for anyone who grew up in a home where parents reached for booze, drugs, religion, sex, food, shopping, or magical thinking over practical, real-world, right-now, problem-solving strategies. It’s no wonder I have extremely well-developed skills in delaying and in doing my own magical thinking that somehow the me of tomorrow will be a different person.
Now that I’ve connected the dots on this, what am I going to do differently? Stop buying apps, for one. Also, I will try to stop feeling like a piece of shit when I’m clawing at my face or engaging in hardcore avoidance techniques in the face of an overwhelmingly large or difficult task.
I can reparent myself with patience and gentleness and say, “You know what, Sara? You didn’t learn how to do this, how to break it down and set goals and see them through, and you didn’t even know that you didn’t know. No one showed you how to sit with the discomfort of big or hard tasks without grabbing for some kind of internal or external drug. It’s okay. And look at everything you’ve managed to get done in spite of it all!”
Yes, Inner Parent, it’s true that I’ve managed to get a lot done and have some success in life. But it feels so terrible and hard, and I worry that someday my avoidance is going to catch me and devour me.
But maybe if I can stop living in a vague someday, I can also stop worrying about a vague someday… Someday?