October 28, 2012

Peggy's Progress
        (Not to be confused with John Bunyan's tale of agony and doom!)

Some Things Just Never Change

It's Friday night and it's crunch time. In 32 hours you're supposed to be reading my monthly contribution to Outside the Lines. But as of last night I had absolutely no idea what to write about. Usually I get inspired by something I've read or heard or seen in the month between articles but nothing came to me this time. Nada. Zilch. Perhaps my brain has been too cluttered with election news, or the San Francisco Giants in the World Series or I'm preoccupied with cooking dinner or yes, I confess with Facebook.

And so, true to form, I was on the phone last night with my sister, brother-in-law and cousin and I was bemoaning the fact that I hadn't written my Outside the Lines article yet. They all laughed knowing full well that I was just procrastinating. My family knows me too well. I've been a procrastinator all my life so they've seen all the telltale signs. So my very wise cousin said "write about that." And for the rest of the phone call we chuckled over one after another of my classic procrastinations.

I recalled one of my earliest episodes came in elementary school or maybe junior high. I waited till the very end to research and write a report on Leonardo Da Vinci. And I remember my mom staying up all night with me till I finished writing it so she could type it for me. I couldn't type and these were ancient times before computers. She bailed me out that time and I don't remember her being angry at me but I got the message that yes, it's a very human and forgivable blunder but don't do it again. I've always referred to the incident as my "Leonardo."

And when my own daughter was in middle school I feared that I had passed on the procrastination gene to her. Kelly and her friend and classmate Polly stayed up all night one night putting together a presentation board on JFK. It got even more nerve wracking when our printer started to run out of ink and the girls had to scramble to print then recolor and cut out pictures for the cardboard presentation board. Just like my mother said to me, I told Kelly that everyone is entitled to their one "Leonardo" but don't do that again! I actually think she's better at it now than I am.

Back on the phone, my sister reminded me of the night before Michael and I got married. I hadn't gotten around to shortening my wedding dress, so while the pre-wedding party was in full swing I found myself standing on the toilet in the bathroom while some very dear friends and wedding guests were pinning the hem up for me. It was deja vu to me as I thought this is not unlike the night before my college graduation when I was hemming a skirt to wear to commencement the very next morning. Only not really. It was after all, my wedding.

Speaking of weddings, the all-time whopper of procrastination stories is one that Michael will never let me forget and he gets to tease me about it on an annual basis. We just celebrated our 11th wedding anniversary last week. Oddly enough, if things had gone as originally planned our wedding anniversary would have been July 7 not October 20. We had chosen July 7 as a wedding date, because it was a week after another family wedding so relatives from out-of-state would already be in California. Besides it was Lucky 7-7 and I had fond memories of the summer I studied in Japan where the Tanabata or Star Festival is celebrated on July 7. On that date each year there's girl star and a boy star who are usually separated by the Milky Way but for that one night they meet in the sky or something like that. Anyway, I liked the story, and July would mean an outdoor reception would be lovely on a nice warm summer evening.

Alas, it was not to be. It seems there was just one minor detail, a flaw in this plan. One involving the fact that I hadn't quite finished the divorce from my first husband. I shall explain. Nine years before I met Michael, my ex-husband and I had used a mediation service and had completed a child custody agreement and a property settlement. For years we considered ourselves amicably divorced. But I never quite got around to filing all the paperwork to get a final decree issued. Yes I had procrastinated yet again, but no problem I thought. I would just take all the paperwork we had completed and I would turn it in to the Court in Santa Cruz. But as luck would have it, the Superior Court of Santa Cruz County had done a little housekeeping and they had purged all incomplete filings that were older than 5 years. That meant I had to refile for divorce and start the clock over because in the State of California you have to wait six months from the time a divorce is final before you can remarry. The final divorce decree was issued on October 10 and Michael and I were married on October 20. Phew, now that was a close call!

So you see I'm something of an expert in procrastination. Or maybe just an expert procrastinator. I realize I don't really know why I do it, but I've always done it. So I looked it up today and discovered that I am not alone.

In Psychology Today, writer Hara Estroff Marano reports on research by Joseph Ferrari, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at De Paul University in Chicago, and Timothy Pychyl, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa:

"Twenty percent of people identify themselves as chronic procrastinators. For them procrastination is a lifestyle, albeit a maladaptive one. And it cuts across all domains of their life. They don't pay bills on time. They miss opportunities for buying tickets to concerts. They don't cash gift certificates or checks. They file income tax returns late. They leave their Christmas shopping until Christmas Eve."

It's as if they've had a secret camera following me, because that is definitely me! Although it's not really clear who they mean by "people" (Americans? all humans?) I'm sure I'm one of the 20% and no doubt at least some of you are too. Lots of creative people are. Samuel Clemmens comes to mind.

Marano's article goes on to say that:

"Procrastination is not a problem of time management or of planning. Procrastinators are not different in their ability to estimate time, although they are more optimistic than others. 'Telling someone who procrastinates to buy a weekly planner is like telling someone with chronic depression to just cheer up,' insists Dr. Ferrari."

Thank you Dr. Ferrari! I've got two day planners that gather dust on the bookshelf. I have post-it notes on the bathroom mirror and on my desk at work. I'm generally fairly organized at work but I am also generally optimistic, and often think a task will be simpler than it turns out to be. For us optimistic types Dr. Ferrari has this advice:

"Procrastination is not a problem of time management; time-management skills won't cure it. But procrastinators do underestimate how long it takes to complete tasks. So cut yourself some slack and build in to your schedule 20 extra minutes between tasks."

Not only is building in some slack time a good idea, but since I'm quite optimistic, I should just always tell myself a task will require double the amount of time I think a project will take. Just to be safe.

In a related article in Psychology Today by Marano, she notes that

Settling into the fertile psychological ground between our intentions and our actions, procrastination is an active mental process of diverting yourself from doing high-priority things in the delusion that tomorrow will be better—because you'll know more, you'll have more time or the sun will shine differently. Procrastinators tell lies to themselves. Such as, "I'll feel more like doing this tomorrow."

My particular favorite spin is," it'll be better to work on this in the morning when I'm fresh!" To remedy that, Dr. Pychl says to "Make a deal with yourself." He further advises us to "follow the 10-minute rule and to admit 'I don't feel like doing that,' but do it for 10 minutes anyway. That gets you over the hard work of initiation. After being involved in the activity for 10 minutes, then decide whether to continue. Once you're involved, it's easier to stay with a task. Succeeding at a task does not require that you like doing it."

In my research I came across the blog You Are Not So Smart: A Celebration of Self-Delusion. In it David McRamey writes:

"You can buy a daily planner and a to-do list application for your phone. You can write yourself notes and fill out schedules. You can become a productivity junkie surrounded by instruments to make life more efficient, but these tools alone will not help, because the problem isn’t you are a bad manager of your time – you are a bad tactician in the war inside your brain."

McRamey cites Walter Mischel's old "marshmallow" experiment with kids at Stanford University in the late 1960s and early 1970s. You know, the experiment where the researchers placed marshmallows and other treats in front of kids and told them if they could wait to eat the marshmallow for a certain period of time, they could have two marshmallows. After following these same kids through school and into adulthood, McRamey says the researchers found that:

"What started as an experiment about delayed gratification has now, decades later, yielded a far more interesting set of revelations about metacognition – thinking about thinking . . .The revelation from this research is kids who were able to overcome their desire for short-term reward in favor of a better outcome later weren’t smarter than the other kids, nor were they less gluttonous. They just had a better grasp of how to trick themselves into doing what was best for them. They watched the wall instead of looking at the food. They tapped their feet instead of smelling the confection. The wait was torture for all, but some knew it was going to be impossible to just sit there and stare at the delicious, gigantic marshmallow without giving in...some were better at devising schemes for avoiding their own weak wills, and years later seem to have been able to use that power to squeeze more out of life."

He's got that right I'm a bad tactician in the war inside my brain. To overcome that I need to devise schemes to outwit my lack of willpower, or as McRamey says, "to trick myself into doing what is best for me." To that end I try very hard not to screw things up for other people who are working with me. This is particularly true at work where my procrastinating ways are more under control. But the main reason I need to finish my article right away is that I don't want Michael to have to stay up till the wee hours of the morning doing all the formatting and coding to post it in the email. If I know someone else is waiting for me to do my part so they can do their part, then that project is my top priority. So maybe what I need to do is tell myself that someone is waiting for me to finish my task even when they're not. Playing tricks with the mind can often fool an old procrastinator like me.

But, if all else fails, a little humor always helps.

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