My dog is lying on the floor in the sunshine. I stretch out one slipper-clad foot beneath my desk. I can just touch his back with my toe. He cracks one dark eye open, but doesn’t move. He knows this is just his person procrastinating, not a genuine invitation to play.
There is a dissertation proposal draft to finish, two loads of clean laundry to fold and put away, a sink of dishes to wash, several bags of bottles to take to the recycling center, homework to grade, and emails to write that I’ve procrastinated since Friday. It’s now Sunday.
There are healthier ways to procrastinate. I could meditate or exercise or take the dog to the park.
Mostly I want to go back to sleep. I want to dream. I want to binge watch television or binge read novels. I want to hide in my house and not talk to anyone at all for at least three days.
The funny part is that I know exactly what this is. I teach it to my students. Procrastination is an emotion-based coping tactic when an action-based coping tactic is necessary. It is a way of attempting to deal with anxiety, stress, sadness, or other negative feelings through the active use of distraction.
It is more effective to target the source of the anxiety by working on my dissertation proposal, for example, until it is done and I feel good about it and have less reason for anxiety. Except that I know when it is done I will still have anxiety.
I am waiting, in limbo, caught between having turned in my qualifying exams and the meeting that will tell me if they are actually any good – if I passed. And in my addled brain, those are the options. Either they are very, very good and I passed or they are absolutely worthless and I didn’t pass. Which is silly, of course.
I don’t believe my work is worthless, even if it’s not sufficient. Whatever they tell me tomorrow, I’ll learn from and improve what I’ve done. I might spend a little time sobbing in the ladies’ room, first, but then I’ll pick myself up and start writing again. I’ve done it before. I can do it again.
Procrastination feels bad because underneath that “I don’t wanna!” feeling all that anxiety is lurking. We don’t want to face it, but it’s there and it’s not going away. Procrastination feels bad because we compound that anxiety by making ourselves more likely to fail by selecting the wrong coping strategy, and we know it. Procrastination feels bad because it neglects behaviors that would actually make us feel better. And finally, procrastination feels bad because we feel helpless to prevent it. We feel like we’re not in control and feeling lack of control sucks.
So on Sunday, I spent about ten minutes sitting in my office, staring at my computer and poking the dog with my toe. Then I started writing again. I started with what was going through my mind just then. Nothing fancy, just what I was thinking right then.
I wrote this about procrastination and, in so doing, put all my anxieties out there in the open and then refuted them. They’re not silly, they’re just anxieties, same as everyone else’s. They’re normal.
When I can see anxiety as normal, it somehow isn’t as scary. I start to remember exactly what to do with it. So I started writing and wrote this, then I got up and washed the dishes. I took the dog to the park. I folded laundry while listening to a favorite podcast. And I felt a little better after that.
Anxiety lies. It tells us we won’t feel any better until the source of our anxiety is resolved. In my case, until I hear the outcome of my exams. It locks us into a state of limbo, but we have the key.
We can’t live in that state of limbo forever. I mean that literally; we can’t. Our bodies can’t handle that level of chronic anxiety. They seek to get out. Sometimes we get out through procrastination and distraction. Some people drink or engage in other destructive behaviors.
We can also get out of limbo in other ways, like laundry and dog walking and writing about why we’re anxious. We don’t even have to get very far out. We make a little progress and our mood gets better and suddenly limbo is a much bigger place than we thought it was.
After I walked the dog and did the laundry, I had lunch and watched some West Wing. (I’m in desperate need of a fictional government that actually cares about me these days.) I spent time with my partner, which always makes me feel better in ways I can’t even explain. I graded some papers and that helped me feel like I’d accomplished something worthwhile.
Then I sat down and finished my dissertation proposal draft. I’m sure it still has room for improvement. Almost everything does. But I’m happy with it and I sent it off to my advisor for feedback.
I’m as prepared as I can be for my meeting tomorrow. Yesterday, I got up on time. I meditated. I ate healthy and exercised. I went to work and I made progress on projects. I tried to help other people. I came home on time. I snuggled with my sweetheart. I cuddled my critters. I went to bed on time. I slept well. These are all the things procrastination wants to prevent me from doing, all the things anxiety tells me won’t help. They helped. Anxiety lies.
(Credit due to Wil Wheaton, who has written so openly about his struggles, often using the phrase “depression lies,” which I have shamelessly cribbed.)