3. How Procrastination Feels

How does procrastination feel? In a word: rotten.

Most procrastinators blame themselves for their procrastination. They tell themselves things like I’m lazy. I’m undisciplined. I have no willpower or self-control. And that’s often just the beginning. Many of them then move on to more generalized types of self-abuse, such as I’m a failure. I’m hopeless. I’ll never succeed at anything.

And many activists take it yet a step further, framing their procrastination as a fundamental moral flaw. Why can’t I motivate myself to work on this important cause? I must be a selfish, uncommitted person.

Many procrastinators lead a double life, pretending on the outside to be happy and productive, but ashamed and terrified on the inside. They walk around with a happy face, boasting about how they work best under pressure, and bemoaning, in a joking way, their huge workloads and constant need to pull all-nighters. Underneath, however, they are desperate; and when things get too hot—when they are about to miss a serious deadline, thereby revealing their true “shameful” nature—they often cut and run: abandoning a project, dropping a course, leaving a job or organization or ending a relationship.

Procrastination feels miserable. Sometimes it is so overwhelming that you become depressed almost immediately upon waking up, because you know you are destined to fail at the day’s tasks. Procrastination can also feel very confusing. At bedtime, you look back on the day and don’t have a clue as to where your time went. You remember reading the headlines, drinking a cup of coffee with your officemate, watching some television and surfing the Web, but you are convinced that those random activities could not possibly have added up to the long hours of wasted time that day. But, of course, they did. That’s what Charles Dickens meant, in David Copperfield, when he had Mr. Macawber call procrastination “the thief of time.” To a procrastinator, it really does feel as if his or her time were somehow stolen.

If a procrastination problem is serious enough, and lasts long enough, it is often called a “block,” as in “writer’s block.” It’s not just writers who get it, although that’s the example we’re most familiar with. Anyone can be blocked, and many people, perhaps most, are. Sometimes, blocks last for days or weeks, but often, tragically, they last for years, decades or even entire lifetimes. Being blocked is one of the worst feelings in the world; it drives some people to absolute despair.

Wait! There’s Good News!

But wait—there’s no need to feel ashamed or despairing! When one of my students confesses to a procrastination problem, even a block, I congratulate her. Yes, congratulate. Here’s why:

• Procrastination is an affliction of ambitious people. If you don’t believe me, do a Web search on procrastination; you’ll get links to hundreds of pages advising you on how not to procrastinate when (a) writing your novel or thesis; (b) pursuing a fitness program; or (c) looking for a new job. These are all ambitious endeavors, and people who pursue them should be admired even if they do procrastinate.

• All procrastinators, no matter how thwarted, can boast at least one spectacular achievement: they haven’t given up on their dream. If they had, they wouldn’t be worried about procrastinating on it. To hold onto an ambitious dream despite one’s fears, and also despite (frequent) discouragement from those around us and the larger society, shows true vision, dedication and courage.

These qualities—ambition, vision, dedication and courage—are things to be proud of. So instead of seeing your procrastination problem as a shameful flaw, try seeing it instead as a symbol of something great within you. Yeah, you’ve got some work to do to realize your true potential—who hasn’t?—but at least you keep showing up and fighting the good fight.

Another reason not to feel bad about your procrastination problem is that, as you’ll learn in the next chapter, everyone procrastinates. . . .