Procrastination and the Controlled Application of Stress

About a year and a half ago, I figured out my entire school life. I came up with systems of organization that worked for me, and I was able to thrive academically. Then I left high school. I went to CEGEP which, for those of you who don’t live in Quebec, is kind of like going to University… but in many ways it’s harder than that. The point is that when I went to CEGEP I lost almost all of the good habits I had formed during high school. No matter how hard I tried, I kept putting off assignments, turning things in late, taking bad notes, forgetting to write down things I had to do and, most importantly, I didn’t feel like a good student. Slowly I began to remember what I did to get into my better habits, but I could never get myself to implement them. Everything I did seemed to fall just short of making me the organized, responsible student I had been during my last year of high school. Part of the problem was the new learning environment, part of it was the new house, and part of it was the fact that I had moved nearly a thousand miles away from everyone and everything I had ever known for the first 18 years of my life. All that aside, I was right that there was at least one piece missing. I’ve since retrieved almost all of my old habits except for a few, and I’m going to talk about the one that I think is most important: Stress.

I’m not going to pretend I have a cure for procrastination, or that I can tell you how to do change your habits in a certain way that will make you happy and successful for the rest of your natural life – no one can do that. Lots of people write books and articles about how to stop procrastinating and “take control of your life”, and they all pretty much say to make lists (or at least the ones I’ve read.) Make lists of what you have to do, make lists of how you intend to follow those lists, keep track of your lists, start things early, yada yada yada (I know: harsh words from a young man, but hear me out.) The trouble with most of the “Stop Procrastinating” guides that I’ve read is that they assume you have the mental discipline to make those lists consistently and follow them consistently, when in simple fact if you had the discipline to do that you probably wouldn’t have trouble with procrastination in the first place. Personally, I have trouble doing anything I don’t feel like doing (and that’s an understatement.) I have trouble finishing assignments, starting assignments, studying for tests, and I can’t seem to do anything that I have to do on a regular basis. As far as schedules go, I have zero mental discipline, so don’t think I’m calling you undisciplined. All that is to say that I believe the root problem of procrastination is stress and how we deal with it, and the fact that the human brain is not built to perform tasks on list like a computer executes commands in a program.

Please continue reading; I intend to support these claims with logical argument.

Before I continue, this method has worked for me in the past. This is not to say that it will work at all for you, but I suspect that I’m not the only one who feels this way, and from conversations with my friends and others, I think this could at the very least be helpful to a lot of people. In my opinion, controlling procrastination is about the control and application of three different kinds of stress. These are:

  • Procrastination stress – when you can feel the due date approaching (or lingering behind you) like a hot iron moving toward your face, ready to burn you and your academic career to a crisp.
  • Extra curricular stress – when you’re doing those one or two extra curriculars that you shouldn’t have signed up for, but now you’re committed and if you quit now you’ll let a whole bunch of people down (I’ve been in this situation more than once – it’s one of the most stressful academic situations I’ve ever encountered.)
  • I need to write that down stress – when you’ve been doing things early and on time, you’ve just received (or remembered) a new assignment, and you want to write it down so you don’t forget. This is good stress. This is what it feels like when you’re on top of things and you’re on a roll of anti-procrastination. This is where you want to be.

Let’s talk about the first type of stress: procrastination stress. Procrastination stress feels like every assignment you’ve put off is building up behind you into a big wave. The more you put off, the bigger the wave gets, and the bigger the wave gets, the more you put things off. In my opinion, this happens because of the age-old issue that once you start doing something negative it’s hard to stop. Once you’ve told yourself that it’s ok to make an exception “just this once,” it’s extremely hard to avoid making an exception the next time. So the moral of the story is: don’t put things off. Yes, it’s ok to do so eventually if you’re work load is way to heavy or you’re having a difficult time outside of school, but when you first stop procrastinating you can’t let yourself put anything off that you said you would do – assign yourself a time to do it and do it then. Logically this means that you should try to lighten your load if at all possible – try to commit to less.

… which leads us to the next type of stress: extra curricular stress. During that wonderful year in high school, I decided to try something new and join the Science Olympiad team at school. It turned out that the people I worked with were mainly concerned with winning, did very little of the actual design of their project, and encouraged my group to do the same. Since this was, for me, tangential to my work in the technical theatre department (also a huge commitment,) and since I didn’t stand up for myself and my opinions, I realized that their design wouldn’t work for my group… the night before the competition. But that was only after our entire group began to fall apart, feelings were hurt, and my chemistry teacher, who ran the whole club but had nothing to do with our individual group’s foolishness, reprimanded me for not stepping up. Needless to say I was hurt, disappointed with myself, and very, very stressed. The whole situation was out of control, and there was nothing I could do to get out of it. Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of advice for dealing with situations like this. In fact, I’ve been in a similar situation since then, and I still have trouble with it – it’s natural. But I can tell you two things. First, if you feel that it’s a destructive influence (you don’t enjoy it, you feel you’ve over-committed yourself, or if it’s just not fun anymore,) then leave if you can. Second, if you can’t leave, you have to realize that school is, ultimately, more important than this extra curricular activity. If if flops, then you might upset some people, and you might feel bad about not giving it your all, but at least you won’t have failed classes or taken away from more important aspects of life (like your mental and emotional health, which are both much more important then extra curricular activities.) If you explain to these people that you’ve taken on too much and that you’re having trouble coping with it all, they should understand, and if they don’t then they are probably not the people whose opinions you should really care about. The only other thing I can tell you is that it helps to talk to people. Talk to your friends, family, or whoever you trust.

And finally, the good stress: “I need to write that down” stress. “I need to write that down” stress feels kind of good. When you get to the point where you’ve done a couple of assignments with time to spare, and you’ve gotten good results from those assignments, you should start to feel like you’re ahead of the wave, and that the wave is diminishing. It’s not damaging stress like the previous two kinds, but more of an instinct. When you have a system of recording your assignments and their due dates effectively, and you’ve started to use this system habitually, you’ll start to feel like this. It’s a very good feeling, and it will keep you going. The only rule is this: once it’s on paper, it’s out of your head. Presumably you have a time that you schedule just for work; keep thoughts of what you have to do out of your mind until it’s that time, unless they have to be done before then.

So how do you convert the first two types of stress into the last? The answer is simple… but difficult. You have to let go of the stress. Don’t push it away, but let it go. From what I understand, this follows the Buddhist philosophy of nonattachment. I don’t think I agree entirely with that philosophy (because I believe that sometimes the things to which we are attached are part of what makes us human,) and I’m not sure I’ve interpreted the philosophy properly, but nonetheless this is how I have learned to deal with stress. The trick is not to control emotions or frustration or stress, but to let it pass. The way I picture it is this: Your mind is like a complex series of pipes (sort of like the internet is a series of tubes…) You’re somewhere in the middle watching the biggest pipe. You may have noticed that when you think about something that stresses you, you begin to react to it emotionally, physically, or both. It’s like you’re seeing something that bothers you flow through that pipe, and you’re trying to grab it, apprehend it, and get rid of it. The only problem is that the pipe is still sealed. It’s flexible enough that you can grab the thought and struggle with it for a while, but you can’t get it out of the pipe. But ultimately all you’re doing is keeping the idea there instead of letting it continue to float away, and so you keep thinking about it. The only way that I’ve been able to control these stressful ideas or thoughts is to just let them go. Don’t react to them, try to deal with them, or think about them longer than you like. See them, notice them, and let them pass. Take a deep breath if necessary, and allow our mind and body to relax. If you find it hard to do that because you’re worried you’ll forget about the idea and you’ll need to use it later, then write it down and get it out of your head. If now is not the time to deal with it, then ignore it.

This can be hard to do when the stress that’s plaguing you is caused by an assignment that you don’t want to work on. In my opinion this is procrastination stress in disguise, because you’ll probably notice more of this stress when you’ve been slacking off for a while. So again, breath, let the frustration go, and relax your mind and body. This doesn’t have to be some long, relaxation ritual, just let go of the stress. Don’t push it away, just let it float away. Now look at the situation: you have to do this assignment. Maybe it’s optional, maybe you can do it later, but it’s very important that you do it now, because when you win this battle you’ll be that much closer to winning the war. That is, once you have overcome that urge to do this assignment later or not do it at all, the next time will be that much easier. After you’ve done this a few times you’ll hardly feel any anxiety at all. Try analyzing what’s involved in the assignment. Go over the steps of what you have to do one by one, and you’ll probably find that it’s not that big a deal anyway. Will it be boring? Maybe. Will it kill you? No. Will YouTube still be there once you’ve finished the assignment? Most likely.

The other thing that helps you stop procrastinating is to keep your mind sharp. TV, YouTube all dull your brain. I’m not one of those people who believes that TV is controlling our minds, but there’s something about watching TV that lulls the mind to sleep. There’s something about just accepting a story that makes a brain, especially a tired brain, want to soak up information and not work too hard. I’ve noticed this affect with just about anything that involves staring something. Do I love computers? Yes. Do I believe that computers, when used properly, can be very mentally stimulating, even more mentally stimulating than many things people do while not on a computer? Yes. Do I intend to make a living designing, building, and programming things on computers, and do I think I will be smarter for it? Absolutely! But when I’ve been staring at something the same distance away from my face for a while, be it a computer, a book, or a circuit board, I get tired and my brain gets bored. This is why you have to stop hacking at about 5am when you’ve started become clumsy and can’t solve problems and get some sleep.

This is all to say: watch TV, browse YouTube, hack, build, check your e-mail, do things on the computer, but do it after your work is done. Make absolutely sure that you do get some time to do the things that you want to do, but do those things after. It’s not that work is more important, if anything it’s less important, but it’s easier for you to do the work first, and delayed gratification feels better.

Ultimately all of this means nothing if you don’t make the conscious decision, right now, to change your work habits. You must be fed up with the status quo, and unwilling to continue working at the same level. You have to be willing to try, and you have to be willing to let yourself rest. When you encounter a decision to do something now or later, no matter how small, you’ll have to choose now; always, until it becomes habit and you trust yourself.

I wasn’t able to spend as much time as I would have liked on certain things in this post, and I’ll undoubtedly revise it and post additional suggestions as I continue to implement changes in my own work habits, but I hope that what I’ve spent the last hour and a half writing (and another half hour revising) something that will help someone as much it has helped me.

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