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Winning Your Procrastination Games

Procrastination abounds. As an editor, I get to see a fair share. As a writer I am painfully and personally familiar with the state of overwhelmed anxiety that writers are in when they email me the night before the deadline saying, “I’m having trouble thinking of a topic.”

I don’t think there is any cure for it, I think it is (mostly) a part of the human condition, and all there is are tricks and games to get ourselves to do the hard thing. C. G. Jung once said that nothing difficult is accomplished without setting up a little reward for yourself afterwards, like coaxing a toddler down the hiking path (“At the next bend we’ll have a granola bar!”). And this, I think, is a key to how we cope with ourselves when we are procrastinating, not with a stick but a carrot.



Well, a carrot, and a little bit of self-inquiry. For most of us procrastinate out of a shadowy, murky set of feelings and motivations, some of which could be said to be self-sabotaging. And the self-sabotaging itself is an interesting and meaningful thing to look into—how can there be a part of us that is working against ourselves? Especially since many of us also feel that we are struggling all the time with selfishness and narcissism—wanting to get out of our heads and into better relationships with other people.

Well, I believe they are two sides of the same annoying, complicated coin. The ways that we sabotage ourselves, such as procrastinating, over-indulging, or acting out are related to the ways we are sometimes self-aggrandizing and grandiose, uncaring towards other people, and irresponsible. All of these are what Jung would call the shadow—a part of the human soul that is where all of our split off and unacknowledged badness goes to sulk, out of our everyday consciousness. When we were small our world told us we shouldn’t feel all that—jealousy, anger, gloating, despair, and we were usually helped to tuck it away to be more socially acceptable human beings. But it was put too far away—almost out of our consciousness, and therefore present in a more twisted way, almost unknown and unfelt, but not quite.

Why think about this? Well, our shadow contains clues to the places in our lives that are not going as planned—the tough spots that never seem to come un-stuck. And ironically, thinking about and acknowledging our darkness (through journal-writing, talking in therapy or with a trusted friend, or just a bit of daydreaming) can actually help get us unstuck. So admitting to yourself that you hate it when your parents come to visit (though you must spend time with them) or you don’t like your partner’s best friend, or you judge your co-worker and want to gossip about his falling-apart marriage, or you sometimes wish you’d never had kids: all of these awful feelings can be accepted, as feelings—not actions. And when we bear this kind of material (what therapists call “bearing the unbearable”) it breaks and eases up—like those commercials for toothpaste showing the plaque dissolving from your teeth.

So that brings us back to procrastination. Even if you’d admitted that you hate your kindly old neighbor and dread chatting with him; you may still be struggling to meet a deadline or get your work done on time. This brings us back to rewards. I think rewards can help us plan our creative work and meet our deadlines by setting up a rival system to the now-focussed over-indulger self who “feels like being lazy today” and puts things off till tomorrow.

Rewards are a way of giving ourselves a little pleasure, a little joy in our lives, and they make difficult tasks easier and more fun. They are part of a pre-commitment, a way of breaking down a task into small deadlines and next baby-steps, in order to help yourself down the hiking path to the next granola bar.  The rewards can’t be over-indulgent but they must be something you actually really like (not “a trip to the gym” if that’s another thing you tend to procrastinate). A better one would be, “every time I go to the gym, I will stop next door at the newsstand and peruse the celebrity mags or get myself some bubble gum, or buy the New York Times”. Or, “if I finish the first ⅓ of this piece of writing, I will stop and make myself a smoothie or look at Facebook for 20 minutes, or lie down on the bed and read a novel”.

Rewards must come from knowing ourselves pretty well, and accepting with a kind of equanimity that there are shadowy, selfish, self-sabotaging impulses that we are working against in order to grow up and do creative work in the world, and then planning to help our selves to do what we know we want to have done.

Good luck! (We all need it.)

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Elizabeth Sullivan

Elizabeth Sullivan helps moms and couples repair and grow. We move you from feeling stuck or trapped to finding what's meaningful and poetic in everyday life. Elizabeth works in-person and online, and also offers parenting coaching packages for brief, solution-focussed therapy. She practices in San Francisco and is Co-Founder of Psyched in San Francisco and Editor of Psyched Magazine.

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