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A Tendency to Procrastinate: Can or Should it Be Overcome?

Yesterday we had a very enjoyable day. We “got out of Dodge” with our best friends, traveling to the Gold Country, the region of beautiful foothills where much of the great California Gold Rush played out.

Like us, our friends have two children. Their youngest daughter, a high school junior, was at home yesterday. When I casually asked, “What is she up to today?” we ended up having a great discussion about procrastination.

You see, my friends’ daughters take divergent approaches to writing projects. The oldest employs a very methodical approach, planning what she is going to write far ahead of time, creating an outline and, in the case of a large project with numerous components, gathering and organizing all of the information she needs before finally sitting down to start the process of writing. That process begins and is concluded well in advance of the project’s actual due date. She does not work well under the stress of a looming deadline.

The youngest daughter has a specific project coming due in several weeks, but no other deadlines bearing down on her at this time. Her older sister lent her advice and guidance about how to organize her work in order to finish by the due date, so my friends left her at home yesterday with instructions to spend the day completing her household chores and writing.

Given that I’ve known the girls their whole lives, I asked, “And how much writing do you think she will actually have done by the time you get home?”

The response? “None.”

Ever the optimist, though, the girls’ dad was looking forward to going home and enjoying the cookies she would most likely bake during the time she was supposed to be writing.

The reality is that their youngest daughter is a procrastinator. And they bemoan the fact that, to date, their efforts to change her approach to meeting deadlines have proven futile. Despite their efforts to eradicate her natural tendency to procrastinate, they seemed resigned to the fact that she was destined to finish that assignment, like all of her other schoolwork, at the last minute. That fact will drive her mother, who is, like her oldest daughter, completely unable to put things off until the last moment, to distraction.

We had a great discussion about procrastination and its impact not just on the individual procrastinator, but those with whom they must coexist. We came to the nonscientifically-based conclusion that there must be a procrastination gene. In other words, we are born with a genetic predisposition to procrastinate — or not.

Which leads, of course, to the next inquiry: If, in fact, procrastinators are born, not made, should we try to change them?

I confess that I am a procrastinator myself. I truly believe that I was born with that procrastination gene. My friends know this about me and our conversation included reminiscences about our high school days and tests for which I, the procrastinator, pulled one of my “all-nighters” (for which I am legendary or infamous, depending on your viewpoint) while my friend studied diligently for weeks in advance. She used to get really annoyed with me when I received a grade that was as good as, if not better than, the one she earned. Now we laugh about it, especially given that she has a daughter who is so much like me in terms of putting things off until the last minute.

When it comes to completing assigned work and meeting deadlines, some of us live “on the edge.” I am not proud of it, by any means. But, as a general proposition, I need a looming deadline in order to get my creative juices flowing. That’s how I work best. Always have. And I have accepted the fact that I always will. I used to tell myself that I was going to change. Over the years, as the result was always the same despite my best intentions, I gradually gave up the pretense.

That is not to say that I do no preparatory work before actually sitting down to write. On the contrary, I think about what I am going to write from the moment I receive the assignment. I do not go through the process of actually creating an outline, however, because I essentially outline my written product in my head for a long time before I ever sit down at the keyboard. Sometimes I write whole sentences or even paragraphs in my head as I think about the project. I run to the computer to jot them down before I lose them. Then I just save the file and open it when I come back to actually write my direct draft to see if I still want to include that thought.

Obviously, when it is necessary to conduct research in order to write, that must be completed in plenty of time to allow the information to be compiled and synthesized so that it can be included in and inform the final draft.

But as to the actual process of drafting a document, I declare myself a procrastinator of the highest order. Even at my age, I still all-too-frequently pull “near-allnighters” when I am staring down a deadline.

It is my belief that writers need to find a system, technique or approach that works best for them and stick with it. This morning I read Tammi’s entry, Writer’s Block or Procrastination?, in which she discussed Rachel Hartman’s suggestion of writing for 45 minutes, followed by a 15 minute break. However, Tammi concluded, “I know myself well enough to know that I can’t really write creatively under this kind of structure.” I could not work that way, either. Honesty truly is the “best policy” when it comes to developing work habits. If a particular approach simply doesn’t work for you, it is critical to recognize and acknowledge that fact — and then continue searching for the technique that does serve you well.

Tolerance, understanding and flexibility is required from those nonprocrastinators with whom we procrastinators collaborate. So, for instance, if, like me, you are a procrastinator, you should inform folks you work with of that fact, especially if you know that they are not. This should be done not only as a courtesy, but in the interest of self-preservation. If your boss gives you a specific deadline, but really would prefer to receive the draft earlier, the two of you need to discuss how best to approach the situation to assure that your natural tendency to work at the last minute does not cause him/her so much consternation that your working relationship suffers. Compromise may be the order of the day and here’s one way that might be accomplished:

My friends’ daughter did get some work done yesterday. Her technique? She established an artificial deadline for herself and met it. So she found an approach that worked for her and is enjoying her success. My friend just reported that her daughter will be submitting her first draft (”sloppy copy”) to her teacher tomorrow. Unfortunately, though, her dad didn’t get to enjoy any fresh-baked cookies!

Are you a procrastinator? Do you work best under the pressure of a deadline? How hard was it for you to admit that fact? (Or have you?) What techniques or tools have you developed or adopted that help you meet deadlines and collaborate productively with nonprocrastinators? I would love to hear your thoughts, so leave a comment!

Originally published at Write Stuff.

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