Some nights, I’d hear him puttering around in his room. Maybe he’d drop the tennis ball he was tossing up in the air and it would bounce across his bedroom floor. Or I’d realize he was poking around on Spotify, playing a fragment of one pop song, then a fragment of another. He’d only stop when I’d call out: “Are you really finishing your homework?”
Silence. Then a highly unconvincing “Yes!” would fill the air.
“You’ve got to stop wasting time,” I’d say in my most grown-up voice. “It’s almost bedtime and you’re still doing homework. The only person that hurts is you. You know you won’t want to get up for school tomorrow if you don’t get some sleep tonight. You said an hour ago you were tired. Just get your work done.”
Just get your work done. I sounded so sure of myself.
If he could have seen me on a hidden camera, he would have discovered that I was wandering around on Facebook, scrolling endlessly, pointlessly, through quippy comments and cat photos, pausing only to check my e-mail again and again. Even though I had a story due in a few hours and I was as tired as he was.
For years, I managed to convince myself that procrastination was simply part of my creative process. Don’t most writers mess around until a deadline approaches, then sit down to really write? Isn’t it kind of romantic, me at my computer late into the night, sipping tea and typing away in the peaceful silence while my family sleeps?
Honestly, no. It’s not. It’s ridiculous.
I think I knew all along that there’s really nothing creative about starting work so close to a deadline that you run out of time to really excel. And yet I let this self-sabotage remain a chronic part of my routine. Like my kid, I’d make periodic pledges to ditch my time-wasting. And I’d really mean it. But good intentions are only Step One in kicking this habit, and I had never felt enough pressure to actually figure out Step Two.
I only started confronting this puzzle when I realized my son had inherited not just my freckles and my pointy chin, but also this useless behavior. I had to teach him to stop, which meant somehow teaching myself.
His behavior made it easier, though no less uncomfortable, to really see my own. Grudgingly, I finally admitted that I find excuses (There’s laundry to do! We’re low on cat food! This link that someone I haven’t seen in a decade just posted might be interesting!) to put off work simply because I’m scared. Anything I haven’t written yet might still turn out brilliant. Once I write it, it’s only as good as I’m capable of being.
And that’s intimidating.
So it’s about fear. Not the most impressive or shocking epiphany, I admit. In fact, it’s kind of painfully obvious. But it was useful to finally say it out loud and own it. It ensured that when the next deadline rolled around, I couldn’t dress up my procrastinating as a charming creative quirk and continue indulging myself.
That was the elusive Step Two that I’d been lacking. So I started hunting for Step Three: How do I actually stop?
Sadly, I found no easy, sexy solution. As far as I can tell, there are only these four simple realities:
1. Writing it down makes you accountable. I now start the day with a written list of everything I need to accomplish that day and a written schedule for getting it all done. I have to change that written schedule when I blow an hour on something random, which means I have to deal directly with the fact that those minutes went up in smoke. If my schedule changes for some legitimate reason, no problem. But if I have to shift work from morning to afternoon simply because the morning has disappeared, that’s entirely on me.
2. Preparing to work is one way to dodge work. It’s great to have an organized workspace free of distractions, but it’s also easy to hide inside the organizing process. My kid sometimes cleans his desk or his room to avoid homework. I’m worse: I can clean and organize the entire house if I want to avoid a writing gig badly enough. So give yourself 10 minutes to clean up your workspace, and then admit that any more is a tactic for putting off the inevitable.
3. Rewards and consequences work on us. We procrastinate because putting work off feels, at least momentarily, better than just doing it. If I tell my kid he’ll lose some treat for wasting time, or he’ll get some treat if gets right to his work, then doing the job becomes the more appealing choice. It’s tougher threatening myself with consequences for not starting my work, because obviously I don’t have to go through with them. But I’m pretty good about promising myself rewards for starting work efficiently and only allowing myself those rewards if I actually stick with it. Again, not an exciting epiphany, but it works.
4. Fixing this isn’t a one-time thing. It’s like staying on a healthy diet or working out consistently. Six months of awesome behavior can easily be followed by a month or more of real procrastination. I don’t think I’ll ever eliminate this bad habit. I can only tame it, and hopefully help my son do the same.
It was a little awkward at first, admitting to him that I struggle with this just like he does. And yet every time he hears me puttering around and asks if I’m wasting time, I’m encouraged that he’s getting the point. I’m also glad he’s seeing that adults sometimes deal with the same roadblocks as kids, and he’s far from alone in wrestling with this particular demon. It’s a gamble: You never know how your offspring will react when they see just how imperfect you can be. But I’m betting that by letting him in on my secret, I’ve taken a growing source of conflict and turned it into a potentially fertile patch of common ground.