Nearly a decade ago, in my second year of university, I decided to take a course on the intricacies of human language and the power it can hold. Though it was outside of my area of expertise, all of which included -drum roll, please – one year of introductory life science courses under my belt, the course sounded interesting and it was pretty well known around campus to be somewhat of a ‘bird course’, often taken to meet a breadth requirement. At the time, I thought it was an easy A and I wouldn’t mind spending a few hours a week listening to how language can be manipulated in order to get to a desired effect. It was similar, I suppose, to my own strategic thinking in taking this course, wherein I hoped that by using a little bit of course knowledge, I would be granted a high grade.

Until this point, although I had always handed my work in on time, I had gotten away with writing essays at the very last minute, and getting surprisingly high grades with little time spent in “work mode”. Therefore, when it came to completing assignments for this particular course, I found little fault with deciding to leave an assigned essay until the night before it was due. Little did I know that a family member would have a near-fatal accident that day and instead of being able to work on my paper that night, I would spend it alongside a hospital bed. The next morning, I sent an email to my professor explaining the situation and asking for an extension. Her response? Sympathy, along with “send me what you have so far”. This was not a situation I had ever found myself in before: Send me what you have so far? Well, I didn’t have anything so far. How would I explain to her that years of procrastinating were finally catching up to me? Would she think that the accident was a complete farce invented to grant me more time to further procrastinate? Did I seem like one of those lazy students? Worse yet, was I one of those lazy students? In explaining to my professor that I had not yet started the paper, a feeling of such intense shame dawned upon me. 

According to psychiatrist Michael Bennett and his daughter, Sarah Bennett, authors of the radical newly released book F*ck Feelings: One Shrink’s Practical Advice for Managing All Life’s Impossible Problems, procrastination, and it’s related constructs, avoidance and disorganization, generally provoke shame, criticism, and sometimes even legal issues because of the setbacks they often cause. Procrastinators begin to grow accustomed to cover-ups, lies, apologies, and, at some point, depending on the severity of the consequences of their procrastination, they can even pretend to stop caring or pretend to be busy with other responsibilities and shirk their responsibilities altogether. Deep inside, however, they very much still care about their responsibilities, only the fear of shame has taken over. As the authors note, “if you’re ashamed of your low productivity, you may hide it by diverting energy into appearing busy and inventing a cover-up to explain what you haven’t done. The less you do, the more it becomes a secret. When the secret comes out, you’re more likely to be chided for laziness, the more you’ll want to hide again.” 

Worse yet, many procrastinators inherently know that if they simply become more motivated, reliable and honest, they would be able to overcome their habits of leaving everything to the last minute, leading to ultimately living a more fulfilling and stress-free life. In fact, some of the most common desires people have about improving their procrastination includes becoming more responsible, stopping their avoidance of work, having concentration and focus, having good results when working hard and taking pride in their work, and being able to appease someone – likely a spouse, family member or friend – who wants the best for them and who knows this can be achieved by working on their procrastination.

The first step to ending procrastination, according to Bennett and Bennett, is not only admitting that procrastinating is a dire problem, but also accepting responsibility for it, which, as the authors explain, is a large leap from a simple admittance: “Brain wiring can cause well-motivated, smart people to procrastinate and drop the ball, and nature gives them no choice. The fact that you’re not responsible for having a problem, however, never relieves you of responsibility for working with it and finding ways around it, and often requires you to overcome deeply ingrained bad habits and attitudes. It’s impossible to change your instincts or make distractedness, impulsivity and scattered thinking go away; you can, however, become a good manager of the impulses to procrastinate, avoid, lie, and cover up.” As a behavior that is very hard to change, procrastination, as the authors put forth, is not a habit, but rather how some human brains are wired from birth, accepting responsibility and beginning an honest life are the first steps on a long road to re-starting.

Instead of treating procrastination as a shameful experience, Bennett suggests viewing it as important and respectable with the following statement as a guideline towards one’s mental framing of it: “I feel lazy and incompetent when I realize I can’t get much done when no one is watching but I realize that good people are often unable to control bad habits, so I’m determined to bear the shame and take advantage of every trick I can to get where I need to go.”

To jump start an end to procrastinating, the authors suggest the following steps one can take to actually start achieving and stop procrastinating:

1) Get A List of Goals

Obviously, if you’re trying to figure out how to get organized and motivated, you need to know what’s important enough to you to work for. Define these goals in terms of values, not results, e.g., include making a living, not making a mint. Think about what’s necessary, healthy, and fun in the long run, not what your wildest dreams are made of.

2) Put Together Your Priorities

The hardest part of prioritizing is learning to both accept the fact that two or three things deserve highest priority and the skill of juggling them all at once. It gets easier over time, and in the process of learning, you also get better at figuring out whether some of your priorities are actually worth dropping or putting aside.

3) Choose a Coach/System

Without a domineering spouse, day job, or ticking bomb in the basement, most people have to develop a system for self-management, particularly when they have to juggle their own obligations on top of their spouse’s, kid’s, dog’s, etc. Since most schools don’t teach you executive functioning skills, take a course and/or hire a coach. It’s amazing how much better you can do with a good to-do list, a set of urgency categories, and an omnipresent schedule.

4) Suss Out a Schedule

Assuming you have lots of responsibilities, limited time, and a strong desire to have fun, you need to create a schedule. A schedule helps you develop habits and shortcuts, so that you can reduce procrastination, deal with top priorities first, and make time for the things you really want to do. Again, don’t hesitate to take a course or use a coach.

5) Learn Your Limits

Many people experience endless feelings of responsibility once they engage in a serious task and those feelings can become consuming, particularly if an outside source (boss, spouse, parent, etc.) believes your share of responsibilities is never big enough. Train yourself to judge your responsibilities objectively by comparing them to your job description, taking into account your resources, and determining what a good person should do. Then you can remain focused on what’s really important, and not overextend yourself.

Though my own story ends with getting the highly desired grade of a zero on my paper, it was likely the harshest yet most valuable lesson I had learned in my career as an undergraduate student. Though overriding the need to procrastinate through my faulty brain wiring can, at times, still be a struggle, just like Bennett and Bennett suggest, creating a structured life through identifying goals and schedules, and above all else, being honest with myself helps me understand not only my own instincts to procrastinate, but now, as a professor, my students’.

Written By: Mariana Bockarova