Can Procrastinators Anonymous help me finish this column?

A brief history of wasting time.
May 13 2008 7:47 AM

Lollygagging Through Life

I'm joining Procrastinators Anonymous—can I get past step one?

Read more from Slate's  special issue  on procrastination.

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I turned to The Now Habit and promised myself I'd stick with it. Fiore has a humane approach to procrastinators: He understands how we alternate scourging self-lectures with baleful self-pity and takes a cognitive-behavioral approach to our problem. He aims to replace negative thoughts with positive ones and turn distraction into action.

Fiore wants procrastinators to break down tasks and see them as a series of beginnings: If we can just sit down and do 30 minutes of solid work, the feelings of flow and accomplishment will allow us to continue. He also suggests building play breaks into the day so that we stop feeling our lives are a slogging misery. I followed Fiore's advice and put Post-it notes around the house with his suggested self-talk: "When can I start?" "I choose to." "I can be perfectly human." I started keeping what he calls an "unschedule"—an hour-by-hour record of the day with mandatory breaks for having fun. The only thing I didn't do was create a "planned setback" in which I would deliberately observe myself procrastinating, just to prove I had the ability to stop when I chose. Since my entire life is a setback, I felt no need to create one.

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For me, small tasks—getting the dry cleaning, checking the downspouts—have a way of inflating like helium, floating the day away. As I filled in the unschedule, it was disturbing to see how many little rectangles were devoted to the mundane or to scrolling the Internet. (Can't I call that research?) I followed his plan for a month but made no progress. I didn't blame Dr. Fiore; maybe I had worn too deep a dilatory groove in my brain to ever spackle it in and become efficient. Yes, I got stuff done, but in my same stressed-out, staying-up-until-1:30-a.m., self-berating way. (In the Bible, Job described the feeling: "My days are swifter than a weaver's shuttle and are spent without hope.")

Fiore's book gets many raves from reformed procrastinators on his Amazon page. So I contacted one of them to see if it was still working. Neil Gunton, a computer programmer in St. Louis, had written in 1998: "I tried the other books, and they didn't do anything for me. Save your money, and just get this one." Gunton told me, however, that he was still a procrastinator. The lesson he got from Fiore was to accept it. "I just don't worry about it so much. That's how the book helped. Not so much getting more done, it just helped me to understand who I am." But I don't want to understand who I am; I just want to get more done!

Seeing my desperation, my 12-year-old daughter offered me some personal coaching. First there was a critique, all true: "Mom, you sit down to go to work, then you go to the bathroom, then you walk Sasha, then you say you're checking one last e-mail. You take a lot of breaks, Mom. You say you don't get any work done after I get home from school, but I'm 12, and I don't bother you anymore. Then you'll have so much work, you work 15 hours a day and you don't even come down to dinner. You've got to balance it out."

At least my daughter has broken my family legacy. When she comes home, she does her homework and practices her piano. I never nag her. How does she do it? She said it was something she learned in the Sunshine class, when she was 4 years old. "The teachers would hand out snacks: five pieces of popcorn, five gummy bears, and five pretzels. Everyone ate what they liked first, then they weren't happy. But I liked the pretzels best, and I realized if I saved them for last, I'd get the taste of them in my mouth the longest. So now, if I can get my homework done, then I have the rest of my night to do whatever I want."

There it was—she didn't need online support, Post-it notes, or the unschedule. She figured it out in nursery school: Save the pretzels for last. Which reminds me that I'm kind of hungry, and it's time for a break. I'd like some pretzels, and I'd like them right now.