Productivity has never been a problem for me. I know the glowing feeling of accomplishment that comes from a daily to-do list stricken with check mark after check mark. I know what it feels like to be the good kind of tired — the kind that comes from spending hours in the zone getting stuff done. And I know these things because I have a top-secret productivity weapon.
I’m always, always avoiding doing something else.
Procrastination and I go way back. Back to college, when I worked my butt off at internships and jobs, then wrote term papers just hours before they were due. Back to my days as a news reporter, when I produced multiple headlines a day, but left large projects to wilt and die on the vine I like to call “I’m too busy right now.” And now that I’m a freelance writer juggling my career while raising a 1-year-old daughter, it’s even easier for important personal goals to get lost in a cloud of productivity. (I cleaned the kitchen! I met my deadline! The baby and I left the house today!)
Lately, the work I’m avoiding is a creative project I dearly want to finish: a collection of children’s stories. (For the sake of this article, let’s refer to it as THE SUN. You know, because if I get too close to it, something terrible is going to happen. Obviously.) This project is about one-third done. It’s fun to work on. It’s important to me. And yet, THE SUN is the thing on my daily to-do list that usually doesn’t get checked off — and I know why. It’s because I always have something else to do. Busy, busy, busy. There’s just no time.
But here’s the thing about time: We all get twenty-four hours in every day. And for the most part, we all get to choose how we spend them. Some people accomplish amazing things. Some people stream six hours of “Ugly Betty” episodes on Hulu. (That was me three weeks ago.) And we all get to justify how we fill our time — often with excuses.
So, here’s what I did. For one full day, I took notes. I noted when I made excuses about not finishing my project, and I noted what I did instead. Take a look.
5:30 a.m. — I’m awake in anticipation of a 6 a.m. phone interview for a story. I’m tired, but I’m used to early-morning interviews. Even though I live in Seattle, I often schedule on east-coast time so I can work before the baby wakes and before my husband leaves for work. Technically, I could squeeze in a quick trip to THE SUN. But I don’t. Instead, I make coffee and scroll through my Instagram feed.
My excuse: This is the only “me time” I’m going to get today. I deserve this.
6:30 a.m. — The interview is over. My notes are more or less in order. I could risk a quick peek at THE SUN. Instead, I drink more coffee, answer emails, and work on some research for the article. I also take a probably-absolutely-accurate Internet quiz about what type of home best suits my personality. (Fairy-tale cottage in the woods. Sweet!) Then the baby is up and my husband has to leave for work.
My excuse: I need to get stuff done, obviously.
10:30 a.m. — The baby is napping — probably her one nap of the day. I scroll through Facebook and read a couple of news articles. Then I work on a few story pitches that are due later in the week. I briefly venture into the document (solar system?) that houses THE SUN — probably because it’s on my mind due to these notes — but don’t actually work on it. I tidy up a bit, then collapse on the bed for a break.
My excuse: I’m uninspired … and I need to get other things done.
1 p.m. — My parents come over to babysit while I get some work done. I have a phone meeting with an editor, then work on a story for a while. I take a break to visit with my parents and play with the baby.
My excuse: Other stuff is more important. I have to make money, after all.
7:30 p.m. — The baby goes to sleep — almost on time. My husband is working late. I chat with a friend via a messenger app for a bit, then turn on the TV. This seems like a great time for a visit to THE SUN, but honestly, my brain is already asleep. I fall asleep around 9 p.m.
My excuse: OMG, so tiiiiiiiired.
12 midnight — The baby wakes up for her middle-of-the-night visit with Mom, a fun new tradition she recently started. It briefly occurs to me that I could work for a bit after she goes back to sleep. Ha. Yeah, right.
My excuse: No. Freakin’. Way.
So, what did I learn from this note-taking experiment? There were three major takeaways for me, and here’s how I think I can learn from them.
- I spend way too much time on social media. Don’t get me wrong — I don’t think social media is all bad. It keeps us up-to-date on what’s happening in the lives of people we care about, and it’s becoming an increasingly important tool for finding out what’s going on in the world. But it’s also the ultimate distraction for many people, including myself. My resolution: Set down the phone. (Or close the browser tab.) By making my consumption of social media a more conscious activity, I can keep it from eating up so much of my time.
- Not all excuses are bad excuses. I do need to get work done. I do need to make money. And it is important to visit with my family and to spend time with my daughter. But when it comes to postponing important work until the end of a long day, forget about it. Before I was a mom, late-night hours were prime time for productivity. Now? I think I’m doing great if I put on pajamas and brush my teeth before collapsing. Recognizing that postponing important projects doesn’t work like it used to will be key if I’m going to curb my avoidance problem.
- “Soon” is not a time, and “later” is not a plan. If I’m going to make real progress on this project — and others like it — I need to designate time to work, and stick to it. Even the first 45 minutes of my daughter’s nap every day could go a long way to avoiding avoidance.
It’s pretty clear that for me, avoidance comes into play when a project or goal is personally important to me, is outside of my comfort zone, or doesn’t have a hard-and-fast deadline attached to it. If a project is all three? Probably not gonna finish that sucker anytime soon. Sure, it doesn’t make sense to postpone our most important work. But in that slightly irrational place in our minds where self-doubt lurks, avoiding important work makes sense. We’re afraid we’ll fail or fall short of what we’ve imagined.
Maybe the question I need to be asking — along with all my fellow procrastinators out there — is this: Is avoiding something really better than risking failure?
Excuse me while I avoid answering that question.