A procrastinator without a deadline is like a fish without a…

well, I don’t have to complete that heading right now, do I? There’s no rush, is there?

That is my problem with having no deadlines – I’m naturally inclined to procrastination, and therefore if I have no deadline there is a very low likelihood of stuff actually getting done. Ever.

I know that not everyone is like that. I have personally known people who are naturally motivated without needing the panic of a looming deadline, people who say things like “well, the sooner I start, the sooner I’ll finish” and breezily get on with a task which absolutely does not have to be done right now, simply because they want to get it done and to move on to something else. The idea of getting tasks out of the way seems to motivate them. I look at those people with awe. Why can’t I be like that? I’d get so much more done! But I’m not like that. I’m a natural procrastinator. One who is struggling with it and trying to learn ways of working with it, ways of tricking myself into doing stuff before the very last minute… and of course one of those ways is creating mini-deadlines: I need to get X done before I go to the supermarket and I need to get to the supermarket and back in time to cook supper. I need to get Y done with enough time to get to the post office and send it to my client. That sort of thing. Sometimes it’s even: I need to get at least X hours’ work done today or I know I will really hate myself in the evening.

I came across an old post by Dan Ariely (whose blog I enjoy reading because I love discovering and re-discovering the quirks of human nature) with two great examples of how the absence of deadlines can reduce human productivity, and I thought: duh, I know that – I’ve known that ever since my first year at university (which is not quite as long ago as you’d think, seeing as I only got round to going to uni when I was in my thirties – why rush into things…) when we were told we had to hand in one essay sometime during the year. They didn’t even tell us what to write it on – we had to choose one subject out of everything we were covering, make up our own essay title and write an essay. (Have you finished laughing, or do you need a bit longer?)

In second year the essay requirements were, thankfully, a bit tighter – we had to do one every term, and there was also some definition regarding subjects. So I actually wrote essays that year. In first year it was a case of thinking I’d do it in the break between terms, then thinking I’d do it in the next break, and… well… not doing it.

Deadlines are wonderful. And no, I don’t mean that whooshing sound that Douglas Adams talked about, I mean the thrill of beating them against all odds, the sheer exhilaration when you look with amazement at the typed sheets of paper and think: how did that happen? And yes, of course that thrill feeds my addiction… the adrenaline rush as you’re trying to beat a seemingly-impossible deadline is – no, don’t try it if you haven’t experienced it, I don’t want that on my conscience.

That adrenaline high is definitely one of the reasons I leave things to the last minute. But I would never have discovered it without trying, and the reason I tried in the first place was because in my early school years I didn’t have to make an effort, I was bright and school didn’t challenge me, so I developed lazy habits. By the time school was ready to start challenging me, I was too busy being a teenager to pay it any attention. So as soon as I was legally able I dropped out of school, taking a highly intelligent brain and proceeding to waste it. Then when I decided to do my matriculation exams, I applied the same lazy habits there: I took correspondence courses for most subjects, courses which didn’t have any deadlines – they just sent you the material in the post and that was it, it was over to you to sit and study. Of course I didn’t do any studying during the year, just sat down and crammed for a week before each exam, living on sandwiches and hardly any sleep in the way that 18-year-olds are somehow able to… This method worked for most subjects – I had to re-sit maths, but that’s because I’d chosen to take maths at the highest level. (we had a choice of three levels, I knew I was naturally good at the subject, I just underestimated the amount of stuff they learn at high school in two years of high-level maths.)

Once you’ve learned you can do it and get away with it, and you’ve tasted the high of beating a deadline, well… it’s not easy to get out of the habit 😦


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