The pilot of the TV show Mad Men centers on Don Draper, procrastinating and deliberating what he’s going to write for a cigarette ad campaign. He asks random people working, socializing, or even cleaning the bar he’s at why they smoke the cigarettes they smoke, but still cannot figure out what angle to write about it. He drinks, smokes, has affairs, sleeps in his office, doodles, and sighs all hours before his looming deadline. His resignation and research show that he’s striving, but nothing’s clicking yet! It’s hard to watch because we all know it’s self sabotage and want to yell at him to “Just do it!” but since we’ve all been in that same resist and justify procrastination cycle, we relate to his struggle! Why do we procrastinate? Is it a disadvantage or an advantage to our creative process? Indeed, Don’s mind-gears connected AFTER his presentation because all that subconscious churning and research and adrenaline caught up to him, and he conceived a creative idea and wowed his clients.
Why did he feel the urge to procrastinate?
Procrastination: Poor Impulse Control?
Some theories on procrastination emphasize that it occurs among people who have a tough time with long-term planning and delaying gratification. For instance, for sake of a convenient example, Don Draper avoids doing work by pursuing hedonistic asides like affairs and drinking and cigarettes. Granted, he’s writing a cigarette ad, but in general, he does behave impulsively, without thinking ahead. It’s because he doesn’t consider that delaying will worsen the stress but instead prefers to focus on escaping the present stress. Some psychologists link procrastination to emotional regulation. The inability to put off short-term pleasure in favor of long-term pleasure relates to the mindset procrastinators get into where they would just rather have fun and not do work. The people who tend to view getting done with the work as soon as possible, so they can then have fun, are people who think in terms of long-term reward and have the ability to delay gratification.
So, emotional regulation may be one mindset that a procrastinator faces, but what about procrastinating on a task someone WANTS to do but cannot get into the head space; that’s a different type of avoidance.
Procrastinating At The Beginning: Fear Of Failure
Do you fear the blank page? Do you clean and “research”? This may be about the difficulty sure, but it also might be an underlying fear of failure. You may feel like you just can’t figure what to write or that when you do it won’t be perfect, and there’s a fear of even confronting that brown tap water instead of instantly clear and smooth water. Don Draper was convinced that his tap had run dry and it would never fill with creative juices again. And the more he strived, the more desperate he became. For him, it wasn’t just about impulse control, but intense fear of failure.
When we feel stuck or unable to focus, we worry that our brain tires won’t spin out of that mud and our fear can sometimes sink us further down!
Procrastinating At The End: Fear of Criticism
Sometimes we procrastinate before we start the task, but sometimes, we actually procrastinate FINISHING a task. For instance, we may have written an entire book except the ending chapter or we may write tons of intros and headlines but cannot power through that middle and end. This could be because we fear criticism or response to the work, not the work itself. Yes, this may be a cousin to fear of failure but it’s more about reception than self rejection.
It’s (often) less about feeling stuck than it is about facing the consequences of someone’s opinion.
When Procrastination IS Good
Sometimes, people actually find that procrastination works FOR rather than against them because they find going through the avoidance and resistance and stress and overthinking and anxiety helps them ultimately produce quality work. For instance, Martin Luther King Jr. preferred to write speeches last minute because the delivery was better and didn’t have a canned, overdone, formulated quality. Plus, that adrenaline of NOT feeling in control can make you enter a hyper-focused state, and thus, more capable, competent state of mind.
There’s so much nuance to why we procrastinate. It’s not mere self-control or will power. Emotional regulation IS an element because we put off the hard in favor of fun right now. But procrastination even occurs at different stages of the process. Sometimes, procrastinating before you start means you fear failure. Sometimes, procrastinating finishing a task means you fear criticism or reception. Finally, sometimes people actually put themselves through the stress of procrastination because they like the hyper-focus and adrenaline that comes during that ticking clock HOUR BEFORE momentum.
Writers, why do you procrastinate? How do you beat it? Tell us now! Or maybe you’ll get to answering that question…later…!
Samantha S writes direct, dynamic, digestible copy for any purpose and any medium. To inform, persuade, or entertain. Her writing catches and holds people’s attention because it’s accessible and easily absorbed. As both a detail-oriented and big picture thinker, she’s precise with technical aspects and insightful with overarching themes. She can shift from sparkling and conversational to no-nonsense and informative.