Next stop: procrastination station

Quarantine Diaries: Why Can’t I Stop Procrastinating?

The fifth installment of one WFH parent’s journey amidst the coronavirus pandemic. This edition teaches you how to stop procrastinating (and a little bit about the Olympics).

In case you missed it, we’re in the midst of a global pandemic—and none of us really knows what we’re doing or how to cope. At least, I don’t. I’m taking it day-by-day, trying to balance working from home and parenting three kids while also wondering if this is the end of the world as we know it. And I’m taking you, dear reader, with me. This is Quarantine Diaries. Come back next week to see how it’s going; this series will last at least as long as your toilet paper supply.

Chapter Five: Wash. Rinse. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

I have a confession to make: I’m not good at this quarantine thing.

Some days, I climb out of bed ready to face the world. I sit down at my laptop, I go over my to-do list, and I tackle it. I don’t fuss at my children (much), and they only minimally fuss at each other. When I go into the kitchen to refill my water bottle, Harland is taking out the recycling, Booker is scraping the lunch plates into the trash can, and Lolli is singing a song about a discontented sock puppet. I go over to Kelsey, who is standing at the kitchen sink, and I move her hair to the side and kiss her neck and for a moment we are a Norman Rockwell painting of domestic bliss.

But those days aren’t most days.

Most days (which have been diligently recorded for you in previous diaries), no matter when I wake up, I feel like it’s too late. Before I can even pull out my computer, Booker is having a meltdown about the temperature of his cinnamon rolls and Kelsey is threatening to take away his computer for the whole day if he doesn’t get his act together. (For the record, the cinnamon rolls are the exact perfect temperature, as the directions have been followed to a T.) Before I throw on the same dirty sweatpants I wore yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that… Harland has done something to Lolli or Lolli has done something to Harland and more than anything I want to just lie down. But I don’t. I can’t. In fact, on days like this, I end up working well into the evening, trying to make up for lost time. Of course, I never do, and as I lay in bed waiting to sink into the sweet, merciful darkness of sleep, I wonder what happened over the course of the day. Where did the time go? How did it slip through my fingertips?

I swear, working from home wasn’t always this hard.

Anyway, this week was mostly the second type of day. So, this Quarantine Diary is less a diary and more an autopsy. Let’s peel back the skin and dive in.

Task: Get up. Get going. Procrastinate.

I woke up late Monday morning. Not exceptionally late, mind you. Just late enough not to go for a morning walk. So, I hopped out of bed, skipped my regular shower (okay, semi-regular. It’s quarantine. Who’s actually showering daily?), and posted up at my dining room table to work.

Tip: Cut your losses. If you start off behind, don’t try to follow your regular schedule. Instead, drop inessential tasks so you can catch up to where you should be.

Well, that’s what I should have done. But here’s the thing: My work is task-based and I don’t have regular hours, so it’s not like I had somewhere to be, and I didn’t have any calls or time-based deadlines either. I think I’ve just internalized the idea that a 9-to-5 should start around 9 a.m. So, instead of cutting my losses, I lay in bed sort of musing about how before the Industrial Revolution people didn’t sleep in one long 8-hour block, and how workaholism leads to burnout, and how capitalism is maybe foundationally flawed and how maybe I should read more Octavia Butler.

And then, somehow, it was afternoon, and I needed to salvage what was left of the day.

Task: Put the procrastination down.

The thing about procrastination is that it’s not actually about putting things off: it’s about regulating your feelings. It’s not about delaying tasks; it’s about reshuffling tasks to avoid the negative emotions that come with them. And, during a pandemic, it makes sense that I’d have lots of negative, challenging emotions. Don’t we all?

Another thing about procrastination is that you can’t just start back at the beginning of your to-do list once you realize that you’re doing it, or else you’ll end up right back in the place you were four hours ago, when you started procrastinating in the first place. At the same time, it doesn’t make sense to just move your to-do list around; even if you get through one or two or even three tasks, you’ve still got the same number of things to do, and you’re likely to still end up feeling like you’ve failed if you don’t get them all done, which means you’ll probably still procrastinate tomorrow. Instead, to get over the nasty cycle of procrastination, you’ve got to redefine success.

"Really, the key to restarting a day right isn’t finishing that day the way you anticipated; it’s being in a position to do better tomorrow."

So, once I finally got out of bed, I turned everything off. I changed clothes, and I gave myself 20 minutes to do something. It didn’t matter what I did; this wasn’t about the task, it was about resetting. I looked around, chose an easy, achievable task that would make a recognizable change in my environment, and got to work.

Tip: To get out of a procrastination spiral, stop trying to do the big things you’ve been putting off. Instead, ask yourself to complete an unrelated task that you know you’ll be able to achieve.

Of course, I didn’t do that. I could have swept the front room. I could have tweezed my eyebrows or done a face mask. I could have vacuumed my car or played a game of Scrabble. Instead, even though I should have known better (even though I did know better), I opened my computer, jumped into the most difficult task on my to-do list, and immediately wanted to cry.

If I’d actually snapped myself out of procrastination mode by doing an unrelated task, this would’ve been the time to rework my to-do list into a not-to-do list, bumping any tasks that took a lot of mental energy or finesse to the next day, updating anyone who’d be affected by my delay (as I successfully did a couple of weeks ago), and attempting instead only those things that I could be relatively sure I’d actually succeed at.

This would have been a great time to, for example, empty my spam folders or run all those computer updates I’ve been putting off for months—tasks that are simple, take minimal brain power, and give you that kind of ahhhhh, how refreshing why didn’t I do that ages ago? feeling when you’re done.

Tip: Once you’ve reset and you’re ready to restart your day, don’t go back to your original plan. Instead, set your bar lower so that you can hurdle right over it.

Task: Accept that you’ve procrastinated, and finish strong.

Really, the key to restarting a day right isn’t finishing that day the way you anticipated; it’s being in a position to do better tomorrow. After all, at this point, it should be clear you’re not having a perfect ten work day (cue Nadia Comaneci nostalgia). And, unlike Kerri Strug at the 1996 Olympics, your work probably won’t be over after this, and if you break your ankle on the vault, Bela Karolyi isn’t going to be there to hold your weight on the podium (can you tell that one of the things I do when I’m procrastinating is watch classic sports moments?).

Instead of trying to do all the things you thought you should do, you should focus on picking low-hanging fruit. Climb to the top of the tree tomorrow. That won’t only help you feel better; it’ll also set you up to do another important thing: end your WFH day at your “regular” time.

Tip: Even when your day doesn’t start off right, make sure it ends at the normal time. And make that—not what you’ve gotten done—your main metric of success.

By this point, it probably won’t surprise you, my dear and astute reader, that I didn’t end my day at the regular time. That would’ve been too much like right. Instead, I burned the midnight oil, digging myself deeper and deeper and deeper into my self-made hole. Except for the murder and intrigue and Scottish politics, this week has been like a work from home adaptation of Macbeth: “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. The days creep slowly along until the end of time.”

And, in even less surprising news, I did it again. And again. And again… all week. And will spend a lot of next week trying to clean up the messes I’ve made.

Here’s the thing. Every week, I learn—or fail to learn—the same thing: This isn’t what any of us expected, so I shouldn’t be surprised or disheartened when things don’t go as planned or that I feel best when I lean in to chaos and adjust my expectations.

So, let this diary-turned-autopsy change one more time. It’s a letter of resignation. Not from work, or from working from home, but from trying to do it right. There is no right. How could there be? Next week, I think, I’m just gonna wing it.

Terri is a writer, researcher, and program coordinator for the US's first academic trivia league for HBCUs. She lives and works in New Orleans, with her partner, their 3 kids, and an ever-growing book collection.

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