Dr. Robert Anthony once wrote, “The last fault people try to correct is procrastination.” I couldn’t agree more. We procrastinators like to think of ourselves as “deadline driven.” There is an interesting phenomenon that I have observed regarding procrastination and its relationship to anxiety that I’d like to share.
One time, in college (see pic), I remember putting off a particularly ominous term paper. The professor told us it had to be 15 pages long. The required length was, in itself, daunting. I remember thinking, How am I ever going to come up with 15 pages? I don’t even have a topic yet! Actually, I had thought of a topic that I liked but I was too afraid to expound on it for fear that it might not turn out well.
I was fully intending to get this large project done early one evening when I noticed that my desk drawers and closet were becoming very cluttered and disorganized as was my entire dorm room. My car was a mess, too. This, of course, took priority over the paper that was due. I set about straightening things up at once. It took me about three hours. When I finally had time to get to the paper, I realized how hungry I was. I can’t write on an empty stomach. On the way back from the dining hall, I saw some students watching a great old movie that I had always wanted to see and there was an empty seat in the lounge right in front. It was so late by the time I returned to my dorm that I…. You can see where this is going.
My anxiety grew as the deadline approached. Here is where I realized a serious error in my thinking. I was convinced that I would not feel any better until the paper was finished and handed in. It was going to be an agonizing process right to the very end.
To my amazement, once I finally sat down and started writing, my anxiety dissipated about 10 minutes into the project! This was a revelation to me. I learned that there is something satisfying and anxiety reducing in just beginning in earnest. Not only was I less anxious, I started feeling better about myself, less guilty, less like an adolescent and more like a grown-up. I got the sense that, Hey, I’m doing this! I really could do this — I just had to get on with it. The final project wasn’t bad, either.
Years later, I found this quote from Goethe that reinforced my experience and took it to a higher level. “Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”