Shedding the Cloak of Procrastination

Reading Time: 9 minutes
cloak blowing away
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I confess. I used to be a procrastinator. In high school, I would study on the bus for that day’s test, copy homework from friends because I put it off, and pleaded with teachers to let me hand something in a day late. Every assignment was a first draft of whatever. I got straight As and was in the top percent of my class. I had learned to play the game with the least amount of effort required. I could read, write, and memorize quickly. When planning ahead doesn’t get you ahead, why bother? I wore the Cloak of Procrastination proudly. It was the only way I could feel cool whilst still doing well in school.

I entered my first foray of college, expecting to “buckle down,” and was prepared to be worked to my full potential. I wasn’t. There was more information to read and memorize, and longer things to write, but I could still procrastinate and get As. Then I became a mother.

Suddenly, even dropping out of school, having no definitive plans but keep the baby (and myself, the source of food) alive, still left me overwhelmed and my life in disarray. When the second came along, the only life game I played was “catch up.” Having a house and car meant there was always something to do, always something going wrong, and never enough time to do it. The finish line was out of sight, plus, there weren’t any grades, so I didn’t even know how I was doing. I couldn’t tell if hanging out on the floor with the kids was procrastinating or being a good mom. If the Cloak of Procrastination was around, it probably had spit-up on it and was being used as a stuffed animal tent.

In my late twenties, I decided to return to college and finish my degree… while homeschooling my two children and working part-time and being in a band and volunteering in my community, etc. etc. Remembering my pre-child school years, I thought it would be a breeze. Ha. Ha. Ha. I had heard other mothers complain that their brains flowed out with their breast milk, but I don’t think that’s true (at least, I hope not). Instead, our brains can only focus on one task at a time to do it well. Being a mother means never, ever, ever being able to focus on one task at a time. Even when I was in class, part of my brain was wondering if my kids were ok (and not watching TV at grandmas eating junk food. Again). My first semester proved that the rules of procrastination did NOT work anymore. The Cloak had shrunk. It must have shrunk, right? ‘Cause it sure didn’t fit anymore.

The only all-nighters I pulled were if one of the kids was sick. I had no energy to study or complete an assignment after bedtime. Speaking of the kids getting sick, if I didn’t do an assignment way ahead of time, I could guarantee there would be an emergency the day before it was due: house, car, small snotty things. Anything and everything was ready to derail my school work. Figuring out babysitting meant I could barely get the classes I needed to graduate, let alone office hours or study groups. I was on my own.

I did some serious prioritizing and long-term goal-izing. How was I currently using my time? What was most important to me? I still wanted my degree. And I still wanted to homeschool my children. Everything else needed to be cut out or, at least, down. I put the Cloak of Procrastination into the give-away pile and learned about something called Time Mangement. Managing my time was not something I wore to show off or to get by or to look cool. It was a total life make-over.

  1. I invested in a calendar and used it.
  2. I never said “yes” to anything until I looked at my calendar.
  3. I placed a dry-erase board in the main part of our house and every night wrote the next day’s activities.
  4. I made each of the children and myself a work schedule, which took into account the events on the calendar, to make sure there was enough time each week for not just activities but homework as well.
  5. I learned (through trial and error and honesty) to understand how long it took my family to leave the house or to go from one destination to another so I didn’t overschedule and had a decent chance to be on time without panic.
  6. I bought a cellphone (this was ten years ago when not everyone had one yet) so I could keep in touch with those I was planning with.
  7. We reevaluated each semester how we were all doing and adjusted accordingly.
  8. Staying healthy was a priority to accomplishing our goals: eating healthy and sticking to consistent sleep schedules.
  9. Everyone encouraged each other to succeed and we helped each other out.
  10. At least one day a week had nothing (or very little) on it.

One bonus for us was that we were poor. My kids’ friends were always here and there and inviting us to all their myriad classes and activities that we couldn’t afford. Limiting our options for financial reasons made it easier to for everyone to choose. Driving far was also a reason to strike something out due to gas costs and cutting into our already tight schedule.

I did well my second semester and every one after that, but I didn’t always get As. And that was ok. Sometimes “good enough” had to be enough. Sticking to a schedule meant stopping, even if the current project or assignment wasn’t my best effort. Electronic music has a terrible trait of endless ways to edit a project. Sticking to my schedule meant I had to discern what projects were doable and make final decisions quickly. That’s a handy skill. I invited one of the smart kids in class for a home-cooked meal every week to help me study at my house. It helped, and he became a good friend.

The Cloak of Procrastination is heavy and dark and obscures your vision. When you never allow yourself to put in your best effort, you never find out your limits. You hide your true self in the folds. Knowing my left hand, no matter how long I practiced, will never get up to speed on the piano, was a rude awakening. But freeing as well. Now I know that I would never have made it as a concert pianist. I could no longer claim “I would have been proficient, if only…” Honesty can be tough, but also thrilling. The gazillion hours of composition and writing to present a novella for my English minor, and senior recital of all original pieces for my music major, could not have been done with procrastination (and would not have gotten the high grades.)

I realized my early days of procrastination were due to fear of failure and fear of success. Putting out my full potential and then not being amazing is a blow to the ego. One semester I attempted to write a full-length musical. Although I completed the project, it was not up to snuff because I did not have the skillset or enough time to tackle such a huge project. I learned from it and continued.

Fear of success came when I wasn’t ready to move on (like when I refused to move up in a grade-school swim team because I’d be separated from my friends) or tackle something more difficult or handle others’ expectations. I finally learned to succeed and then bow out of the next opportunity with grace. Conducting class was the most difficult and rewarding class I ever took in my college years. I did very well, but it took putting that class over all my other work, and I knew it was not a career path available to me. So, although my professor encouraged me to continue, and my classmates assumed I would, I did not. Instead of feeling like a failure, I was proud of the work I had accomplished and realized the skills I learned could be used in other areas of my life (that’s a different post). It was an empowering choice.

“Isn’t it interesting that those with the least amount of time get the most done.” This was spoken by another homeschooling mother who held a high position job as well. She and I seemed to contribute the most to our homeschooling group by way of classes and still pitched in on administrative work, more so than those who had no outside the home responsibility. Her comment was not about laziness or lack of work around the home, but that she and I had figured out how to manage our time so successfully because we were forced to, that we found we had time to do more than we originally planned.

I graduated from college and stuck to this time management way of life because I never worried about completed things, never had that nagging feeling following me around like dirt stuck to the cloak. Procrastination takes up ALL your time because you are never truly free. A good schedule means free from worry. Taking an afternoon to go out for ice cream on a beautiful day doesn’t create an emergency and the enjoyment is full. There is no place for guilt when you manage your time effectively. There is joy in completing a task without exhaustion. By the time my kids were in high school, they created their own work schedules around a very busy family calendar where everyone had to share cars as well. Their transition to college was smooth and both were baffled at other students’ incapacity at time management.

Then I became ill. Suddenly I could not accomplish what I set out to do. I felt like a failure every day until I adjusted accordingly. Rest times were part of my schedule and a more realistic view of how long it would take me to accomplish a task was needed. When I had two major surgeries and long recovery times from each, I finally stopped making a work schedule because I couldn’t work. For the first time in so many years, I had nothing to keep track of, no deadlines, no to-do list other than making myself food and possibly shower. It was great. I wasn’t procrastinating because every moment of my day was devoted to one extremely important task: healing. Almost dying gave a sharp perspective. It was time management on the long-term schedule.

Even when I started to work again, it was very part-time and my daily schedule was kept light so I could rest when needed. Making plans was difficult, as I might have to cancel at a moment notice for my illness, and my calendar became only a place to keep track of what everyone else was up to. Not having many plans freed me up for day-to-day whims (unexpected tea with my mom) and larger household projects that had never been a priority (sorting and reorganizing my entire library and selling on eBay, for example). I had gotten into the habit of being productive, but now I had to do it at a different pace.

As my recovery continued, I felt the need to write a memoir of my experience with my illness. It would be a way to emotionally process what had happened and prevent others’ needless suffering. Six months went by with scribbled notes in a folder, but not much typing or a clear outline. Well enough to start a daily to-do list again, I inexplicitly had so many other things to do that writing the memoir was always last, and only when I had run out of energy. It took a while to figure it out, but I was procrastinating!

Somehow, I had rewoven the Cloak. Immediately, I set to my previous tips on time management, creating a work schedule for myself that gave generous time for the memoir project. Yet, when I would sit down to compose my thoughts, I found there were other things needing my attention. It took another couple months to realize it was an unconscious avoidance. But why? No one was asking me to do it. It was my own idea. And an important one. I forced myself to write, but it was such a struggle, I felt overwhelmed and considered giving up.

I have been meditating daily for many years now and turned to my practice to help sort out my new Cloak of Procrastination and how to shed it for good. Tom Evans is one of the meditation teachers I listen to on my app of choice, Insight Timer. He had a 10-day course on Time. Sounded perfect. I took it and it changed my life. Although he had many useful and mindful ways to focus and contemplate time, one lesson, in particular, focused on my current problem.

Through a self-reflective process, I realized I was afraid. A throat constricting fear as if I was being strangled occurred when I reflected on writing my memoir. I contacted Tom and asked him how I could deal with this fear since I didn’t even know where it was coming from. He responded with a few other meditations on this exact issue and told me to listen to my fears with compassion.

So I did. I welcomed the fear in. Every morning in my daily practice, I asked the fear to talk to me. I was listening. I wouldn’t try to push it away or bury it. Just trying to understand, please. And it spoke. My fear of writing the memoir was due to what might be a negative response from others. I had never truly dealt with past hurts of telling my truth but being called a liar, speaking up for myself and being shot down. During the course of my illness, people in authority belittled my cries for help. My inner self was trying to protect me from future hurt by preventing me from putting myself out there with this memoir—a very revealing portrait of my illness and the medical system that failed to help for ten years. My fear was trying to keep me safe when I had only just gotten strong enough to get my life back.

Instead of shoving it away, I continued to let it in. I would journal what my fears were after meditating every morning. Then stretched and continue with my day. I had no deadline and let the fears talk themselves out. Simply by embracing it, it stopped getting in the way. The fear was still there, but I just listened, said, “Thank you for letting me know,” and continued to write according to schedule, stopping when it was time to stop. I had shed the Cloak without a fight and was finally making progress.

These days I continue to struggle with my new body that only responds well to lots of relaxation times, regardless of whatever else is on my to-do list. One week I get everything done and have time and energy to socialize, and the next week, I can barely cross anything off. One particularly frustrating day, my husband wrote on my to-do list, “Sit on couch. Get kisses.” I actually felt quite accomplished by the evening…

Having children and my own goals taught me time management skills, dealing with illness taught me to let go of expectations, and writing this memoir is still teaching me to stop hiding under the Cloak of Procrastination.

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