Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Procrastination is not about Laziness. It's about Fear

I've been largely unemployed again since my last job, working for Miss Green as a gardener, came to an end last May. She died quite suddenly but not completely unexpectedly - she was 96, but had been my excellent, feisty, but supportive and respectful employer for 10 years - more or less the same period I'd been with my ex and living in her house in Henfield. It was the most settled period of my entire life since I left home. In some ways it was worse than the end of my marriage, partly because I've never been so financially secure and partly because Miss Green and I got on so well. 
Anyway, on top of the bereavement there was the simple matter of being unemployed again - a state I absolutely loathe - not because of the poverty (I can survive on surprisingly little) or the boredom (I have plenty to be getting on with) but simply because I do need at least some money - not much, but some - and sooner or later I need to set about finding someone to pay me to do something.

This is what I hate - job-hunting. It is my single most hated thing ever in life. I have no problem with public speaking (as long as I feel I know what I'm talking about) I wouldn't mind taking my clothes off in public. I might even prefer singing a solo (I might even be quite good at it). I'd sit my A levels again if I had to. But I hate job hunting. It has a power to make me feel wretched that nothing else does. It's not the interview - if I get an interview I'm generally ok - it’s the searching part - it's the trawling through all those uninspiring and often incomprehensible job descriptions (could they possibly make them seem less worth having?) or trying to locate likely looking employers and sending out cvs and covering letters to people who really aren’t interested and probably have someone very different in mind. I strongly suspect that even if a job sounds vaguely within my powers, that it'll be long hours for little return, probably working with people I can't relate to, for some greedy autocratic turd of a man doing something that means nothing to me, and I’ll end up messing it up in some way. 
I’m aware that my perception of The World of Work" is a little mad (I never said my feelings about all this were entirely rational) but one thing I have always fought against is the notion that I am simply lazy - that I just don’t want to work and can’t be bothered even to try. It’s not as simple as that. I love having a real job to do - something I can really get into and do well. I work very hard and actually have trouble pacing myself so I may end up with a migraine the next day.

I try to explain the problem to people but it’s like saying ‘I simply can’t walk. I just don’t seem to be able to work out how do it.’ They just sort of look at me like I’m a moron. It’s something they take for granted that people do (or in a few cases something they’ve actively chosen not to do, even though they could if they wanted to). Sure they don’t necessarily have great jobs, or much money, but they always assume they will be able to get some sort of job and earn something when they need to, and they have holidays and children and gadgets and little treats. As it happens almost all of them are on quite a bit higher wages than I was content with, working part-time for Miss Green (about £15000pa before tax). It’s just something they do - and from a young age. My ex told me - when she wanted something or other when she was in her mid-teens she got a job at the local kennels and lo and behold by the end of the summer she had the money to buy whatever it was she’d wanted. I know many of my contemporaries just worked long hours doing pretty much anything all summer so they could travel, or for driving lessons or whatever. I could never do that - the idea of ‘wasting’ a whole summer doing something miserable so that maybe, at the end of it, I’d have saved enough money to go away for a while just seemed impossibly risky. To me, money wasn’t like that - you couldn’t trust it. Unexpected problems came along, or things happened and lo and behold by the end of the summer you’d spent the time bored out of your mind in some dingy factory or shop and still somehow had almost nothing to show for it. I just didn’t trust the whole work/wages process. It just didn’t seem very realistic, especially when I could stay home - walk in the country, do stuff with my hobbies, or just live in my imagination, using the resources and knowledge I already had. Having to put up with my parents’ disappointment and going to the benefit office once a fortnight were bad but a doddle by comparison.

Now I don’t know where this fairly extreme distrust of The World of Work comes from. It must come from somewhere - this sense that it is futile and humiliating, and a part of me knows it’s not really true. I sort of know that. But a fairly powerful part of me is not convinced. The thought of having to go through all that - the trawling through the sits vac, the trying to write something that sounds like I really really want to do whatever they want for whatever money they deign to give me - the humiliation of having to justify my patchy CV. It’s just all too depressing, and as I said, probably futile. Probably nothing will come of it.


The problem is actually a bit broader than just job hunting. The anticipation of humiliation is specific to that pursuit but the feeling of futility extends to many areas of life - reading instructions or legal documents, shopping around for utilities providers or insurance, electrical goods or cars. Even just trying to get organised to face all these things brings out that same feeling of lostness and pointlessness in the face of all this…. crap. And I go back into my own space, doing what I know I can do, with the resources and skills I have. Anything I might achieve is down to serendipity and impulse.
I wrote a lot of stuff about this feeling in my notebook recently - about how it feels to be faced with my to-do list of a morning - after I’ve had my coffee and toast and begun to feel that I’ve done whatever there is to do with my emails, Facebook and Flickr and I begin to get that nagging feeling that I should be ‘getting on with something’. And yet I don’t - possibly for another hour yet.
I hate the word ‘procrastination’ because it sounds like laziness and weakness but something Mike the CBT Guy gave me said first up that ‘procrastination is not laziness’ - it has nothing to do with can’t-be-bothered. It’s a strategy for avoiding things that upset us - things we can’t face - things, ultimately, that we’re afraid of.

Procrastination is in fact a perfectly logical response to fear. But fear of what? I’m actually not sure but the feeling is of being overwhelmed - it’s a feeling of bewilderment and confusion - it’s a fear of being hopelessly lost and muddled, of taking too long and getting left behind, of letting people down, of being an embarrassment and a disappointment, of being ridiculed, of being contemptible and untrustworthy. It causes a kind of panic - an inability to look at what is to be done and come up with any kind of strategy. It’s impossible to think about how long things might take or how one thing might affect another - it’s all too complicated - impossible to make a decision. This is the tearfulness I feel when I’m depressed and the frustration and the fury I feel when I know I bloody well should just be able to just get it done, like everyone else does. Better to just avoid it and hope it won’t be necessary somehow, or just dash it off at the last minute without looking back. Get it out the way - forget about it. No wonder I procrastinate. It makes perfect sense.


I was listening to something on the radio about dyspraxia. I hate the medicalisation of personality traits but some of what they were saying sounded sort of like what I’m talking about here. Mostly dyspraxia seems to be about some sort of neurological deficit, like dyslexia or dyscalculia, when people look at a sentence or a sum and simply can’t make sense of it. Whereas for most people it would signify something, for these people it just looks like a string of meaningless symbols. I’m not dyslexic but maths is like that for me. I look at an equation and it means nothing - I did a bit of oceanography at uni and there’s a lot of physics and a lot of equations - I had to keep looking to see what the symbols meant (how can you multiply time by pressure? What does that even mean?) But many people look at a dyslexic and think she’s just not trying hard enough. That’s how I feel and I don’t even have a name for what I’m going through. Dyspraxia seems to be close but more about some kind of basic inability to see things in relation to each other, to understand patterns - spatial relationships etc, so dyspraxics tend to be clumsy and disorganised. I’m not especially clumsy unless I’m tired. It feels like maybe the word is trying to cover too many different things, but anyway I can relate to part of it. I look at my to-do list and I don’t know where to start and I feel wretched.

Actually things have moved on a little from there. A long time ago, during my first stint at Uni (or Brighton Poly actually) I went through a sort of crisis over deadlines - they used to keep me awake all night - worrying about what might go wrong and how I might mess them up. And then at some point I looked back at what I’d done so far and realised that I’d actually got all my assignments in on time and got good marks and I said to myself ‘I’ll manage’ and it became a sort of mantra and I did manage - I never handed work in late and always got decent marks. But I think the difference there was that it was a strict, externally imposed deadline, and only having to concentrate on one thing at a time. I’m actually quite good at exams, and interviews too - once I’m there in the room there’s no choice - I only have what I have there with me - whether I’ve prepared well or badly there’s no going back, and I relax, and I often do ok. The preparation though - the revision and research - I’m hopeless - because it’s open-ended and I could be doing anything at any time - I procrastinate. I could never do the reading efficiently - the literature review. There just seemed to be a whole library full of things that might be useful, or even crucial - how could I choose? The thing I needed to know might be in the next volume, or on the next page. I couldn’t read the whole book, let alone all the books that might conceivably pertain to the subject. And then, as a post-grad there was a whole world of articles that might be relevant too, and which someone might trip me up on if I hadn’t read (and understood) them. I was lost.

More recently I have got the hang of prioritising. I used to look at my to-do list and not know where the heck to start but I’ve learned that on that list there are always a few things that really can’t wait and there is usually a fairly clear order among them. One of my last visits to Mike the CBT Guy furnished me with a piece of A4 divided by a cross into four quarters - the upper half is for Urgent things, the lower for Non-urgent. The right hand half is for Important things, the left for Unimportant. I’m good at Urgent things like deadlines, getting to appointments on time, and dealing with emergencies (I’m actually quite good in a crisis). Unimportant/Non-urgent things I’m fine with too - like most people I can potter about - commenting on stuff on Facebook and looking up plants and watching boxed sets - especially when there are other things I know I should be getting on with. But it’s the Important but Non-urgent things that are the problem - the things that really should be done but where there’s no real time-limit - just on-going, open-ended effort - things like job-hunting, and money and research, and finding publishers for my writing, or getting things fixed around the house, and shopping around for insurance and utilities providers. These are the things that I just can’t face. These are the things that get me down. Of course, with most of them, if I don’t get around to them, nobody suffers but me. It’s the work/money thing that’s the problem, because then I have to go to my mum and ask her for help, or my friends have to bail me out when my card doesn’t work, or i can't afford to go out and do nice things with my girlfriend. And although mum has savings and a pension and dad’s life insurance, we are by no means a wealthy family, and I know she worries and it’s humiliating and I feel guilty because I know I should be doing better by now (I’m 53) and I should be able to find a job by now (I have a good master’s degree ferchrissakes!) And yet…

I could get a ‘normal’ job - working for a nursery or a shop maybe. It would be for little more than minimum wage so I’d have to work full time so I couldn’t do anything else (I’m not one of these people with masses of energy) and I’d have to give up the nursery (something I was able to set up exactly because Miss Green financed it and I could do it with the resources and skills I already had - but it makes a loss. Making the nursery more profitable is another thing in the important-but-not-urgent corner of the diagram.) The idea that I could get a proper graduate job that pays enough to either work part time or which is interesting enough to keep me happy doing it full time, has just never struck me as a very likely option. I know - that sounds mad but I just can’t imagine it. That’s another of the weird and yet true-feeling ideas I have about The World of Work - that ‘good jobs’ are just unimaginable. Going to uni and getting my MSc and then going onto a Phd and getting a job as an ecologist was my big idea of a career. Since that fell through half way through the Phd I’ve had no more ideas about what to do instead, unless you count the nursery, and of course the novels, neither of which pay.

So what am I to make of this?