Putting Off Until Tomorrow
Throughout my life, the “issue” of procrastination has reared its ugly head more times than I care to remember. In retrospect, I can easily recognize how being an undiagnosed Aspie made a bad situation worse in this regard. I have chosen to bring it up now in this forum in an attempt to not only work through some of my own thoughts about how procrastination as it relates to my autism has impacted my adult world, but to hopefully impart even a fraction of my ever-evolving insight on the amazing youngsters in my life who share this struggle.
My first memories of procrastination in my world are probably of grade school, when I began taking piano lessons. I wanted to do well, and certainly wanted to be able to play like my father, or at least like my best friend, both of whom were gifted pianists. While I could play, I could not, to my dismay, reach the level I so desired, and as such became discouraged quite easily. This discouragement led to the procrastination—if I didn’t practice then I didn’t have to make countless mistakes time and time again, and didn’t have to acknowledge that I would never be good enough. Problem solved … oh, wait. Problem not actually solved so much as made exponentially worse, because when time and money are going into music lessons that a child says she wants and then the child appears not to want to put in the work, that is a problem. And such is the nature of procrastination, taking what may be a mildly uncomfortable set of circumstances and turning those circumstances into something that reaches disaster-like proportions in the autistic mind—we are typically not ones wired towards the middle ground in this regard.
So why procrastinate? From that first experience, rather than learning from the consequences of not practicing, I went on to an amazing academic career of putting off term papers and research projects as long as possible. One in particular stands out in my mind as it was a paper that I began writing after midnight the day it was due. How I managed through four years of such shenanigans is beyond me. I cannot offer any rational explanation as to why placing myself in situations that produced such monumental stress, anxiety and depression was my go-to position for more years than I care to recognize. I suspect—and this is where the autism comes into play, for me, anyway—that it has more than a little to do with the need to be perfect.
I recall my son learning to climb the stairs as a young child. He started up the stairs, realized he was not going to make it all the way, came back down, and did not attempt the feat again for several weeks, at which point his ascent was flawless. Even at that tender age, he was determined not to do something unless he was going to be able to do it perfectly. This pattern magnified as he grew, and has caused as much angst in his life as my tendency to procrastinate has caused in mine. I see the pattern in my students every day. A combination of not wanting or caring to think about the future running full-speed alongside an inability to do anything unless it’s going to be done exactly right can make things like postsecondary planning a bit of a challenge.
I wish I had the perfect solution for all of us. Fortunately, in my concerted attempts to STOP putting off until tomorrow what should have been done last week, I have an idea. Behavior Modification 101. We humans, autistic or not, act in ways that will bring pleasure and avoid pain. We get some positive reinforcement for everything we do. In using my Aspie powers for good instead of evil, I have decided in recent times to take a logical approach to this very irrational problem. I am learning to recognize that the pain caused by procrastinating outweighs the pleasure that comes from taking the Scarlett O’Hara approach to uncomfortable, challenging or tedious situations. Thankfully, I have a job that I adore on many levels. A perfect training ground for getting done what needs to be done when it needs to be done, whether tedious or monumentally important—or both. Lo and behold, as it turns out, I do not actually have to do everything perfectly the first time … I just have to make sure I get it done when I am expected to get it done, and if it ends up being perfect, great. If not, that’s probably okay too. It has taken me the better part of … well … quite a number of years to come to a place of being able to internalize this lesson.
It’s dreadfully hard for those of us wired for perfectionism to settle for anything less—we’d rather not try at all. So to those of you who love us or care about us at all, don’t be afraid to keep reminding us that we actually don’t have to be perfect. We just have to do what we need to do when we need to do it. As this becomes more natural to me, I am happy to report that procrastination is not the problem for me it once was. I am no longer paralyzed now that I can recognize that the payoff is NOT worth it. And that I am worth more than all the anxiety set in motion by putting off until tomorrow what needs to be done today.