Like most 7th graders, I was a wreck at 12. I struggled to remember everything in the mornings as I left the house, and thereby was constantly calling home begging that my mom bring my forgotten items to school. I was totally unsure of where I fit in. And, tragically, I was brushing my curly hair until it resembled a loofah of frizz. I had zero things together.
My disorganization peaked that year, though, when an enormous project came due for our Social Studies class: the Asian Inventory. We were tasked with cataloging hundreds of household items by the location in which they were made as a lesson in how Asian manufacturing influenced our daily lives. Our class had been given several months to complete the project, and I had procrastinated.
The day before the project was due, I was talking with some classmates in science class as they bemoaned the hours they’d spent the night before on the project. I finally said, “Well, at least you’re done! Now you can just enjoy tonight before we turn it in tomorrow.”
My classmates looked at me incredulously for a few seconds in silence. “Colleen, you do realize the project is due today, right?”
Even now, more than two decades later, I feel the same pit in my stomach as I remember the moment the harsh reality punched me in the gut. I hadn’t started the project, due in an hour. I would fail.
Minutes later, I went home, “sick.” It was completely dishonest, and I was desperate. I spent every minute of the next 10 hours silently working on my project in my bedroom while my parents assumed I was resting.
I learned two really important lessons that day: first, a ton of stuff is made in Asia; secondly, and leaving a much bigger imprint, procrastination was my enemy.
Since that time, I’ve become an extremely organized and productive adult, in reaction to this pivotal childhood moment. Ever since, I strive to complete things ahead of deadline and wrestle with anxiety as a deadline approaches.
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Overcoming my proclivity to procrastination required that I get organized. I am fully reliant on good systems of organization. I’m fond of the Google Suite of products for keeping my digital life together: Google Calendar for our family and my work schedule; Google Keep for notes, photos, reminders, and lists; Google Photos for photo storage and organization; Google Drive for spreadsheets upon spreadsheets. I rely on project management software to manage all of my to-do lists and projects, and ensure things are accomplished on time.
But, technology alone isn’t enough to save me from myself when it comes to procrastination. If I find myself procrastinating, the first thing I have to ask myself is, “What are my blockers?” A blocker could be anything from an incomplete task that needs to precede the thing I’m avoiding, a misconception about what needs to happen, a distraction in my life, or as it most often is, missing information that prevents me from completing the task at hand.
One of the first times I ever wrote a grant report, I procrastinated for weeks. I couldn’t figure out why I was avoiding the project, until I finally buckled down to do it and realized that I didn’t know the answers to the questions I needed to answer.
It was through no fault of my own: I hadn’t worked at the organization for more than a few months, and I was trying to answer questions about a year for which I wasn’t present. Understanding my gap in understanding unlocked the questions I needed to ask to complete the project, and from there it was simple work, hardly worth the anxiety it had caused.
Now, if I find myself avoiding and distracted when it comes time to do something, I pause and identify my blockers. As I complete a task, I think, “What next?” Then, rather than relying on my mind to serve that information to me, I look at my task list and see what’s next, and get to work.