science of us

I Joined a Procrastination Support Group and It Changed My Life

Photo: Martin Barraud/Getty Images

Last year, I attended an author Q&A at Housing Works Bookstore that I thought would inspire me to write more. At some point during the event, someone in the audience asked the author about work ethic; in response, she told the crowd that when she sees a deadline, she turns her work in a month before it. In my chair, I reminded myself that she’s four years younger than me, and felt myself filled with a step-up-my-game spirit. I was going to start turning things early too!

A few weeks later, I filed a story a month after the deadline.

To be honest, that was pretty typical for me. Sometimes I’m late because I’m grappling with the disconnect between the work I imagine and the work that seems possible. Sometimes I’m late because I’m scared, sad, not ready to be naked in the way turning in an assignment makes me feel. I want to have the story right and I’m not sure I can get it there. And if I can, I’m not sure it will matter like I want it to. Sometimes I’m late because I spent too much time battling the frustration of my own perfectionism or the paralyzing fear of rejection. People tend to assume that chronic procrastinators are just lazy or disorganized — I’m scared of outing myself as someone who struggles with deadlines for this very reason — but what tends to go unrecognized is that sometimes our habit is the result of pain.

On my first day of graduate school at Columbia, I was 40 minutes late to my first class. When I finally got there, I mumbled something about traffic on the bus in the direction of my scowling professor and took the only seat left, on a bench in the back of the room.

Things didn’t really improve from there. The first semester was rough: I had class in the morning, worked as a teacher in the afternoons, and had a long commute home in the evening. Time and money were scarce; negative emotions were abundant. On the weekends, when I was supposed to write, I struggled.

I was in my second semester when I saw a flyer on campus advertising a Columbia Health-run support group called Getting Things Done: This group is for students who have a stalled thesis, incompletes, or are simply not performing up to their potential due to procrastination or poor time management. My thesis wasn’t due for another year and a half, but I already suspected it would become an issue for me. I loathed deadlines, especially ones that involved critique and evaluation, which most deadlines of the creative, academic, and professional variety do.

The description continued: The group acts as a community of support and accountability. Members will have the opportunity to learn to break free from the negative patterns that may be keeping them from accomplishing their personal and professional goals. It was like the flyer was talking directly to me. My personal and professional goals were intertwined: If only I could start doing things on time, I was convinced, I would be happier. This was a vehicle to help me get there.

The group met on Friday afternoons, from 2:00 to 3:30. True to form, I arrived for my first meeting 30 minutes late. The group was moderated by a staff psychologist and post-doc researcher who explained that they would be teaching us behavioral techniques to help us overcome our procrastination, systems with names like SMART goals, Unschedule and The Pomodoro Method.

I didn’t actually want methods. I wanted direction for the confusion I felt. I wanted to know why I was like this, and how to quiet the angst I felt. But still, I stuck around and listened as my fellow workshop members told their stories. There was Mary, a mathematician turned masters student who struggled to turn in papers on time; Nia, a politics doctoral student from Barbados trying to prepare for her comprehensive exams; a law student in a suit; an undergrad from the divinity school. There were people who spoke of delaying text message responses to friends, being scared to email their professors, feeling lost trying to figure out their research.

Then there was me, a former editor turned Masters student working part-time as a teacher, wondering what I was even doing there.

* * *

It didn’t take long for me to come around. In my experience, at least, procrastination has always been a private pain, experienced solo — but as I bonded with my fellow procrastinators over the following weeks, I began to realize that a support network of people who understood was exactly what I’d been missing.

“A lot of the factors underlying procrastination tend to be very emotionally based,” explains psychologist Andrew Colitz, who’s led the Getting Things Done group for the past seven semesters. “When people think about procrastination, it really isn’t about laziness — it’s about avoiding very strong emotions like anxiety, pain, fear, shame, disappointment … If someone feels like no one can handle their frustration, then the most convenient receptacle is themselves and that leads to more depression and anxiety and unproductivity.”

Attendance was a core value of the group. Showing up even when you don’t want to, we were told, was an important feeling to push through. Colitz told me, “That feeling that you can approach, rather than avoid, what might be making you stressed or making you uncomfortable — the more that gets solidified that even if you’re not feeling well, you can show up, that gets translated outside of the group.” I missed a handful of times: once for a funeral, once for a panel, and a few times to, um, get things done. But I was learning to make it a priority, even as I let other things fall by the wayside. Since I often struggled to get my work done, I often had to cancel plans with friends. Luckily, my support group members became my friends, too.

One day, the facilitators handed out a sheet of paper with a list of self-care activities — things like reading for pleasure, playing with children, spending time with significant others, and going to church. When the group leader asked me if there were any activities on this list that I wanted to start doing, I said that attending church is something I used to do but hadn’t for a long time.

Mary, who was listening in, said, “You can come to my church.” I smiled in reply, conveying what I hoped was a polite demurral, but she continued: “This is perfect. Next Sunday is family brunch day. We can meet you there.”

The following Sunday I met Mary and her husband at their church, stayed for the service but not the community brunch. On the way out, Mary surprised me by holding my bag and helping me put on my coat, a gesture I’d only seen in old movies. As I walked to the library where I didn’t get much done, I found myself wishing I’d stayed.

A few days later, Mary and I got lunch together on campus. Over sweet potatoes and broccoli, she told me the story of how she met her husband — how they’d crisscrossed in and out of each others’ lives for six years before finally committing to build one together. Later, I’d cry on her shoulder in Morningside Park and tell her about how badly I wanted what they had.

That summer, I also began meeting up with Nia for workouts most days after work. We’d hold each other’s feet on the ground while the other person did sit-ups, and count each other’s squats. Later, when she returned from a long research trip in the Caribbean, she slept on my couch in my new apartment, next to the bookshelf that housed my diploma, still in the envelope it was delivered in. She told me about her exciting news, a fellowship grant she’d just received. I told her about finishing my thesis. We were getting things done.

* * *

When you take procrastination out of isolation and into a community, you’ll have to do things you don’t normally do. For me, that was group library outings. My Getting Things Done group had a WhatsApp group that I muted the day I joined — it was mostly messages about study meetups I didn’t plan on attending. One day, I got cornered into joining, though luckily with an out; I had work in a few hours. I sat across from Nia and a few others on the sixth floor of the library caught up on emails, surprised to find when it was time to go that I was disappointed to leave. It was fun, all of us working together.

A few weeks later, I rode the bus to campus on a Saturday to meet them and make a significant dent in transcribing a five-hour interview. I didn’t get through as much of it as I wanted, but it felt okay — one of the tips Colitz gave us was to adopt a “good enough” approach. I’m trying harder now not to let my perfectionism turn into a roadblock, and not to let myself think that finishing a project is the key to relieving all my problems. There would be another project once I finish, and then another after that.

Close to two years after the group, I finally bought an old-fashioned kitchen timer in hopes to use it for work sessions, a productivity tip that we learned from our group meetings.Instead, so far, I’ve used the timer twice:  once to time my laundry cycle and once to alert me when a pizza was ready to take out of oven.

But I have Mary to help me keep time, which she does from her home computer in New Jersey. We schedule 25-minute work sessions with each other; when it’s time to start, she’ll text me: “Are you ready, gorgeous?” I rarely feel ready, but I reply with the arm muscle emoji and she answers with the prayer emoji and the hug emoji. And then we work until it’s time for the five-minute break where we’ll call or text and rehash our progress.

That’s partially how I got this article done: sitting across from Nia most of the day in the library and texting with Mary, checking in whenever the timer stopped. I was feeling great until I left; once I got home, my productive streak unraveled into a pit of self-doubt, until I got a text from Nia. “How did you do?”

I considered not replying. I felt I didn’t have words to convey my frustration, but I pushed myself to answer anyway. “Bad,” I wrote.

She wrote back: “I’m sure you’re conveying your ideas more than you think.”

Joining a Procrastination Support Group Changed My Life