procrastination as addiction

One of the points that really stuck with me from Cheryl Robinson's Take Time for Your Life was that excessively checking email (and voicemail, IM, any other communication device) can serve as a source of adrenaline. You come to rely on it to jolt you out of your boredom or procrastination -- a kind of self-medicating, which when overused, can cause distraction. So, a little email break here and there is OK, but if you're checking it every 10 minutes, you probably have a problem. The solution isn't just to shut down your email reader (though that might help) but to figure out why you're reaching for that little digital buzz.

So I was interested to come across this entry in Dave Pollard's blog in Salon, in which he discusses procrastination as itself a form of addiction. Not just as the thing we do to prevent us from completing the tasks that need to be done, but as a cycle with its own built-in little jolts that keep us doing it. (How many times have I said I won't procrastinate about grading papers? and how many times do I wind up staying up late doing them all in a bunch?)

He discusses Steven Pressfield's The War of Art, a little book about finding your creative path that's been making the self-help rounds. I looked at it in the bookstore a couple months ago after David Allen mentioned it in his blog, and didn't find it to my liking, but clearly it inspires interesting responses. Anyway, Pollard explains that Pressfield talks about resistance as a kind of addiction:

And like breaking a deadly and life-sapping addiction, procrastination/ resistance manifests itself in the clever excuses we make for ourselves, and in our craving for more, for the 'high' we get from doing things just when we have to, just in time, and only doing things when we have to. And also like addiction, it takes, he says, enormous inner strength and will to break it. One step at a time, knowing for the rest of your life you will be vulnerable to relapses, and will have to start the agonizing process to kick the habit all over again. No excuses, no sympathy, no yielding to the temptation even once -- the fight of your life, for the rest of your life.

Pollard talks in good painful detail about the pull of the urgent that so often outweighs the important (paper grading vs writing article, for instance). He then winds up with the interesting claim that cognitive, intellect-based strategies (to rationally decide what's important and to do it, rather than just doing the urgent things) might not really work for a lot of us:

A colleague of mine is reading a book that describes how to 'push past' the urgent and make time, and room, for the important. I'm going to read it (and I'll report back here) but somehow I don't think that's the cure. You can't think your way out of an addiction, you have to fight your way out. It's an emotional process, not an intellectual one. The tendency to procrastinate is natural, human nature. Our psychological addiction to it is almost certainly reinforced, as with all addictions, by a physical, chemical addiction, that euphoria we get from crossing urgent things off the "to do" list. We do not yet understand the chemistry behind addiction, but it must be exploiting something that, for millions of years, was a positive reinforcement -- allowed our species to survive and thrive better. It might help if we find out what this chemistry is and how it has been perverted into our modern addictions, including our addiction to procrastination, to the urgent over the important, to Resistance.

Interesting stuff. Of course, for non life-threatening addictions, you can also just embrace them. For instance, I basically know that for certain kinds of tasks I will just wait until the last minute. And maybe I should just accept that, the same way I embrace and even celebrate my caffeine addiction. But I have other less benign forms of resistance, too, which might need to be done away with.