There’s a spot on my kitchen floor, a little cluster of dried reddish drips. I don’t know what it is. If it’s from 3 days ago, it’s tomato sauce. If it’s been there longer . . . who knows.
I’ve walked past it dozens of times. I look at it. It annoys me. I wonder how it got there. I wish it would go away. It doesn’t occur to me that I can make that happen.
The greasy smudgey fingerprints on the cabinet that I can only see in exactly the right light? The 8-inch long thread that’s been hanging off the bathroom rug since the last vacuuming? The dryer sheet on the laundry room floor? Same thing.
What is this? Why can I sit here and catalog all of these little annoyances yet I still do nothing about them? It’s not like fixing them would take a huge amount of time or effort.
In fact, to demonstrate how minor they are, I’ll take care of them right now.
Done. It took me less than five minutes to wipe down the kitchen cabinets, trim the thread and toss in the trash, pick up the dryer sheet, and clean the spot off the floor. I bet it would also take only a few minutes to vacuum up the bits of dirt and grass scattered in the entryway from my running shoes.
But I’m sitting writing and not doing it, aren’t I?
And this is how days go by and I keep right on walking around the mess, getting more and more annoyed by its existence yet still not doing anything about it.
Procrastination Doesn’t Look Like This
These things are so minor that I don’t think avoiding them qualifies as procrastination. Look at some of the ways experts talk about procrastination:
delaying a stressful task
a way of coping with anxiety associated with starting or completing a task
delaying an action despite expecting to be worse off
may result in stress, guilt, crisis, severe loss of productivity, social disapproval
impedes normal functioning
issues of anxiety, low self-worth, self-defeating mentality, lack of confidence
I can’t say I have a whole lot anxiety about my ability to spray some Windex on the floor and wipe up a spot. Loss of productivity because I’m not snipping that annoying thread off the bathroom rug? Probably not. If anyone actually came to my house, social disapproval might factor into the greasy finger smudges, but only in the sense that I’d be quick to clean them ahead of time.
I know procrastination when I see it. It involves a useless avoidance behavior, which I often talk myself into thinking is useful. Instead of working on this really hard developmental editing project, I’m going to tag all of the files on my hard drive so they’re easier to find!
I recognize procrastination for what it is: my brain’s way of avoiding a challenging task, or at least of working up to it.
Executive Function Fail
I don’t go out of my way to do something in place of wiping up that spot on the floor. I just don’t do it. It doesn’t even occur to me to do it. My thought process is literally:
There’s a spot on the floor. Huh. That’s annoying. I wonder how it got there. Looks like sauce. Funny how it dripped in a circle like that. Wait, why did I come to the kitchen? Oh, right, there’s an empty water glass in my hand.
This feels more like simple executive function fail. Solving a problem, even a minor one, requires four EF-specific steps:
identify the observed condition as a problem
plan a solution by selecting and ordering strategies
maintain strategies in short term memory in order to perform them
evaluate the outcome and troubleshoot as necessary
Steps 1 and 2 trip me up badly. My brain recognizes that there’s a spot on the floor or a thread hanging off the rug, but it doesn’t necessarily identify that as a minor problem to be solved. Or it identifies it as a problem but doesn’t realize that a solution is needed.
I have no idea what the answer to this is. Being mindful helps. In this case, mindful isn’t some complex concept. It’s just a matter of being able to say oh, wait, I’m doing that thing again, which means I need to go get the vacuum/sponge/scissors and take care of this little annoyance that will only take a minute to fix and, oh, think how good I’ll feel afterward.
Routines help, too. For example, If I’m waiting for The Scientist to get ready to go out, sometimes I’ll walk around the apartment, intentionally looking for little things to take care of. Inevitably there will be a pile of clean laundry that needs folding or dishes that need to be washed. Reminder software like Goal Fish is another good strategy for staying on top of household tasks in general.
I”m curious to hear if anyone else has other strategies for dealing with this. It’s been a lifelong source of frustration and one that I’d like to spend less time thinking about.
Related article: Autisticook wrote a great post earlier this week about her experiences with executive function challenges and housekeeping, A healthy mind in a tidy house. She even bravely took photos!