When I was in first grade, my teacher gave us a white folder labeled “Catch Up.” It was supposed to be an organizational tool, a way for us to keep track of incomplete work. But my folder started to grow, and grow – and it became harder and harder for me to look at, or begin to deal with the growing crisis inside. It was a convenient physical representation of all my young anxieties, one tidy place where I could gather everything I was putting off.
Even then, in first grade, I knew I was a procrastinator. And though my white folder’s gone now, versions of it have followed me my whole life.
By middle school, my mom took me to see an organizational therapist. The fact that such a person existed is an indication of the kind of place I grew up, and the fact I was willing to see her, of how desperate I was. She was an elderly woman in a low-slung ranch house who talked me through a bunch of ways to organize my work, until she settled on the final answer: a clear plastic accordion file. Like a slightly more grown up version of my white folder.
My mom was trying to help – she made systems to conquer her organizational demons. Like the little incantation before walking out the front door – “wallet, watch keys,” – that became part of the soundtrack of my childhood.
But those systems made me more anxious. When I crossed an item off a to-do list, I didn’t feel the satisfaction everyone said I was supposed to feel, I felt a nagging doubt that I was crossing it off too early, that maybe there was some part of it still left to do.
My dad’s approach was more extreme. He became a teacher, the one job where he knew that all the procrastinating in the world wouldn’t prevent him from having to face his students the next day, and, strangely that helped. So I even tried that. I became a teacher. But my procrastination was up to the challenge. I loved a lot of things about teaching, but the daily battle of putting off my lesson planning, feeling bad about it, and putting it off more to punish myself, was exhausting.
I heard a story a recently that helped me better understand where my procrastination comes from. After my grandfather died, 15 years ago, my dad and his siblings went into the law office he kept to collect his stuff. They found what looked like a volcanic eruption inside. Stacks of paper in no discernible order, years of incomplete records. None of them had known a thing about it. It was his white folder, and he’d managed to hide it. And that’s what scares me about procrastination. That I could get so good at it that no one would know anymore, and then I’d have no reason to stop.
I heard the story of my grandpa right around the time I was applying to journalism school, and it rekindled my old doubts. Right as I was agonizing over my final essay, deadline fast approaching, I got a call from my dad. I was ready for a nail in the coffin, a final confirmation, that trying to write just isn’t in the cards for someone like me. But my dad said something different. He said I couldn’t choose to stop being a procrastinator, but I could choose to not let it keep me from what I wanted. And suddenly, it was like my bulging, ripped, white folder was open on the table in front of me. So I sat down, and got to work.