I’m a procrastinator. And before there’s any confusion, I will tell you now that procrastinating is NOT the strength that I’m referring to in the title. I’m a “long-term procrastinator” and the consequences of that have been self-criticism and regret. The feeling like I haven’t done as much as I wanted to. The feeling that I’ve missed out on a lot of experiences.
I started to wonder why I procrastinate so much. Is it because I don’t have a reason for the panic monster to wake up and kick the instant gratification monkey out of the driver’s seat? (See a previous blog for reference.) In other words, do I choose to spend my time watching shows on Netflix rather than researching grad school programs because I don’t feel the pressure to do so? The answer to that is: yes. But it’s not as simple as that.
Why do I choose to procrastinate when I know I don’t want to? Why do I choose to play games when I know there are better things to do, things that would actually have a bigger return in the future? To an extent, yes, it is because I don’t have a discrete deadline or consequence and therefore, no panic monster keeping me from indulging in my instant gratification, but I realize it is also because of my biggest strength.
So if you know me, you would know that my biggest strength is that I’m a hard worker. This is a value that has been ingrained into me since I was young. My parents taught me that if I ever wanted anything in life, I would have to work for it. There’s no English equivalent to it, but some parting words they said to me when I left for college or now, when I return to DC for work, were “Work hard!” or “Try your best!” It’s the American Dream, an ideology that my parents wanted to make available to me since it wasn’t in their country.
Taking their lessons to heart, I work hard. I’m diligent. Even though my first reaction to a thought-consuming task is to avoid, when I actually get started, I put in the effort needed to complete it to the best of my ability. When I do something, I plan to do it well. This has made me dependable. This is how I have earned the trust of those I work with. It’s probably the most important quality that has helped me get to where I am today.
And working hard has made me a procrastinator. Makes sense, right?
Although my work ethic has been advantageous to me, what have been the costs? (“What are the opportunity costs?” the economist in me asks.)
Number one: lack of sleep. Long nights in high school and college. There were many days when my dad would wake up for work at 4am to find me still awake because I was trying to complete a project. I clearly remember watching the sun rise one morning as I was finishing up an essay (I remember because I Instagrammed a photo of it).
Number two: physical and mental fatigue. Anything we do requires our time and energy. Therefore, working on something for an extended period of time eventually takes a toll on us physically and mentally.
My greatest strength becomes my greatest weakness when I work too hard and sacrifice other things that are valuable. For most of my life, I have had a “work hard at all costs” mentality, and there are probably many psychological reasons why I do. It’s gotten me far, but now it’s making me procrastinate on my life.
It starts with my job. I approached my work at USAID like I do with everything else, and that was coupled with the feeling that I needed to prove my value at my first full-time job. I worked hard. There were a lot of things that I needed to learn and learn fast. It didn’t help that my office had a higher than average attrition rate, so everyone seemed to have more than their fair share to do.
This pace still remains today. I’m supporting multiple projects and workstreams. My roles and responsibilities naturally evolved to many other things outside my actual job description. I arrive to the office around 8:15am, and I usually stay past 7pm trying to get as much done as possible.
As a result, I’m a valuable member of my team, I’ve picked up new skills and responsibilities, and I’ve gained quite a bit of experience. But, also the result of my hard work is not enough time and energy dedicated to the things that I want to do.
If I leave the office at 7pm, I get home around 8pm, which doesn’t leave me a lot of time to do anything before I should go to bed for work the next day. I fall asleep around 1am to get up at 6am, so I don’t get a lot of sleep. Then, it’s another long work day: the grind of non-ending to-do lists, meetings, and staring at the computer screen. This routine exhausts me by the end of the week, so the weekend is spent recovering. I find myself choosing Netflix because I just don’t have the physical and mental energy to do anything else.
This needs to change. I need to work less. More accurately, I need to reallocate my hard work — spend less of my time and energy on my job and more on other things I value. I’ve been taking microsteps to do this. It also kind of helps that the government was shutdown because things have been slower. But, I updated my resume yesterday, and I am making time to write this blog.
Like many things in life, working hard has diminishing marginal returns. The economist in me knows this and is kind of upset that it took me so long to grasp the concept. Up until some optimal point, working hard is my greatest strength. Past that point, it’s my greatest weakness.
This is one of the many lessons that 2018 has taught me.
Over and out.