Catastrophic Problem Solving

Or: Why Can’t I Just Marathon Everything?

About my senior year of college I realized something about the way I handled projects, school work, sewing, well… everything.

I procrastinated until the night before [thing] was due and then pushed through an all-nighter to a shocking, triumphant conclusion.  As time went on, as I succeeded at pulling projects, papers, and test scores out of my butt, I started procrastinating even more.  If starting at ten pm worked, why not eleven? Why not midnight?  Until I was making the brilliant paper the day AFTER it was due and being told that “This would have been an A if it had been on time.”

Then I started turning things in two days late, or three days, with mandatory letter-grade-drops for each day. That was when I told myself to stop.  I would start the next project when it was assigned.

I got an assignment. I sat down. I looked it over. I gathered my materials. I stared blankly.  For AN HOUR.  I didn’t know how to work without the spice of catastrophe.

Eventually, the due date came and then I was able to start it.  Why, I wondered, did it just feel better to start on the due date? What was wrong with me?  It wasn’t just procrastination. (It was 98% procrastination but there was something else in there.)

I was a catastrophic problem solver. All my problems became catastrophes because I did not know how to deal with problems that weren’t.

Everyone in my family has a tendency toward catastrophic problem solving. Maybe it’s all humanity.  The point is: it’s no way to live. It’s unnecessary stress and exhaustion and constantly under-performing your best work because there’s no time to proof read or revise or, hell, even format.

And that’s part of the appeal.  When you only have one hour to write an essay, you are allowed to be sloppy. You must forgive yourself your first draft. You are allowed to skip the formatting decisions and just throw it together in a simple way.  That permission to half-ass isn’t just handy – it’s addictive.

Think about it: when your problem is “write a paper.” No one gives you any sympathy. You have to just do the thing. You feel bad about yourself for not doing the thing but the incentive to do the thing is minor.  It’s a chore!  When your problem is “I have to write a twenty page paper in the next two hours” – well, now you are a hero.  You are doing the impossible.  You poor thing! The chore, undone, has matured into catastrophe.

Another example: Cleaning out the fridge.  It’s a small matter to check what’s in that unlabeled tupperware, but you put it off, and then there are more unlabeled tupperwares and then you end up with a fridge with no spare room so you have the gigantic fridge-clearing party and throw most everything away and AH! Wasn’t that terrible act of waste cathartic?  Well, yes, but you spent more on food because you didn’t eat those leftovers and your decaying food waste will contribute to the death of our planet. Great job there turning a chore into a catastrophe.

Sometimes we WANT to make our problems bigger.  For the glory. For the attention. For the sheer excuse to half-ass.

For me, realizing the ugliness of the underlying motivations helped me stop dealing with catastrophes and start dealing with chores.

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