Even starting this article is giving me anxiety…
My whole life I have been a persistent procrastinator. Many nights have been spent crying to my mother, begging her to help me with my 5th grade science project that was due that next day or writing an essay I was assigned weeks earlier but had only started working on three hours before it was due.
For the most part I have been able to get by in my educational career by using a single tactic—I actually work quite well under pressure and am usually able to produce quality work in short periods of time. Whether this approach is good for my mental health is a separate issue.
Now I am embarking on my very own film project—a mockumentary short based on true crime series like Forensic Files–it’s going to require both a lot of work and a lot of time. Yes, time. This is not a project I will be able to pull off doing by pulling an all-nighter the day before a film festival.
I am really passionate about film and comedy and I really want to do this project. But the thought of starting it made me feel so incredibly uncomfortable. Can I actually do this and, do it well? The answer to that question came down to the primal instinct of fight or flight: do I stick with this project and believe in myself, or bail and try something else?
Some days I chose fight. I would go to the coffee shop and write. I would research local theatre companies for potential casting. I would be productive. I felt confident and ready to tackle my project.
Other days I would develop enormous anxiety, so I would go with the flight option. I slept all day. I ate a lot of food. I felt bad about myself. I wondered if I should be in film production at all, even looking into other majors that might be better for me. I would hide in my room and instead of doing research, I would watch six straight episodes of Grey’s Anatomy.
Then I came across the term “pre-production anxiety.” I suddently realized this problem I thought was totally mine to face is actually something that other filmmakers feel before starting a project, too.
What do we know about anxiety? We know it’s a chemical reaction that helps us to survive. Early humans who weren’t nervous around cliffs were more likely to fall off and die. Those who were nervous probably avoided cliffs, did not fall off and die and lived on to bear their own nervous cave children.
When presented with a possible threat, cortisol and adrenaline are ramped up in the body causing an increase in heart rate and breathing. This gets your body ready to react to the threat by either confronting it or fleeing the situation.
So whether you’re freaking out because a bear is chasing you in the woods, or you’re stressing over how you’re going to afford groceries, primal instincts are at play in order for you to survive.
When presented with a stressful situation, anxiety is perfectly normal.
It’s when that anxiety becomes excessive, or when you react to situations that don’t really present a threat, that anxiety becomes an issue. So, I should be incredibly anxious about a meteor heading towards me, but I shouldn’t be crippled with anxiety when thinking about writing more of my script.
Another thing that contributes to anxiety is the actions that we take because of the anxious feelings. It’s the whole vicious cycle thing–there’s something you have to do, you avoid doing that thing because you don’t like doing it, you get mad at yourself because you still haven’t done that thing and it all makes you even more anxious.
Journalist and critic Eric Hynes visited our documentary class to talk to us one on one about our films. I asked his advice on how to get over procrastination and the resulting pre-production anxiety. He brought up this fantastic idea: productive procrastination.
The idea is simple. You don’t have to make any crazy life changes and you can still blow off whatever it is you need to get done. You just have to schedule time to blow off whatever it is you need to get done.
Using this method, a productive procrastination schedule might look like this:
10 a.m.: Write part two of your script
12:30 p.m.: Walk somewhere to get lunch. Maybe meet up with a friend.
2:00 p.m.: Go on the computer for some editing
4:00 p.m.: Go on the computer for some sweet cat videos.
This approach allows me to look at a big massive scary project to smaller more doable little projects, while rewarding myself for those small tasks in the process.
I’m trying this approach now, building in bite-sized pieces of work time that don’t cause so much anxiety. I’m not done with my film yet, but even that thought doesn’t cause as much anxiety as it once did.