Maybe you procrastinate by watching The Handmaid's Tale. Don't feel too bad. Margaret Atwood procrastinated on writing the novel on which it was based. And not just a few minutes of cat videos here and there. She procrastinated for years. 

"I procrastinated for about three years about starting The Handmaid's Tale. I tried to write a more normal novel instead because I thought it was just too batty," she tells star Wharton professor Adam Grant on his new WorkLife podcast

Apparently, that's not out of character for the bestselling author. She describes herself as a world-class procrastinator, and confesses her daily routine generally consists of puttering around stressing until mounting anxiety finally drives her to write in the afternoon. She's not alone. Fifteen to 20 percent of us are chronic procrastinators, according to Grant. 

But while Atwood's problem is far from unique. Her solution is just as creative as her novels. And handily, it's also something the rest of us can steal. 

The two warring selves of Margaret Atwood 

Conventional advice on how to beat procrastination focuses on mitigating the negative emotions that usually drive us to procrastinate. Be kind to yourself. Remind yourself how common the problem is. Give yourself more structure. Both Grant and Atwood endorse this research-backed advice, but the author also confesses she leans heavily on her prodigious imagination. 

"I had another name that I grew up with and that gave me two names, so I had a double identity," she says. "So Margaret does the writing and the other one does everything else." 

Atwood's alter ego is "Peggy" (a diminutive derived from Margaret). She is the sensible, strong-willed one of the pair. "Peggy does the laundry," says Atwood. Peggy also tells Margaret to log off her damn Twitter account and get to work. And, apparently, she's pretty good at bossing around distractible Margaret. Atwood claims that, despite her lazy tendencies, she never misses a deadline. 

You have an inner Penny and Margaret too.  

This might sound schizophrenic at first, but Grant insists Atwood's approach is actually backed by science. We all have a "want self" dominated by emotions, he explains, and a "should self," focused on doing the right thing. Moment by moment your want self is generally stronger, but your should self can outwit your want self if you plan ahead. 

Atwood, with her amazing creativity, has just given names to these two competing drives. You can do the same if it helps you conceptualize the impulses pushing you in different directions. But even if that's a little too "batty" for you, you can still leverage your inner Peggy to overpower your inner Margaret. 

Have your 'should self' hide your video games, move the alarm clock across the room, or turn off social media before the urge to procrastinate hits. 

Or get your 'should self' to schedule the tasks you're most likely to procrastinate on ahead of time, so you have a plan to keep you on track. Grant notes that one study showed writers who scheduled writing sessions into their calendars ahead of time were four times more productive than those who trusted their inner Margarets to buckle down on the day. 

All of which means that while some of us might lack the creative flair to develop two full blown personas to beat our procrastination, we can all still acknowledge our competing instincts and act thoughtfully to give our wiser, more disciplined self a leg up. 

Published on: Mar 24, 2020
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