In university my friends and I would call it study-avoiding-behavior or simply ‘sabbing’: hour after hour of talking, sitting and watching birds, or listening to Jacques Brel and drinking French wine. We tried to postpone that moment of grabbing our study books as long as we dared, sometimes until the night before a test. Nowadays it is my largest frustration: spending precious minutes trying to not do the things I want to do. Well actually, it’s my single largest frustration. What frustrates me the most is my resistance and self-judgment towards procrastination.
Why do we procrastinate? Why do we keep ourselves from the things we want to do? Is procrastination a bad thing, or is it a sign from deep within that tells us something important?
I believe there is a message in everything we experience innately. What’s the beauty of procrastination? Can procrastination be your guide?
What is procrastination?
Procrastination is postponing starting or finishing an intended task or action that often includes an effort or something we don’t like much again and again, despite realizing we’ll be worse off. We delay making that serious phone call or cleaning the basement. It’s a common phenomenon among students. Postponing tasks is unfortunately not without consequences: procrastination can result in suboptimal results and failing completing tasks, not to speak of how we feel when we don’t do what we want to do.
Over history, procrastination has gotten the mark of a sin. The Baghavad Ghita, the most influential Hindu text, states that “undisciplined, vulgar, stubborn, wicked, maliscuous, lazy, depressed and procrastinating” were considered so low that they weren’t worthy of being reborn, but rather would go straight to hell. Cicero stated 44BC that “In the conduct of almost every affair slowness and procrastination are hateful.” Thucydides, an Athenian general, mentioned procrastination as the most criticized of character traits, useful only in delaying the commencement of war so as to allow preparations that speed its conclusion.
The next time you judge yourself for procrastinating, realize you’re not the first or only person to do so. Over thousands of years procrastination has been disclaimed a human failure.
The vicious procrastination cycle
There is something you want to do, but you keep yourself from it. Thoughts arise.
“What am I doing?”
“I already failed anyway, so why try starting now?”
“I really really really need to check my Facebook-timeline right now!”
“Let me eat before I start. And clean the kitchen. A wash the windows.”
Other thoughts follow.
“Am I keeping myself from work again?”
“I really should start working now.”
“I’m such a failure.”
Apparently there are two things: the procrastination itself, and the thoughts about the procrastination. By having thoughts about the procrastination, you add another layer to the initial experience which is nothing but you doing –or not doing- something. A neutral action gets charged by a layer of stories.
The problem is, that this layer upon the event itself, creates new layers until you feel like you cannot move anywhere anymore.
“Oh I feel so negative about myself.”
“I shouldn’t talk myself down this way.”
“I feel stuck.”
These layers create more distance between you and the original event. More layers add to the chance you will keep yourself from your original task big time. And so comes into existence the vicious circle of procrastination:
With each cycle, three layers are added between the original event and your mindset of the moment. With each cycle you diverge more from your calm, stable, grounded state.
What are you procrastinating on?
A first question to ask yourself when you realize you are procrastinating, is to wonder whether you are procrastinating your goals, or someone else’s. Is this what you really want to do or are you, on a deeper level, sabotaging your current life and trying to escape into a new life? What is really important? Where do you want to allocate your energy?
When you realize you are procrastinating on the goals someone else gave you, intentionally (like your boss) or unintentionally (like your mother who is –in your mind- still looking over your shoulder as you clean your house), this is a good moment to evaluate whether you want to work on these tasks at this moment at all.
Procrastination as your guide
When you conclude that you are procrastinating because you are working on somebody else’s goals, procrastination is your alley. It teaches you that you are not true to your inner desires. Let your intrinsic motivation guide you to your deepest passions. Which goals and which tasks get you off your chair? What makes you tingle with desire to get going?
If you are excited and long to get a task done but still procrastinate, something else might be going on, on a deeper level in you. In this case, procrastination guides you towards limiting beliefs and fears. When you are able to dive deeper and look beyond procrastination itself, you might be surprised about what you can find. Working on these limiting beliefs will dissolve the reason to procrastinate in the process.
Is procrastination worth it?
When you still judge yourself for procrastinating, ask yourself what the consequences of procrastinating are. Is your procrastination a problem, or is the problem simply in judging procrastinating?
What is the result of your procrastination? A fine? Less income? Less sleep? What will it really cost and is that acceptable? Maybe you earn less money, but instead you enjoyed reading that book you wanted to read for a long time. Maybe you didn’t get an A but you got to meet new friends. And when you have found the value of procrastinating, it may have brought you to a new career path or the discovery of your true passion – and what still stops you.
Procrastination can be tough to experience, but it can turn into your worst enemy when you resist it. By accepting procrastination and letting it guide you towards your passion and inner places that need healing, it can teach you a lot about who you are. Just like everything in life, it’s just a matter of perception.