Mark Twain jokingly attributed to Benjamin Franklin a celebration of procrastination – “Never put off till to-morrow what you can do day after to-morrow just as well.”
Joking aside, I’ve come to appreciate my own instances of procrastination as a deep probe into what my mind shies away from. If you’re like me, when you find yourself procrastinating, it’s almost always because your subconscious mind finds the task overwhelming, unpleasant, or unclear. Here’s how you can reframe that procrastination from something you might be ashamed of to a source of breakthroughs, both personal and in your practice.
Why Do We Procrastinate?
Some people think of procrastination as a big problem, they say e.g.: “There are many ways to avoid success in life, but the most sure-fire just might be procrastination. Procrastinators sabotage themselves. They put obstacles in their own path. They actually choose paths that hurt their performance.” They quote researchers who say that procrastination can be a problem of self-regulation, and a maladaptive lifestyle. If you’re a serial procrastinator across most or all aspects of your life, the above may be true for you, and you may want to work on it e.g. in therapy.
If, like me, you only procrastinate on occasion, I find the following more appropriate: “Instead of considering procrastination as a big problem, a habit you need to break, or a hardwired part of your personality, think of it as an alarm, or a red flag—a sign that something is missing. Something is preventing you from getting started and getting things done.”
My Own Experience with Procrastination
Ask people who know me, and they’ll describe me as meticulous, detail-oriented, analytical, hard-working, and a perfectionist (at least when it comes to my own work). In most cases, I do tend to be on that side of the human spectrum. But not always. On occasion, I find myself putting off doing something over and over.
When I’m supposed to get started working on the dreaded task, I’ll read my email first. Then, I’ll check if any of my blog posts have a comment that needs to be moderated or replied to. I may look for things on my to-do list that I scheduled for tomorrow or next week and do them now instead. All this and more, just so I can justify to myself why I didn’t do the one thing I really should have been doing. Procrastination much?
Over the years, I’ve enquired with myself why I do this. Here’s what I’ve come up with. It’s almost always because (a) I don’t really want to do the task at hand – maybe it’s something I was told I have to do which I don’t agree with, (b) it seems like it will take too much effort for not enough reward, or (c) I’m not sure how to do it, or have a sense of overwhelm about all the moving bits and pieces involved.
How to Use Your Occasional Procrastination to Reach Breakthrough Results
First, recognize that when deciding what to do next (and what not to do), your brain processes a lot more data than you’re ever present to. However, while you’re not conscious of much of that processing, you can recognize the outcome – procrastination – and think deeply about why you haven’t started working on the task at hand. This will let you access at least some of that subconscious processing.
Albert Einstein is quoted to have said: “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.” Here, the question is, “Why am I procrastinating and not just getting this done?” Once you know the answer to that, you can start solving the problem.
It’s a task someone else assigned to you that you don’t want to do:
If you realize that the task at hand is something someone else wants you to do (e.g., a spouse, friend, or boss), you have a choice to make. You can tell that person, “the assigner,” that you’re not going to do it, explain how you came to that decision, and deal with their reaction.
This can be unpleasant (and in the case of a boss, potentially job-ending, though in that case you’re probably in the wrong position working for the wrong person). However, if you keep the conversation respectful and your mind open, you could potentially convince the assigner to let it go, or she may convince you that the task really is important, and that it’s important that you be the one to do it. However it turns out, this process will likely upgrade your relationship to the assigner and/or to the task.
The other option here is to accept that the task actually is important enough, for you, to justify doing it, and doing it now. This may be e.g. because you gain a new appreciation of how important it is for you spouse that you do it. Personally, I don’t enjoy cooking, but having dinner ready on the table on those days when my wife comes home late from a long day at her practice makes a huge difference for her. Making that difference is important to me. Enough to override the “I don’t wanna.”
It seems like a lot of work for not enough reward:
In my experience, my to-do list acquires new tasks on a daily basis. In many cases, I add things to the list without really considering how much work they entail and how much of a payoff they offer. They could simply seem like something that might be worth doing, and while I don’t have enough time and bandwidth in the moment to make an informed decision, I don’t want to not do it simply because I forgot about it.
As a result, I’m fairly confident that at least a dozen tasks on my current to-do list may turn out to have been just “shiny objects” that were worth considering, but that will turn out to not be worth doing.
In this situation, the thing to do is to have that second, deeper look, and decide if I should simply delete them from my list.
This lets me add things to my list today that may just seem to be of potential interest, without fearing that I’ll overwhelm my future self. It then lets me remove from my list, with no guilt, those things that are not important enough given the likely reward.
Alternatively, that deeper look may result in a new realization that the payoff is a lot bigger than I thought, and/or that the level of required effort is less than I feared. In this case, the problem is solved and I proceed to just do it (and no, I don’t have to have Nike shoes on :)).
It seems overwhelming or I don’t know what/how to do it:
This last category is where the real reward awaits. By procrastinating, my brain told me that it doesn’t know how and what it needs to do. What I do here is ask myself the following questions:
- What, if anything, do I need to know that I don’t already know, before doing the task?
- What, if anything, do I need to have in place that I don’t already have in place, before doing the task?
- What small step can I do now that will “move the needle” toward getting the task done, and what would be the step after that?
Then, I figure out how to learn those things that I come up with in response to question #1, strategize on how I can put in place those things that I come up with in response to question #2, and, most importantly, I break the single overwhelming task into chewable pieces that I know I can start working on. It’s like the joke, “How do you eat an elephant?” “One bite at a time.”
The Bottom Line on Reframing Procrastination into a Powerful Breakthrough Tool
If you occasionally find yourself procrastinating on what seem to be important tasks, don’t beat yourself up over it, and don’t feel guilt or shame about it. It’s a perfectly human place to be, on occasion.
Instead, identify which flavor of procrastination you’re confronting, and based on that identification, figure out your best path forward. It may still not be easy, but at least you’ll know what to do and why you should do it now (even if it’s removing the task from your list).
If doing all this on your own still seems overwhelming, having an accountability partner, mentor, or coach can be very helpful. If you decide that coaching is right for you, I’d be honored if you contact me to find out if I may be a good fit for your coaching needs