On Procrastination

“God has promised forgiveness to your repentance, but He has not promised tomorrow to your procrastination.”
― St. Augustine of Hippo

Along with the decluttering reading and course I embarked upon earlier this year, and in part to understand the root of the “accumulation of things and piles,” I also dove into books on procrastination. It may also be that reading the books was just another way of procrastinating doing things that are of higher value to me.

I knew the excess piles of stuff I had to put away before guests came over had to do with procrastination when I read this brilliant line in a book this past summer, “Clutter is the physical manifestation of procrastination.” Say it out loud; it’s fun. I wish I could remember the source of that sentence, but I read so many books on the topic, and googling it, I find it’s been said by many. Regardless, there is so much truth in that statement. Every pile of things you look at, every stack of papers, every unopened email is a decision deferred.

Julie Morgenstern’s classic book, “Organizing from the Inside Out,” actually goes deeper than a lot of the trendy decluttering books today because she delves into the psychological obstacles behind the clutter and therefore, also the decisions deferred, and ultimately- the procrastination. For example: a need for abundance because you fear scarcity, a fear of success, or my personal favorite—you desire to be a conquerer of chaos. So if you grew up feeling out of control or helpless, you like the feeling of being able to let things get messy and know that you can then come to the rescue and clean it up. Constantly rescuing yourself from disorganization gives you a false sense of empowerment. Her suggestion for that one: “You need to substitute a more head-on approach for dealing with the larger, more perplexing problems you’re evading. Then you won’t need to create chaos to keep you distracted.” Once again- evasion is at the heart of things.

I also picked up David Allen’s famous “Get Things Done,” and though I had to return it to the library before I finished it, again, it was really about taking action. He points out that a big part of your psyche has to keep track of all of the “open loops” and detracts from other thoughts. Your mind is basically always working on all of the undecided things. “But that kind of recursive spinning in your mind has now proven to reduce your capacity to think and perform, and there’s a limit to how much unresolved stuff it can contain before it blows a fuse,” writes Allen. I’m pretty sure I’ve blown a few fuses by now. Allen’s solution hinges upon systems of capturing, clarifying, organization, reflecting, and engaging. But he doesn’t really get into the psychology behind procrastination.

“Eat that Frog” is another well known book on how to stop procrastination. The basic premise is that you should concentrate on your most important, high-value task(your frog), do it well, and complete it. Usually it’s the task that you most procrastinate that has the most potential to have the greatest positive impact on your life. So, a favorite writer, Robert Benson, that I heard speak at Princeton last year, spoke about how he had the cleanest house and the shiniest silverware the year he was supposed to be writing his book. We will find any other thing to do to avoid that task…the frog. But why?

Well, what actually got me thinking about this today and reprocessing all of the recent books I read was an article I read first thing this morning by Charlotte Lieberman in the Times entitled, “Why You Procrastinate (It Has Nothing To Do With Self-Control). Since I love articles that reassure me I’m not lazy, I read it with great interest. This article had me at etymology. She explains that while the Latin derivation means “to put off until tomorrow,” the Greek actually takes it a step further, “doing something against our better judgement.” She goes on to present procrastination as self-harm, and emotional rather than a time management issue:

Procrastination isn’t a unique character flaw or a mysterious curse on your ability to manage time, but a way of coping with challenging emotions and negative moods induced by certain tasks — boredom, anxiety, insecurity, frustration, resentment, self-doubt and beyond.

So to deal with our emotions in the short term, we put off whatever is causing us the negative emotion. And…if our maladaptive habit- say binge-watching comedy specials on Netflix, creates a positive emotion- then we’re more likely to repeat that habit. Meanwhile, every time we come back to the task we’ve been procrastinating, we return with even more negative emotions of shame. And so the cycle goes. We continually put our short term emotions above our long terms goals, according to Lieberman.

Just like Cal Newport suggested really investing in and cultivating new, high-quality leisure activities when you are doing your digital declutter (see my last post), you need to replace your poor coping mechanisms (procrastinating and all its maladaptive habits) with new, better coping mechanisms. The suggestions by Lieberman include self-forgiveness and self-compassion.

I think this article is worth a read because it offers something that really feels new on a very old topic- procrastination. It’s not about doing, but feeling. After all, we’re not computers- we’re human beings. We are complicated and saturated with experience and emotions that wire together in intricate ways that aren’t always simple to untangle. There is no simple algorithm to make things right. But feelings need to be heard. If a child is having a meltdown, you don’t send them to be alone in their room. You don’t tell them to “just stop crying!” You don’t distract them with a lollipop (OK- sometimes that is necessary- like on airplanes). I’ve found the most compassionate (and effective) way to get my own daughter to calm down is to just say, “I’m here. I’m listening.” Just like physical pain in our bodies is trying to tell us something we shouldn’t ignore, before we push forward with our self-improvement, maybe we need to stop and listen to our souls. Under all our undone to-do lists, shame, clutter, and the dozens of ways we numb ourselves, she is probably just waiting to be heard.

3 thoughts on “On Procrastination”

  1. Great thoughts! I wanted to tell you that before I put it off.

    ““Get Things Done,” and though I had to return it to the library before I finished it,” – I don’t know if you meant that ironically, but it made me LOL.

    I have a distinct memory of a minister friend’s comment when I marveled at his clean desk. “When my secretary told me that every pile (clothes, papers, whatever) was a delayed decision, I decided to decide and to clean the piles off my desk.” I still have many piles. I am my own worst enemy. No one but me is letting the piles form and grow. So, the question is, why don’t I go ahead and make decisions. Looking at my desk right now at piles. Why are you still here? Fear of failure? Overwhelmed by options? Poor organization? Perfectionism? All that, and more, I’m afraid.

    1. Yes- I totally recognized the irony in the statement about returning the book before finishing it. Thought I’d just leave there like that though without pointing it out. I’m sorry for never getting back to you about the conference idea! Very bad about procrastinating email replies. Thank you for the suggestion! Any others- send my way. I think Beth was also looking to come back and attend one.

  2. It would be great if we could find one to attend together again! The one I sent to you is not an area in which I do much writing and is highly competitive. I need something broad, cheap, and easy.

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