Procrastination. The ultimate problem in a society obsessed with productivity and achievement.
It’s a topic I have long found fascinating. Why do we all do something so illogical and detrimental?
The battle to just get shit done plays out non-stop in my own life and that of just about everyone I know. Heck, it is 11 pm and I have been deferring writing this all day. You know the drill.
One of the reasons why procrastination is so prevalent is how misunderstood it is. There’s an incorrect view of it as a character flaw- an internal issue. It’s widely assumed that someone procrastinates because:
1. They are lazy and/or
2. They are bad at whatever it is they are deferring.
In fact, that’s rarely true. If it were, the sudden motivation produced by an impending deadline wouldn’t occur.
A student, having put off an assignment until the last minute, wouldn’t work all night to complete it. An author wouldn’t lock themselves away to complete a 50,000-word manuscript in a short time. Someone who can’t be bothered to clean their apartment wouldn’t happily work 18 hours a day to code their start-up.
If procrastination were a character flaw, we wouldn’t universally be able to conquer it when necessary. In fact, we procrastinate because of two reasons:
1. A lack of a clear idea of what to do and/or
2. A lack of a reason to do it.
Laziness and ineptitude have nothing to do with it, which is why we can reframe procrastination with two simple questions:
1-What do I need to do? (Specific and in detail.)
2-Why do I need to do it? (Again, specific and in detail.)
It’s simple, but getting those two points clear always helps me when I’m struggling with getting something done.
Motivation is fragile, but it is renewable. The best way to renew it is not with Pinterest quotes or hanging cat posters. It’s by clarifying our reasons — ideally on paper.
If there’s no answer to those two question, it can be a sign that this isn’t worth doing.
When I catch myself procrastinating, I take it as a positive opportunity to reassess what I’m doing.
Whenever I am struck by writer’s block, I know what the inevitable cause is; I don’t have a coherent idea of what I should be writing. And/or I have lost touch with why I am doing it. That’s it. Without a vision, it’s impossible to get stuff done.
When we have a purpose and a plan, procrastination doesn’t enter the equation. It goes beyond enjoyment, reaching to fulfillment.
The cause is not laziness. It’s doubt. Confusion. Uncertainty. These are very real feelings which everyone experiences. These emotions cannot be trampled or ignored. Discipline can only take you so far without drive. These feelings have to be faced and resolved.
Sometimes that means taking the requisite time to reassess what we are doing and why. In the day to day mess of emails, paperwork, meetings, and minutiae, a sense of wider purpose can get lost. Even the most meaningful pursuit can become muddied. When that happens, on the micro and macro scale, procrastination is the result.
On the micro scale, when a single task is being put off, moving the consequences to the present is an effective way to get it done.
Victor Hugo forced himself to finish The Hunchback of Notre Dame by instructing his maid to lock away all his clothes until he had completed the manuscript.
Demosthenes shaved half of his head so he would be too embarrassed to go out in public until he had spent 3 months working on his oration.
They had their wider purpose, but they dragged the future consequences of procrastinating into the present.
But on the macro scale, when we find ourselves struggling to do anything, the real answer is to find the necessary sense of purpose.
To connect the current task with our long-term goals and ambitions.
To recognize that this work is part of our role in the world.
Marcus Aurelius put it best in Meditations:
‘People who love what they do wear themselves down doing it, they even forget to wash or eat. Do you have less respect for your own nature than the engraver does for engraving, the dancer for the dance, the miser for money or the social climber for status? When they’re really possessed by what they do, they’d rather stop eating and sleeping than give up practicing their arts.’
The upside of procrastination is that it forces us to step back and ask the big questions.
Why am I doing this? Do I really want to do it? What am I actually doing?
Procrastination is not a sign of laziness or any sort of negative character trait.
The answer of ‘because my boss said so’ or ‘because I need to pass this semester’ can only take us so far. Our brains are smart and are designed to avoid wasting energy on anything which is not required for our survival. And the brain can only be fooled for so long before it rebels.
We can stop seeing procrastination as a sign of weakness and start recognizing its significance.
Procrastination is an important warning sign. In academic situations, it can be a red flag that current studies do not align with long-term aspirations. Or that a dream job is proving to be unfulfilling. It can be a sign of burnout, or of a deep sense of confusion.
This doesn’t mean that spending an evening on Facebook is a springboard for some dramatic new self-knowledge. Instead, it means that we should look at our behavior as part of a bigger picture, and stop labeling natural responses as character flaws.
Procrastination is an intervention staged by your brain.
Some part of you is not buying the current plan.
Some part of you wants a bigger goal, a different direction, a fresh purpose. Listen to it.
This article is a reworked version of one published in March 2017.
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