We procrastinate when we make our life worse through postponing things. Postponing by itself is a useful and necessary strategy for living. Procrastinating is overdosing on postponing, and the symptom is the experience of a life cheapened thereby. For many of us, procrastination is a habitual way to cope with what we think will be unpleasant tasks that lie in otherwise appropriate directions for us. It points up our magical belief that there will surely come a better time to do the task, one when we will want to do it. Maybe, even, it will do itself while we’re asleep or not watching. Or just go away.

Yet, so often there really are best times for doing things. Like before the deadline. Procrastinating then means chances missed, last minute rush and poor performance, feeling weighed down, hopeless, inadequate, and guilty. This contrasts with feeling free and on top of life. We know it will be harder in the long run to put things off, but it’s easier in the short run. So we put them off.

Procrastination shows lack of skill in handling a condition that bedevils us all – having desires or wants that act over different time scales. I want to do well in this class, which requires that I study, go to class, and do the assignments. I also want to talk to this friend. My motivation for the class seems abstract, in the future, a “mere” idea or thought. The friend is here, right now, and my desire to talk is vivid. Indeed, talking is pleasant, while studying might feel unpleasant. So as you learn to handle your habits of procrastinating, you get better at living your life with a healthy balance of values – both long-term and short-term ones. When motives or values conflict, perhaps because they act on different time scales and with different levels of intensity, you will choose and act in ways that make your life work for you over the long run and by your highest values.

Even though we know we’re hurting the quality of our life by procrastinating, we use many tactics to keep from changing. We can challenge each of these tactics as soon as we notice it. We can see the long-range pain that the short-range pleasure will cost, and employ that vision to motivate acting in our own best interests. Most of the time.

For example, a favorite tactic is the nice, clean decision to do it “tomorrow,” or at some other “more appropriate” time. We’ll “feel like doing it then.” For now, we need to relax or maybe get more information. We’ll do it after we’ve done something else, perhaps even something “important” like another task. The decision to do it in the future reduces anxiety, because after all we’ve decided to do it. We can even fantasize doing it tomorrow. But isn’t it curious how easily such self-talk comes when we really don’t want to do the task at hand, no matter how much we may want to have done it?

Some of us promise ourselves we’ll do it later or start it tomorrow and fantasize doing it so often that we grow cynical about the integrity of our self-talk. Challenging these decisions when we catch ourselves making them means shouting, “This is the time! Right now!” True, I don’t want to. But there just will be no better time. No time of inspiration. Tomorrow I will feel just like I do today. Doing it now will motivate me better than thinking about doing it. Despite all the things wrong with now, even though I feel sure this is not a good time, this is it!

Another disarming tactic is simply to admit to being “a procrastinator.” It is, after all, a loveable human trait to be by nature one who cannot do unpleasant tasks on time. And what could anyone expect of a procrastinator? Procrastination, of course. The trouble is it’s a lie. People who habitually procrastinate can break their habits and do things earlier. Labeling our self a procrastinator suggests we have no choice and thus aren’t responsible for our procrastinating. Yet, however we try to wish it away, we have a choice and are a cause in our actions and inactions. A subtler form of this tactic is to label procrastination as a reflection of our great patience with ourselves, and everyone knows patience is a virtue.

Another tactic arises from having noticed that at some time in the past we worked well under the pressure of an immediate deadline. This memory then comes up to justify a decision to procrastinate. Some of us can selectively remember one or two successful postponements and forget hundreds of procrastinations. Honest observation, recall, and self-talk is the route to a rich life.

Procrastination may also arise from perfectionism – fear of being responsible for failure or less than perfect results. Here, putting the task off to the last minute ensures that it will be done in a rush, and how could anyone expect rushed work to be good? It gives me an excuse by which to justify failing to live up to my demands on myself. The solution is to stop making demands, to accept that I’ll disappoint myself and others many times, that I am responsible for the quality of the job, regardless of whether it was rushed or not, just as I am responsible for rushing it. Excuses and justification do not change results; instead they blind us to our responsibility for the results we do obtain.

Beyond that, why do I have to do perfect work anyway? Whoever invented to concept of perfection blighted the human race! Of course, it’s nice to do well and often has good consequences. But am I not human? And don’t all humans perform with a variety of competencies as they go through life? What is so special about me that I won’t allow myself to live the way all humans must live?

Another way to avoid responsibility for procrastinating is to claim that the task itself is responsible: It’s “too” hot to mow the lawn; she’s “too” talkative to be friendly with; it’s “too” cold to shovel the walk; this book is “too” dull to read; I’m “too” tired to do the dishes; it will cost “too” much money; it’s “too” late to read you a story; there are “too” many people here for me to speak up; and that all-purpose, never-fail lament — “It’s too hard!”

What, exactly have we done by inserting that magic word, too? In its absence all these statements are presumably true: It is hot to mow the lawn, it is late, . . . , it is hard. These facts are part of the information useful in deciding to do something, not to do it, or postpone it. Also, without the word too, we imply that the decision is in our hands, where it actually rests. Adding the too implies that we have no choice; we cannot possibly do it; and we are not responsible. The conditions of hotness, lateness, and hardness are responsible. This use of too is a verbal cop-out from admitting a responsibility which in fact we cannot escape. How much more honest to say, “It’s a hot day to mow the lawn and I don’t want to do it.” This can be followed with, “I choose to postpone it,” or “I choose to mow it.” Either way the choice and its consequences are mine.

These rationalizations for procrastinating are lies and distortions that we have learned bring short-term rewards. And, unfortunately for the quality of our lives sometimes, psychologists have shown over and over that short-term rewards affect human behavior more strongly than long-term rewards. So the long-term motives have to be kept firmly in mind and habitually worked toward if they are to be reached. For example, at the moment of procrastination we might think that the job could just disappear or someone else (our fairy godmother?) might do it. Then it’s a matter of checking quickly on the reality of the situation. There are no fairy godmothers; we can challenge our reliance on them to help us. Just how likely is the job to go away? How likely is someone else to do it if we don’t? Would it be OK with us if someone did? Would that solution keep us going in a good direction? Perhaps it would. Then postponing would not be procrastinating. But if not, vigorous challenging can reduce the effect of our magical wishful thinking.

At the heart of our procrastinating lies the task we don’t want to do. It is possible to live so as either to increase or decrease the unpleasantness of these unwanted tasks. One approach is to put off some pleasant activity until after the task is done. Thus the pleasant activity is a short-term reward for the unpleasant task, whose own long-term reward is not strong enough to motivate by itself. Sound practice is often to work first and play later, as reward. Procrastination – play first and work later – is just the opposite. How often do we not even enjoy our playing when the procrastinated task is still hanging over our head?

Why must you dramatize how horrible this task is? If you stop catastrophizing, or even evaluating, the task, you’re likely to find that it isn’t so bad after all. There’s no unpleasantness inherent in changing diapers, writing letters, exercising, eating less, or whatever. We bring the resistance to the task. After all, we’ve already chosen the goal – the clean bottom on the baby – in whose way the task lies. As we give up fighting the task and move toward choosing it, it’s amazing how its unpleasantness fades away. People who choose to stop fifty years of smoking cold turkey sometimes find it’s not so bad. People actually come to enjoy doing things that earlier they dreaded, just by stopping the fighting and instead approaching them in a spirit of interest, appreciation, play, blessing, or love. For example, I love doing dishes and playing the piano. It wasn’t always so!

Many of us procrastinate out of low tolerance for frustration. Americans are a spoiled lot, by and large. We indulge ourselves. We want what we want when we want it. If a task doesn’t yield to a short burst of work, we conclude that it’s too hard and abandon it. Most of the richest rewards in life don’t yield that easily. Yes, it’s hard, but not too hard, a truth worth repeating over and over. Whatever our plight, there are lots of people on this planet who would gladly trade places with us.

We are not inadequate to the job at hand, and even if we were, that would not make us inadequate people. It would make us human people who simply had failed at something they wanted to do. Failure is unfortunate, but it’s a common experience of members of our human race. Sometimes we don’t even want to admit that we are members of the human race, because its members are so fallible. Fallibility is OK for others, but not for us.

Some of us procrastinate as a subtle way of rebelling against authority or doing what’s expected of us. The problem is, by definition, we are the ones who suffer the consequences, not the authority. The authority rarely gives a damn about us – most authorities are used to people screwing up. It’s always our life we are living, so when we foul it up, we get to live with the results.

Some of us take on so many problems as to require a super-person to do them all. We then put off major problems in what looks like procrastination. But we can’t get them all done and prove to be ordinary, rather than super-people. Here the place to look is at what motivates us to pile so many things onto our plate. Is it grandiosity – no one but me could handle them so well? Is it that I’ve defined my worth by what I do – I have no value unless I’m accomplishing something? Such motives are better challenged forcibly: “My grandiosity is neither necessary, justified, nor working.” “People don’t need to be loved, appreciated, and respected, either all the time, or by everyone who knows them.” Furthermore, accepting all the problems that somebody offers us is a poor tactic to assure that person’s esteem. Who loves their doormat? And if you are the doormat to somebody who actually wants a doormat instead of a friendship, why are you still hanging out with them? What’s wrong with being another human being instead of a doormat?

People who increase their work-loads sometimes feel overwhelmed. “All the work seems important, all must be done at once. But I can’t do it all at once – so what will I do?” This leads to worry, anxiety, lamentation, inaction, anger, depression, you-name-it, but not to work. Overwhelmed states require calmly setting priorities, perhaps quite arbitrarily, handling things one after another, without agonizing over the consequences of deadlines that are missed. Only when you are out from under the crunch can you look back to see how you let the work-load get so big, and take steps to keep it from getting so big again.

Here are a hodgepodge of techniques for doing unpleasant tasks: Ask a friend to put upbeat written reminders where you’ll be sure to see them, or put them there yourself. When you do the task, reward yourself with something you’ll enjoy that you have made contingent on doing the task. Attend to your triumphs and share them. Set medium-term goals and celebrate reaching them. You can “punish” yourself for not reaching them by sending money and a letter of praise to an organization you especially hate. (The agreement to do this is best audited by a friend.) Let other people know of your commitments, the day-by-day targets you set for yourself, and the results of each day’s efforts. Change the stimulus for quitting the task from your thoughts (“How hard this is, I don’t want to do it, how much fun something else would be.”) to something less immediately under your control. For example, give yourself the opportunity to quit or take a break only every twenty minutes when a timer goes off. If possible, reset the timer when it rings and keep working. Increase the time between rings. This uses doing to motivate more doing, and doing is a more powerful motive than wanting, worrying, or sulking.

What are you going to let be the boss in your life – your long-term best interests or your immediate wants? What are you willing to commit to? Will you commit to more than just what you want right now? Are you willing to give your word that you will do what it takes to achieve your considered goals? Then, when the motives get more complicated, are you willing to remember your word and be true to it? And for no reason except that you gave your word? And you’ve learned that keeping your word makes for a better life – better by your own highest values! Are you willing to cultivate a strong integrity to your commitments, to your word? Not a neurotic integrity: “Oh, I said I would wash the dishes so I must wash the dishes, martyr that I am!” But a calm acceptance, “I said I would wash the dishes, so I’m going to.”

We know procrastination when we experience postponing in excess. Super-people don’t procrastinate. If we demand that we never procrastinate, we are likely to have to give up postponement. And postponement is a useful tool for rich living. Compulsively doing things as soon as they come up or excessively simplifying life so there’s nothing to postpone are poor routes to satisfaction. Thus, if we’re living as richly as possible, some of our postponing will prove later to have been an error. We will have procrastinated! That’s part of being human, one more of the many mistakes we might as well accept completely, after (not before!) we’ve made them, so we can get past them and get on with living.

You deserve better than to run your life by “I don’t want to do this.” You are sufficiently in control of your choices simply to do it, regardless of whether or not you feel like it. You deserve to have a life that is successful by your highest values, not simply one that is least uncomfortable over the short term. With work and practice, you can change from a habit of procrastinating to one of getting things done.

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