Do or do not? Procrastination’s grip.

The ancient Greeks had a word, “akrasia,” that meant doing something against one’s better judgment. To put it another way, akrasia is a failure to do what one has intended to do and what one ought to do. Our modern word for this is procrastination.

Here are the things I do when I’m procrastinating about doing something else:

  • Check my email
  • Tell myself I can read one (just one!) chapter of a book
  • Call someone
  • Do some laundry
  • Do the crossword puzzle or Sudoko
  • Organize my desk

Here are some of the things that I should be doing instead:

  • Grading my students’ homework
  • Writing for this blog
  • Catching up on work projects
  • Scanning the documents that have been sitting in a box for 3 years

Why is it so hard to get started on these tasks? I know that I can’t really relax with the book or the puzzle while these other things are hovering in the background, yet even that unsettled feeling can’t always move me to begin.

Having just finished teaching a unit on time management to my students, I know that  researchers characterize people like me as either avoidance or arousal procrastinators. Avoidance procrastinators tend to be self-critical, often have a maladaptive sense of perfectionism, and possess irrational beliefs about the outcome that would result from actually doing the thing they avoid. Arousal procrastinators, on the other hand, claim to work best under pressure (which is usually not true) and seek the thrill that comes from doing things at the last minute.

I’m pretty sure that I’m an avoidance procrastinator, although I do have to admit that I get a little adrenaline rush when I’m working up against a deadline. We avoidance procrastinators often believe that unless our work is absolutely perfect and liked by everyone, our self-esteem will be threatened. On other tasks, we switch into avoidance mode because they require us to do something that is out of our comfort zone, and we question our ability to even accomplish them.2016-04-02 12.50.04

Those of us who struggle with procrastination could try jolting ourselves out of it with the Nike motto, “Just do it.” Or we could use Brian Tracy’s metaphor, “Eat That Frog!” which comes from a Mark Twain quote: “If the first thing you do each morning is to eat a live frog, you go through the day with the satisfaction of knowing that that is probably the worst thing that is going to happen to you all day long.” In other words, get the tough stuff done first and then it’s out of the way.

Those tricks might work for some of us some of the time, but it’s important to realize that procrastination isn’t just laziness or lack of willpower. For some people it can have lifelong consequences, such as an inability to make and achieve career or financial goals, a tendency to anxiety and depression, and poorer physical health. Fortunately, procrastination can be treated with cognitive behavior therapies such as REBT (rational emotive behavior therapy). REBT asks you to imagine doing the thing you’ve been avoiding, and then predict and label the emotion that you would experience with it. It’s like a trial run for the real thing.

Practicing mindfulness might also help. A study done by Sirois and Tosti showed that higher mindfulness scores were associated with lower levels of procrastination and with more unconditional self-acceptance. It may seem counter-intuitive that the present-moment awareness of mindfulness would be beneficial to procrastinators who already have difficulty being future-oriented and goal-directed. It’s true that many procrastinators are too focused on short-term pleasure and current rewards, but that’s not the same thing as mindfulness. When we practice mindful acceptance of our present experience, we can accept the discomfort of the difficult task and also generate more self-compassion while we do it.

As Thich Nhat Hanh has written,

“When fear manifests, we want to have the seed of mindfulness also manifest to embrace it. So we have two energies present — the first is the energy of fear, and the second is the energy of mindfulness. The fear receives a bath of mindfulness and becomes a little bit weaker before it drops back down to  the depths of our consciousness in the form of a seed.”


On one of the roads I frequently travel, there is a depression where a manhole cover is set too low. You can tell who drives this way all the time by whether or not they swerve a little to avoid it — people in the know will never actually hit the hole.

imageThat started me thinking about the metaphorical potholes in our lives: the sore spots and wounds we just avoid because it would be hurtful or damaging to go over them. This might be the relationship where something isn’t quite right, but it feels too dangerous to address the problem. Or it could be the job that isn’t satisfying but it’s too overwhelming to think about looking for a new one. It could be the health problem that isn’t going away, but we don’t want to hear what the doctor might say.
The human ability to avoid confrontation is phenomenal. We would rather drive around the pothole, live with superficiality in a relationship, take an aspirin for our pain, or trudge reluctantly into work every day than take the necessary action to live more fully and joyfully. I’ve only known a few people who have moved on from a situation before it got totally miserable — the people who see the pothole and immediately find a way to get it filled.
The rest of us make the calculation — is it worth tearing up the road to fill the hole? What if we open things up, and find more damage underneath? Can we wait for somebody else to fill the hole for us? Do we really want to see whatever is in that hole?
I’m reading a book called The Weird Sisters, by Eleanor Brown, in which one of the characters says, “We all have stories we tell ourselves. We tell ourselves we are too fat, or too ugly, or too old, or too foolish. We tell ourselves these stories because they allow us to excuse our actions, and they allow us to pass off the responsibility for things we have done — maybe to something within our control, but anything other than the decisions we have made.”
What story are you telling yourself to excuse inaction, to pass off responsibility for the things you could be doing? Do you tell yourself that you are too old to make a career change, or that the problems in a relationship aren’t your fault, or that someone else will come to rescue you?
The start of spring often motivates us to clean our houses, air out our rooms, and prepare our gardens for new plants. It might also be a good time to clear out the old habits of mind that aren’t helping you live your fullest life. What’s dragging you down, what’s energizing you? Can you use the clarity of your nice clean windows to see a hole that needs filling?