The beginning is the most important part of the work. – Plato
Generally speaking, I’m not a procrastinator, and tend to live by the philosophy that it’s easier to keep up than to catch up. If anything, I am a precrastinator, doing things before they strictly need to be done. It’s not due to any particularly admirable trait, it’s more of a stress-aversion technique. If I don’t have to worry about disorder, deadlines and uncertainty, I have more peace of mind and am better able to sleep at night. At this stage of life, sleep is in short supply, so I do what I can to help out.
I do, however, occasionally procrastinate. In fact, this week has been a prime example.
Several weeks ago, I read about a concept developed by Greek philosophers called akrasia, which is the state of acting against your better judgment. It’s a fascinating idea that people know that they should do one thing but choose to do another. Akrasia has a couple of different translations, but one interpretation is… procrastination.
I find this to be a thought-provoking topic. And yet, I’ve been messing around all week, feeding myself some line about “considering the concept” as I came up with about a thousand different things to do instead of writing a blog…about procrastination. Oh, the irony.
The act of procrastination says some interesting things about human nature. We all know some basic reasons we put off certain tasks… it could be a lack of motivation, having an aversion to the chore, or that we simply become distracted by something more appealing.
If that’s the case, you may engage in what’s known as productive procrastination, which is efficiently accomplishing every task except the one thing that you actually need to do. (That would be me, putting off cleaning the bathroom by folding laundry. Because I hate it. I just hate it, and no amount of whistling while I work changes that.)
But none of those reasons really applied to the difficulty I was having this week, which led me to the idea that there are some deeper reasons people tend to put things off. In fact, I’ve noticed a curious habit in myself: the things I put off are often the very things I claim to want to do. I don’t think I’m alone in this; I’ve noticed the same pattern of prevarication in others.
A little research bears out this idea, and it suggests that procrastination is the result of psychological resistance to a task. This resistance is created by several different factors- but there are 5 key thought patterns I recognize in myself.
1. Perfectionism- You are your own worst critic, and if you don’t practice self-compassion, you’ll never be satisfied with your efforts. Why bother to begin when you know you won’t be happy with the result?
2. Fear of failure- If you attempt a task and fail, then you’ll be forced to acknowledge your weaknesses. You won’t be able to delude yourself into thinking, “If I wanted to, I could. But I choose not to”.
3. Fear of success- It seems counterintuitive, but sometimes we put things off because we’re worried we’ll do something too well, leading to the assignment of additional, more difficult tasks. If your plate already feels too full, this prospect is less than appealing.
4. The “all-or-nothing” mentality- You’re overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task but feel unable to do it in a series of steps, so you never begin.
5. Self-sabotage- We often resist doing the things we want the most, because when the stakes are high- potentially life-changing- it’s much easier to maintain the status quo.
When I look at the important things I postpone, I find that one or more of these 5 reasons is almost always the basis for delay. If that’s the case, it’s a self-made, fear-based obstacle, and I ask myself the following questions:
1. What, exactly, am I afraid of: the process of doing the task, or its result?
2. If I do this, and it doesn’t turn out the way I’d like, what is the worst possible outcome?
3. If I continue to put this task off, will its incompletion produce a negative consequence? Is that consequence something I can live with?
My conclusion is generally that there’s no good reason to leave the task undone. Since it’s often fear or insecurity that’s preventing me from moving forward, I’m better able to recognize that I am the greatest obstacle to my own success.
This revelation invariably makes me think of the question posed by American pastor Robert Schuller, “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?”
What’s your answer?