“I’m feeling guilty because I procrastinate too much”
A quick search on Twitter confirmed my hunch. There are a lot of people talking about procrastination, and the tweets I surveyed are filled with feelings of guilt, regret and remorse.
The word “procrastinate” is a heavy one, and I believe that people are trying to solve the problem the wrong way, leaving them with baggage that just won’t seem to go away no matter what they do.
Procrastination: Not a Problem!
Perhaps procrastination simply isn’t the problem we think it is.
Webster’s Dictionary defines the word as follows:
procrastinate: To put off from day to day; to delay; to defer to a future time
Anyone who is skillful at managing their time will tell you that the act of “putting off from day to day,” “delaying” and “deferring to a future time” are required skills in today’s information age.
With technology has come an increased number of demands on our time, and a variety of ways in which we allow ourselves to be interrupted, reminded or prompted to make new commitments. The only smart tactic to take is to put things off until later.
Take the simple example of checking your email Inbox.
In fifteen minutes it’s possible to scan 100 new items, while making 30 instant decisions to take further action. It’s impossible to act on all 30 items immediately. Instead, it’s a much better idea to focus on a single item at a time, rather than trying to split one’s attention between multiple tasks.
In other words, it’s better to “put it off from today,” “delay” or “defer to a future time” than to try to do multiple actions at the same time, in the very next moment.
Why is procrastination deemed to be such a problem if, by its definition, the action is such a benign and even useful one? I suspect that when we call a problem by its incorrect name, we prevent ourselves from seeing clear, common-sense solutions. The word “procrastination” is being used to label the wrong problem.
The Real Problem
To understand the real problem, let’s look at some cases in which actual failures occurred, and why they had nothing to do with procrastination.
Failure #1 – A Missed Due Date: Sam’s homework was due on Monday morning, and she waited until late on Sunday evening to get started. After she started she found out that the assignment required at least 20 hours of work, which she could not complete in time. The assignment was handed in late, and her tardiness cost her a full letter grade according to the rules stated in the syllabus.
Analysis: Most might call Sam a procrastinator, but I only see that she has a weakness in scheduling her time. The failure started by not properly estimating the size of the task, and continued when she didn’t use her calendar to determine the best time to start the assignment.
In this case what we call procrastination is actually a problem with the discipline that time management experts would call “personal scheduling.”
Failure #2 – Several Delays: Mike has made an internal decision to cut the lawn on Saturday, an activity that he despises. On the appointed day, other events intervene, and he decides to cut the lawn on Sunday instead.
Sunday rolls around and once again he decides to postpone his date with the lawnmower until Wednesday.
On Wednesday he decides that next Friday would be better, and he once again foregoes the much needed chore.
On Friday he finally cuts the entire lawn in one effort.
Analysis: Was Mike procrastinating? Many would say yes, and they might strongly imply that he was just being lazy.
If I add in the fact that it rained on Friday, Monday and Tuesday nights rendering the ground soft and unsafe for a cut, would it be said that he was still being lazy, and procrastinating?
If I add in the fact that his neighbour cut his lawn under similar conditions would you change your mind? And if I add in the fact that the neighbour is known to be a drunkard who sometimes does crazy things help you to change your mind again?
The problem with the way we use procrastination is that it has come to mean much more than the dictionary definition, and now brings with it an accusing tone filled with blame.
If we were to use the dictionary definition of the word we’d conclude that he was simply re-scheduling. The fact is that he deferred the activity, and according to the dictionary, he was procrastinating. According to our common-day usage of the word, it all depends on whether or not he was to blame for the delay.
The charge of being a “procrastinator” that we lay against ourselves and others has a become a way to cast blame.
The negative judgements and feelings related to procrastinating don’t come from the delays, the putting off or the postponements. Instead they come from our judgemental minds which have decided that something or someone is to blame. A close look at the examples above reveal that it’s actually the negative thoughts that are producing the guilty feelings and the blame, and NOT the actual rescheduling.
What can we do about these negative thoughts? What can we do if we continue to blame ourselves and others for procrastinating?
There are a variety of approaches that we can use, but this is my personal favorite. Byron Katie’s methods of dealing with stressful thoughts is the method that I have used for the past 4 years. (Her entire approach can be found at her website.)
Her thesis is simple, and is a good match for the problem of blame.
Stress is never caused by life circumstances, but instead it originates in the thoughts that we have, and whether or not we believe them.
In the example above, Sam’s assignment was late (a fact,) but her thought that “I’m a procrastinator” would only cause stress if she believed it.
On Katie’s site, there is a powerful and simple process. It involves dealing with stressful thoughts by first writing them down and then applying 4 questions and what she calls a turnaround statement (an opposing thought.)
The result of using her process on stressful, judgmental thoughts about procrastination is a sense of relief in which statements like “I should stop procrastinating” might still recur, but without the stress that usually comes.
While this kind of habit might not seem to be related to time management, there are so many who struggle with thoughts of procrastination that if they could get past their own thinking, it would help bring peace of mind — which is the goal of every time management system.
So, if you think you have an issue with procrastination, start by separating your actions from your thoughts. Deal with your skill at scheduling if you need to. According to the dictionary, you are probably doing the right thing by procrastinating.
If you find that you have blaming thoughts that keep returning, and that they are causing stress, use Katie’s method to free yourself to be as productive as you can be without this harmful habit.