Why you don't need to feel guilty because "you procrastinate too much"
A quick search on the internet may confirm your hunch: there are a lot of people talking about procrastination, and the questions asked often involve personal tales of guilt, regret and remorse. Here's how (and why) these feelings can be overcome.
Procrastination - Not the problem we think it is
The word "procrastinate" is a heavy one. It brings up negative feelings from people who suffer from its effects.
Perhaps we are wrong about it and it's not what we think it is.
Webster's Dictionary defines the word as follows:
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 acts of "putting off from day to day," "delaying" and "deferring to a future time" are required habits in a world in which we place more demands on our time than ever before. (A "time demand" is a technical term - an internal, individual commitment to complete an action in the future. In other words, it's a self-generated task.)
A number of enabling opportunities (i.e. mobile computing, the Internet and information availability) have converged for the first time in human history, leading us to create more time demands than our ancestors ever did. We simply receive more triggers to forge new time demands on a daily basis, based on the fact that we see more information in a day than our grandparents ever saw in a month.
Plus, we experience far more interruptions than ever before. Advertising, reminders and notifications are just some of the ways we are tempted to stop what we are doing in order to pay attention to something new. The only way to survive is to either delay or create fresh time demands... we just can't do everything now... or even most things. We also have realized that trying to do more thing at one time is a recipe for trouble.
For example, consider 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. However, 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, and not to multitask.
In other words, it's better to "put it off from today," "delay" or "defer to a future time." It's better to procrastinate, according to Webster.
Why is procrastination deemed to be such a problem if, by its dictionary definition, the action is such a necessary and useful one? My research shows that we are using the word improperly - to describe an unwanted feeling rather than a particular action. The word "procrastinate" 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 began, 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 another interpretation is that she is missing the skill of effectively 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.
If she's like most of us, the problem didn't come about because she lacks enough time demands in her life. On the contrary, it's likely that she suffers from one of my research findings: her current methods are no match for the number of time demands she is trying to manage. She's not alone... most of us experience a drastic increase in time demands in early adulthood which we try to manage our lives using teenage, self-taught skills. The result is that we drop the ball.
The solution is to keep monitoring our personal systems for failures like Sam's which indicate that we need to upgrade our skills to the next level in order to align with the increase in time demands we intend to manage.
Failure #2 - Several Delays
Mike has made an internal decision to cut the lawn on Saturday, an activity 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!", further accusing him of being lazy.
What if I add in the fact that it rained on Friday, Monday and Tuesday nights rendering the ground soft and unsafe. Would you still say he was being a lazy procrastinator?
If I add in the fact that his neighbor cut his lawn under identical weather conditions would you change your mind?
And if I add in the fact that the neighbor is known to be a drunkard who sometimes does crazy things... would that help you change your mind once again?
This story outlines the problem we have of accusing someone of procrastination, including ourselves. We are often harsh.
The dictionary definition implies that all we are doing is re-scheduling. If we were to stick to it, 'we say that Mike is simply deferring the activity, which the dictionary says is "procrastinating."
However, there is a modern tendency to judge and accuse him or procrastination. Deeper insight shows that it all depends on which version of his story we believe.
"Procrastination" has become a way to cast blame, but it doesn't need to be seen that way. Users of powerful auto-scheduling programs like SkedPal reshuffle their calendars multiple times each day with the click of a button. As they use the program and get accustomed to its features, they unlearn the old habit of feeling guilty every time they must delay tasks. They become desensitized to all the negative blame to which we attach ourselves when we realign and re-optimize our calendars to match the latest reality.
But you don't need to be a SkedPal user to make a small step in this direction.
Instead, notice that delaying a task is a neutral act. The negative feelings are not mandatory.
Instead they come from our judgmental minds which have decided that something is wrong, and therefore someone is to blame. A close look at the examples above reveal that it's actually our own negative thoughts that are producing the guilty feelings and the blame, and NOT the actual rescheduling.
But what if that insight isn't enough? What if you already know this fact but it hasn't made a difference? What can you do about the recurring negative thoughts if they continue to persist? How can you be free?
Here is my favorite method used in situations like this.
I use Byron Katie's methods of dealing with stressful thoughts outlined in full on her website (The Work) and in her books. Her approach is simple.
Write down the unwanted, stressful thought, preferably in simple, childlike terms. Then ask the following questions, taking time to write down the answers slowly and carefully, meditating on the answers:
1. Is it true?
2. Can I absolutely know that it's true?
3. How do I react when I believe that thought? (i.e. how do I feel?)
4. Who would I be without that thought? (i.e. how would I feel if the thought had not occurred, or if I had no belief in it.)
Once that part is done, find 3 factual, evidence-based examples where the opposite thought is as true, or truer than the original, unwanted thought.
For example: If the original thought is "I am a lazy person who gets little done," the opposite thought (called a "turnaround") might be "I am NOT a lazy person."
Evidence -- I have two degrees, I raise three children successfully, I have never missed a deadline on a project.
It's a simple process, and for more details, Katie has books and free worksheets, plus a lot of videos of other people doing "The Work" - see www.TheWork.org
Over time, my experience has been that using this process causes recurring, habitual stressful thoughts to lose their emotional sting. This is especially true when different variations of the unwanted thought arise e.g. "my mother should never have called me lazy." The cumulative effect has been remarkable for me.
Procrastination has become more than the bare reality: the need to reschedule your calendar in a world of increasing more time demands, interruptions and information overload. Instead, procrastination is a heavy blame-filled feeling.
This feelings can disappear with a single insight. However, for many people, the unwanted thoughts that have become a habit pattern that is real, but thankfully not mandatory. One way to interrupt the habit is to intercept the thought when it occurs with a pen and piece of paper/laptop/smartphone. Complete the four steps + turnaround process as quickly as possible and repeat the steps for all variations of the thought.
If it sounds a bit like mind-training, well yes... it is. But it's about engaging more than the mind.
Now, when I have a stressful thought, my fingers start itching... they want to jump into writing or typing right away so that I can recover my peaceful mind... especially when I think I should be doing something now, and not procrastinating.
P.S. I wrote an earlier version of this article for the Stepcase Lifehack website.