What Are You Waiting For?
Updated: Apr 19
I met one of my dearest friends in graduate school. We bonded over morning lectures that tried to put us to sleep, shared financial struggles, relationship foibles and terrible lunches at the cathedral across the parking lot. We were both full-time graduate students just trying to understand why we had signed up for two years of this in the first place. Long beyond graduate school and lives apart, Margery and I are still so much alike, but different in one crucial way - she procrastinates. I do not.
I am neither disrespecting nor disregarding her work ethic, intelligence or success by outing her as a procrastinator. She would not disagree with my assessment. After all, she's the one who told me she was a procrastinator in the first place. Years ago, I can remember calling her late in the evening. I knew she would be awake because we had a major research paper due the next morning. I figured she would be doing what I was doing - reading through it one last time before printing it, tucking it neatly in a folder and heading off to bed at a semi-decent hour. After all, what work could be left to do on a paper we had been working on for nearly 2 months? But at 10:30pm, the night before this paper was due, Margery declared that she was just getting started!
I was speechless. Just the thought of having to complete a coherent report in less than 12 hours started to stress ME out! How can you just be getting started? Are you crazy? Turns out she isn't crazy at all - just a procrastinator. She didn't exactly love having to do an all-nighter, but she knew it had to be done. And, true to her word, Margery showed up to class, completed paper in hand, tired but ready to move on to whatever came next. But she blamed herself for waiting so long. She wanted to change. She was going to start earlier next time. But this scenario repeated itself several times over during graduate school. I may have gotten more sleep, but we both graduated and went on to have successful careers. Even if it is stressful, in the end, procrastinating didn't hamper progress. So what's the big deal?
Procrastination is the decision to do something later. To wait or put it off until another time. Procrastinators never deny their status, and there seems to be no shortage of excuses that allow them, and others around them, to accept this as biological fact. You are either a procrastinator, or you are not. Why waste time dissecting it? But dissecting the behaviors around procrastinating is precisely what David Burns does in his classic Feeling Good*. I found his deep-dive into the WHY behind procrastination to be fascinating. He asserts that if we can better understand why we procrastinate, we can detach it from the fiction that we have constructed in our minds, and get ourselves back to doing. And while Margery seemed to thrive under the procrastination shadow, many are not so lucky. Procrastinating as a way of life can hamper one's ability to get through tasks great and small - everything from cleaning out a closet to preparing for a major presentation.
According to David Burns, here are a few things to think about the next time you decide to put something off until later:
1. Are you feeling a sense of hopelessness and helplessness? Life is not good, so no amount of action on your part will make it any better. Do nothing because nothing helps.
2. Are you overwhelmed by the tasks at hand? There is so much that is undone, and there just isn't enough time to get through it all and the more you think about what hasn't been done, the deeper hole you find yourself in, and it is just more than you can handle - ever.
3. Do you jump to conclusions about your own abilities? Saying things like "I can't" or "I would if only..." out of a habit that assumes things will not go the way you want.
4. Are you giving yourself a label and standing in a cycle of inaction? You don't do something, therefore you can say confidently that you procrastinated, and then you feel terrible and lazy. And you adopt the label of a lazy person, and when it is time to take action again you let yourself off the hook because you are just lazy. You have the proof.
5. Are you undervaluing the rewards? You forget how good it may feel to accomplish something, no matter how small, and so you talk yourself out of caring any longer that things get done. You also have habitually failed to give yourself any credit for what you do so no amount of self-accolades help motivate you further.
6. Are you trying to make things perfect and if it is not going to be perfect, then you just don't do it at all?
7. Are you afraid of what happens if you fail? Thinking so much about what happens if things do not go as planned can paralyze your action. It is compounded by the evaluations you make of your outcomes instead of your effort.
8. Are you afraid of success and what happens if you succeed? Success means even greater demands, or the expectations of doing great. Many people run away from such pressure.
9. Are you resentful of the task/person/circumstances that define your current situation? We harbor a whole host of negative feelings about what is going on and that may disable our motivation to do it because it feels like a burden that we must bear.
10. Are you frustrated? You feel like you should be able to do things but when you don't you start to see life as generally unfair. If life is unfair, giving up is totally acceptable.
11. Are you feeling guilty about what you haven't done? Maybe you feel like you have let others (or yourself) down. Motivation to act rarely follows feelings of shame or guilt.
I think procrastination can be one of the most limiting behaviors we engage in. I find much less power in surrendering to my instincts to wait than finding the internal strength to just get my hands dirty and get it done. But others may disagree. Putting things off until later suits some just fine. I've known many to declare that they thrive under the pressure. Then I guess there is no need to explore. But the rest of you - take it to heart. Imagine a new way forward, that allows you to meet your own expectations without the drama. Think carefully about WHY you are not taking action. Once you solve that problematic thought, you'll be well on your way to getting yourself back to work.
By highlighting the whys, we can start the work of self-exploration. With thoughtful curiosity, ask yourself why something is not getting done. What is the bigger picture surrounding the inaction? How can you carefully peel back the layers and see how your own thinking about the situation affects what you are trying to do? I encourage any procrastinators out there to read more about how procrastination can be battled. Better yet, I encourage you to start by not labeling yourself as procrastinators, as if there is nothing you can do about it. Remember above all else that procrastinating is still the choice we make to put something off.
I'll leave you with a poem I remember first hearing in high school that always keeps me thinking about procrastination:
Mr. Meant-To has a comrade
And his name is Didn’t Do
Have you ever chanced to meet them?
Did they ever call on you?
These two fellows live together
In the house of Never-Win
And I’m told that it is haunted
By the ghost of Might-Have-Been
*Feeling Good - The New Mood Therapy; David D. Burns, M.D.; 1980