The Undetected Poison of Procrastination (and its Cure)

I don’t think I’m going to make it

The leather recliner felt like quiet quick sand. Exhaustion wrapped its arms around my gut and tried to swallow me whole. I could feel discouragement creeping on my skin like a spider you’re afraid to squish. My fingers rose from the keyboard, and my eyes unfocused from the screen.

I was eight pages in to a forty page paper, and I had fourteen hours until I had to have it printed, stapled, and turned in. I had accomplished some pretty impressive procrastination feats in the past, but for the first time, I felt totally incapable and legitimately afraid I wasn’t going to finish.

For weeks, I had put it off. It’s the college thing to do, right? There are a million other cool things activities: rock wall climbs, salsa dancing with the ladies, off-campus parties, games with friends, delicious restaurants in the city, random dorm shenanigans…there were no limits to the possibilities of fun, which seemed to flash in neon lights around the corner of every moment. Why would I put off my experience for my responsibility? I’ve got plenty of time to do work; I only get to live the college life once.

Day after day, week after week, I procrastinated the final paper for one of my upper-class communications courses until the day before it was due, and I sat there with thirty two pages to write and fourteen hours to do it.

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Procrastination isn’t always as obvious as a firm deadline for a significant paper, though. Most of us practice procrastination more often than we think in many areas of life:

  • Procrastinating our environment: letting the laundry or dishes pile up, letting the to-do list go untamed, the grass grow up to our knees, the car’s oil go unchanged
  • Procrastinating our health: “I’m starting my diet on Monday” or “I’ll workout tonight”—I know I’ve said that more times than I can count to excuse the extra helping of deliciousness or the extra slap of the trusty SNOOZE button
  • Procrastinating our relationships: choosing to put off forgiving someone we’re mad at until they change their ways or choosing to avoid confrontation with someone we’re harboring secret resentment against…maybe even choosing to put off spending time with our loved ones in order to do something WE want to do instead
  • Procrastinating our addictions: I’ll get clean once I graduate, get married, have a baby…after this weekend, this party, this event, this night, this time…
  • Procrastinating our love for ourselves: I’ll be proud of myself/worth something when I’m skinny enough, when I get the promotion, when I find true love, when I have a good group of friends, when I get my diploma, when I get past this struggle, when I _____…
  • Procrastinating our work: I’ll just check my email a few more times and run these errands before the end of the day…I’ll get to that (important) project tomorrow.

The Lustful Poison (procrastination)

Procrastination is alluring because it seems very effective. It would have taken me days, maybe even a full week to write that forty page paper. But I ended up getting it done in the 14 hours, turning it in, and graduating as a result. I got to have all of the time I wanted to have fun with friends and enjoy the college life, AND I got the work I needed to get done done. From the outside, it looks like procrastination is a helpful tool to prioritize what’s necessary now, and only do things when you absolutely must. It feels like procrastination can be induced and predictable motivation to get stuff done.

BUT…it eliminates the need to choose to do something we don’t want to do. We are always either choosing to do what we want to do in this moment or doing what we have to do. We proactively choose pleasure and reactively choose responsibility. We do things only based on our feelings or our necessity. And it becomes an insidious habit that can cripple our ability to reach our greater aspirations in life.

For me, at work, I struggle with procrastinating responsibilities that have no deadlines. I delay, then I feel ashamed, and the vicious cycle spins. My habit of procrastination paralyzes me, and I perform as a mediocre employee. After I got married, I procrastinated taking care of my health. My wife and I ate a ton of good food, my metabolism slowed down, and I began to put on weight. As I stopped playing sports and being physically active, I started getting winded walking up stairs. I ended up twenty pounds overweight and completely out of shape. When I knew the right choices I needed to make to fix my situations, I’d procrastinate making them by playing video games or watching porn because I’d rather choose pleasure now and delay responsibilities until I had to do them.

While I didn’t recognize it, procrastination became more than just a habit of turning things in last minute—it began to poison every aspect of my life.

The Beautiful Alternative (proactivity)

If procrastination is sexy and lustful, then the alternative must be ugly, right? Discipline, discipline, discipline. Suck all the fun out of your life, and get to the grind because it’s the “right thing to do”. Do what your parents tell you to do, don’t cut anyone in line, and make sure to do your taxes early.

Not the case. Actually, I think the alternative is much different than the picture we might assume. I believe it’s true beauty.

A primary part of my own journey this year has been learning to fight procrastination (and I’m continuing on that journey now—I’m still in process). The key distinction I’ve found between procrastination and proactivity is learning the power of choice. When I act out of procrastination, the only two choices I entertain are “want to now” or “have to now”. If I don’t have to do something right this second to avoid major pain, I choose what I believe will give me the most pleasure—what I want to do the most right now. Whereas, proactivity is choosing my actions now for what I ULTIMATELY want, not just for what I want right now.

After work, instead of watching TV (what I believe will give me the most pleasure), I choose to work out (being healthier is what I ultimately want). Instead of distracting myself with porn when I feel overwhelmed (want now), I choose to spend time with my wife (ultimate want). Instead of playing video games when I don’t have to do something at work (want now), I choose to be creative and invent ways to progress our business (ultimate want). While I don’t get these choices right all the time, I’m becoming aware of the choice I have between procrastination and proactivity, and I’m creating new habits of choosing what I ultimately want. Instead of chasing lust and returning empty, I’m fighting for a life of fulfillment—and while it requires more of me and is more difficult than defaulting to my desires, it is indeed beautiful.

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The Enemy of Proactivity (shame)

If you’re reading this and struggling with procrastination like me, you might be considering beginning your own journey towards proactivity. Awesome. I’m excited to learn alongside you. If I had to give you one precaution for the journey ahead it’d be this: embrace all of your success and all of your failures along the way. One of the greatest enemies of proactivity and the greatest allies of procrastination is shame. If you start on this journey, do good for a few days and fail, you might begin to think, “I’m no good at this. I’m just a procrastinator at heart, and I’ve just got to deal with it.” You might feel embarrassed that you tried for something better and you didn’t make it. I know I did. Shame is a natural character on your journey to something better. But it doesn’t have to be what stops you. It’s okay to fall down, to fail, to procrastinate, to fall back into bad habits. Shame wants you to stay down, to hide your failures, to pretend things are better, to keep your bad habits a secret. But if you own your mistakes, if you give yourself permission to rise AND fall, if you keep working towards what you ultimately want, you’ll build a proactive habit that replaces your procrastination one and the beautiful life that accompanies it.

[clickToTweet tweet=”One of the greatest enemies of proactivity and the greatest allies of procrastination is shame.” quote=”One of the greatest enemies of proactivity and the greatest allies of procrastination is shame.”]

This journey begins as it will continue: with a choice. Have what you ultimately want. Choose proactivity. Embrace your journey. And enjoy your beautiful life as it unfolds one proactive choice at a time.

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