I don’t mean to be grim or morbid, but today’s subject is deadly serious. Imagine being in a graveyard, examining a gravestone. Despite being covered with moss, you can read the inscription. It says, “Procrastination is the grave where your dreams, aspirations, and hopes lie.” Is that where you want you dreams to end up? Buried? Aborted? Each time we put off doing what we wish to accomplish, each time we procrastinate, we bury our dreams. Or, as Victor Kiam said, “Procrastination is opportunity’s natural assassin.”
Although it’s not something we like to do, occasionally we should reflect on our mortality. We need to remember that we will die. For when we do so, it will be clear that the time to realize our dreams, the time to act, is now, not some vague date in the future. Why do we complain that life is too short and then throw away pieces of it by procrastinating? Why have we been so slow to learn? After all, 2,000 years ago, Emperor Nero‘s adviser, Seneca The Younger taught, “We all sorely complain of the shortness of time, and yet have much more than we know what to do with. Our lives are either spent in doing nothing at all, or in doing nothing to the purpose, or in doing nothing that we ought to do. We are always complaining that our days are few, and acting as though there would be no end of them.”
The 28th President of the United States had a sense of humor, for when Woodrow T. Wilson said, “Today’s greatest labor-saving device is tomorrow,” he was referring to procrastination. It’s a clever one-liner, but, in real life there’s nothing funny about procrastination. Quite the contrary, it is responsible for much personal anguish. After all, it results in regret, shame, anxiety, lost opportunities, not to mention career, family, and health problems.
Why do we procrastinate? One reason is an incorrect way of viewing life, a false perspective. We not only create the words we use, but later allow those words to create our perspective. Take the word “work,” for example. Its connotation is negative. We don’t think of it as a gift, but as punishment from God (Genesis 3:17). It is something unpleasant and to be avoided. Therefore, we put off doing it.
Although we may talk about “going to work,” can you imagine Picasso, Michelangelo, or Mozart saying the same thing? They may have spoken about creating art, but never of working. How can doing what you love be considered work? If we realize that we are artists and the work we do is the medium we use to create our masterpiece, we too can come to love what we do.
Another major reason for procrastination is the feeling of being overwhelmed. The task just seems to be too much to handle. But if we remember that a 1,000 mile trek begins with a single step, we will have the courage to begin. So, regardless how big your dream may be, if you break it down into small tasks, you will be able to accomplish it, one step at a time.
Fear of failure is another reason why people procrastinate. For instance, suppose someone dreams of writing a book. As long as they plan to write it “someday” in the future, they can brag about it. But what if they start and finish the project, and there are no buyers? Ugh! They’ll be a failure! Or will they be? How can they be a failure if they learn something from their mistake? Don’t let fear stop you, for as David J. Schwartz writes, “To fight fear, act. To increase fear — wait, put it off, postpone.”
Human nature also plays a role in procrastination, for we naturally avoid pain and are drawn to pleasure. So if we view our chore as a PAIN in the neck and watching TV as a pleasure, we will likely postpone the chore and watch TV instead. But before we do so, it would be wise to consider what Edwin C. Bliss wrote: “. . . FCC Chairman Newton Minow referred to television as a ‘vast wasteland’ . . . and it conjures up . . . a landscape littered with countless ruins of unfulfilled plans, aborted ventures, unrealized dreams . . . of the viewers, who try to select the least tedious of several mediocre shows instead of turning the set off and doing something.”
Some of the other factors that contribute to procrastination include perfectionism, fear of success, poor habits, poor attitude, self-doubt, and poor self-discipline. Because of the many causes and our many differences, procrastination may appear to be too complex to understand and overcome. But it need not be that way.
The first step in overcoming procrastination is to understand it. Before taking a close look at it, I’ll start with an analogy. At first, “hot” and “cold” may appear very different. But they are merely at the opposite ends of a linear scale we call “temperature.” As we slide up the scale to a high temperature, we call it “hot,” and as we slide down the scale to a low temperature, we call it “cold.” “Hot” and “cold,” then, are different aspects of the same thing; mainly, temperature.
What does this have to do with procrastination? Well, think of procrastination as cold and motivation as hot. You see, they are on the same linear scale, a scale called DESIRE. As we slide up the scale to high desire we call it motivation. But, when we slide down the scale to low or no desire, we call it procrastination. In other words, we take action when we are motivated or have strong desire and procrastinate when we have little or no desire to act. Once we understood this, the cure to procrastination becomes clear. Mainly, to overcome it, we need to increase our desire.
I’m sure you heard the expression “Out of sight, out of mind.” When your sweetheart is near, you are filled with desire. But if he or she were to move overseas and stay for a long time, your desire would wane. So it is with our goals. When we procrastinate, we have allowed the flames of passion to flicker out. That’s caused by letting our goals go “out of sight.” To reignite our passion, we need to bring our goals close enough to embrace. We need to focus on them once again and ask ourselves questions like, “Why do I want to reach this goal? How will I benefit? What will I feel like after succeeding?” The answers to these questions will remind us what’s in it for us and then motivate us to act.
Let’s not be like many people who sit around waiting for their ship to come in, only to discover it is hardship. For as Abraham Lincoln said, “Things may come to those who wait, but only the things left by those who hustle.” If you still have problems with getting things done NOW, you may want to consider the following: NOW is the only time we have the power to act.
A Simple 4-Step Process to End Procrastination
Step 1: Belief
Do you believe you can stop procrastinating? Can you see why whether you say you can or whether you say you can’t, you’re right? After all, if you believe you can’t, you don’t try, and if you believe you can, you just go ahead and do it. So, we must believe we can before we can change.
Step 2. Commitment
Do you know someone, know of someone, or heard of someone who quit smoking cold turkey? If so, think about it for a moment. Smoking is an addiction and smokers have a physiological craving for nicotine, which makes it a very difficult habit to break. Yet, when they get fed up with the harm they are doing to their health and commit to stop smoking, they find the strength to do so immediately (cold turkey).
If smokers can quit an ADDICTION cold turkey, wouldn’t you say that also means we CAN end our procrastination habit NOW?
If we draw on our inner resource of commitment, two things happen:
1. We gain the power to act.
2. The solutions to problems that block our way appear.
How Commitment Saved the Life of Kirk Douglas
Kirk Douglas lost the power of speech after his stroke. For a man who earned his livelihood by speaking, this was devastating. He sank into a deep depression and decided to commit suicide. With his wife still in the next room, he went into his office. He sat down at the desk, opened the drawer and removed a pistol and began to place it in his mouth. But as he did so, he struck a tooth and exclaimed, “Ouch!” There’s something funny about being concerned with a tooth at the moment you are planning to destroy yourself. This strange juxtaposition of facts jarred Kirk Douglas enough to cause him to lower the pistol and resolve to go on living. Before the commitment to life was made, all he faced was the excruciating pain of being unable to speak. Yet, once he committed to life, his mind cleared and answers appeared. “Why not hire a speech pathologist to help me regain the power of speech?” he thought. So, that’s what he did. And today, he’s speaking and making presentations again.
Step 3. Eliminating the Barriers to Action
Action is the key to it all, and eliminating the barriers to action is the solution to procrastination. Let’s consider two major barriers to taking action: Resistance and Self-Doubt.
Barrier 1: The Main Culprit, RESISTANCE
It’s not surprising that many people are frustrated by failing to achieve their dreams. After all, neither their parents nor their teachers taught them how to be successful in life. As life passes them by, they stand, blinking, and asking, “What went wrong?” Since it’s never too late to learn or to change our fortune, I’ll pass on the missing lessons…
What holds us back, more than anything else, is a conflict between what we WANT to do versus what we FEEL LIKE doing. For example, students may WANT to do well in school, but FEEL LIKE partying with their friends. If it’s a choice between studying and partying, which do you think many students will choose?
That’s right, the answer is partying. But that’s self-defeating behavior. It is in conflict with their goal to succeed. And once they neglect their studies, they will have to work twice as hard trying to catch up. This creates stress, making them feel bad. Since they feel bad, they will try to numb the pain by seeking pleasure, such as more partying! So, you see how easy it is to dig oneself into a hole so deep there’s almost no escape.
Given that self-defeating behavior is so harmful, when faced with a choice between what we WANT and what we FEEL LIKE, why do we usually follow our feelings instead of following our dreams? Well, what we WANT to do flows from our rational (or conscious) mind, and what we FEEL LIKE doing is emotional, flowing from our subconscious. Our rational mind has the WILL, but our subconscious has the POWER; it can stop us from doing what we want.
How does it do this? It does so by creating RESISTANCE. For example, let’s say that a student looks at the calendar and sees that an important test is approaching. He tells himself that he had better study tonight. But as soon as he has this thought, fear is triggered in the subconscious because it associates studying diligently with pain. The subconscious wants to protect us from pain. So, to protect us, it prevents the conscious mind from acting by erecting the barrier of RESISTANCE, which is nothing more than the subconscious balking or digging in its heels and saying, “NO!”
But how do we defeat this pernicious RESISTANCE, which destroys so many of our dreams? The secret to overcoming resistance is to start on whatever needs to be done by taking a baby step, a step so small that the subconscious doesn’t detect a threat; it’s a matter of flying under the radar, so to speak.
Okay, it’s time to look at an example. Let’s stick to the case of an executive that needs to organize his work day. We’re going to assume he knows how the subconscious works, so he will start by taking innocuous baby steps, such as the following:
1. Make a list of the tasks that need to be done today.
2. Rearrange the items in the order of priority, beginning with the highest priority and working down.
3. Estimate how much time needs to spent on each task.
Note that up to this point he hasn’t actually started working, so his subconscious doesn’t feel threatened and it isn’t creating any resistance. Yet, these simple steps have primed the pump; that is, prepared him for work. So now that there isn’t any resistance, he immediately begins. And once he starts, some remarkable things happen:
1. Since we cannot think of two things at the same time, once we immerse ourselves in a task, that’s all we can think about. All thoughts about whether it is pleasant or not fade from our consciousness. And as we get involved in the task, it grows increasingly interesting. So, the ‘pain’ associated with doing something we don’t want to do is short-lived.
2. We discover that the task was not as hard nor did it take as long to do as we had imagined. Remembering this will make it easier to start the next task.
3. We learn that we have the power to do what we don’t feel like doing. Understanding this unleashes the power of our potential, for the key to success is self-discipline. But knowing what we do about the subconscious and its fear of pain, we shouldn’t use the word “self-DISCIPLINE” because it is apt to trigger resistance. Instead, we should call it what it really is, SELF-LEADERSHIP, which is nothing less than the freedom to create the lives we wish to have.
4. After finishing an important task that we didn’t feel like doing, there is a feeling of exhilaration. We feel proud of our accomplishment and are delighted to learn we have the self-leadership to take charge of our life. Therefore, what we thought would be painful turns out to be highly pleasurable.
5. What’s more, as we experience this truth, we come to embrace discomfort because of the pleasure and power conquering it will bring. And as we experience victory after victory, we will grow in confidence, feel exuberant, and know what it truly means to be free.
6. To avoid missing out on success, we mustn’t be tricked into running from responsibility to indulge in some fleeting pleasure. After all, if we were to do so, we would find the ‘pleasure’ (such as watching TV) is pleasure in name only. For as we waste valuable time, we will be racked with guilt, greatly diminishing our ‘pleasure.’ And whatever momentary pleasure we were to experience, it would later be followed by stress and regret.
7. When we consider these facts, we will discover that what we usually interpret as pleasure ends up being painful, and what we first interpret as painful, turns out to be pleasurable. The lesson, then, is we have to think before we act, for the price of living irresponsibly and neglecting our duties is loss of happiness. On the other hand, the result of mastering self-leadership and living up to our responsibilities is a life of accomplishments and joy.
Barrier #2: Self-doubt
According to the eminent psychologist, professor, author, and philosopher, William James, “Compared to what we ought to be, we are only half awake. We are making use of only a small part of our physical and mental resources. Stating the thing broadly, the human individual thus lives far within his limits. He possesses power of various sorts which he habitually fails to use.”
You have no doubt heard many times that we use just a fraction of our resources. Buried deep within us is unlimited potential that rarely blossoms fully. Blessed with the capacity to bloom into magnificent creatures, we often fall far short of our potential. Why is that? It is not due to a lack of ideas, but a lack of follow-through, or action. Why do we fail to act? The biggest culprit appears to be self-doubt, a lack of faith in ourselves, a lack of confidence that we can achieve our dreams. William James agrees with this assessment for he wrote, “There is but one cause of human failure. And that is man’s lack of faith in his True Self.”
Although we were born confident, competent, and fully capable of reaching our dreams, all that good stuff was knocked out of us in our childhood. And until we restore that confidence in ourselves, we are doomed to go on failing to live up to our potential. How can we restore our rightful inheritance of unshakable faith in ourselves? Let’s turn to William James for an answer.
Borrowing from his teachings, I wish to share a powerful technique that has transformed the lives of countless men and women. It can do the same for you. The good and bad news is that the method is simple to carry out. Although I don’t have to explain why that is good news, you’ll want to know why I call that bad news. You see, we tend to doubt the value of anything that is cheap, easy to get, or easy to do. That is the danger. Once you learn how easy it is to follow the procedure, you may dismiss it as a silly gimmick with little value. To arrive at that conclusion would be a serious mistake. Now that you have been forewarned, I’m ready to share this life-altering technique.
It is simply this. Promise yourself for the next ten days you will start doing something you should be doing or stop doing something you should not be doing. For example, “For the next ten days I promise myself to wake up 30 minutes earlier to avoid arriving late at the office.” Or, “For the next ten days, I will stop eating fatty food for lunch.” Simple, isn’t it? Now, let’s look at the procedure in detail and follow that with an explanation of why it is so effective.
1. Promise yourself for the next ten days you will start doing something you should be doing or stop doing something you should not be doing. a) Write the date and your promise on a small card and keep it in your purse or wallet so that every time you reach for money, you will see the card and be reminded of your promise. b) Make a promise that is attainable. Don’t overreach. For example, if I want to stop smoking, it may be too difficult to try to stop completely. If that were the case, I could promise myself to stop smoking between the hours of 10 am and 12 noon, for example.
2. Keep your promise at all costs. Live up to your word. Failure to do so will lead to further erosion of your self-confidence! That’s why step #1-b is so important. Also, because you are breaking from your normal routine, one day you may forget to carry out your promise. Don’t let that bother you, but you will have to start all over again, from the beginning, until you get it right. You must practice 10 days consecutively.
3. Keep a journal and log your results. Nothing fancy is required. Just a couple of sentences will do. At the end of your day, write down the results of your promise and how you feel. Your journal will help to keep you focused on your goal and serve as a reminder of your accomplishments.
4. Keep your promise for ten days. After that period, you are under no obligation to continue the new behavior. This is an important point for it is what makes the program so easy to follow. All you have to do is maintain your new behavior for ten days!
5. Of course, if I wish to continue with my new behavior, that’s perfectly fine. But if I wish to stop, that’s equally acceptable. However, if I stop, I then begin a 10-day program on something else. For instance, after I successfully stopped smoking between 10 am and 12 noon for ten days, I can terminate that program and start a new one, such as cutting back on my TV viewing by one hour a day for the next ten days.
Why is this procedure so valuable if all I have to do is maintain my new, desirable behavior for ten days? It is because every ten days I am a winner. Every ten days, I am successful. Every ten days, I have proven to myself that I have the power to change. Every ten days, I experience a surge in self-confidence. And the constant repetition of one ten-day program followed by another leads to the development of a new habit. I now have the habit of tackling what I have avoided in the past. I have acquired the habit of self-improvement.
With the completion of each ten day program, we make remarkable discoveries. We learn that positive action is much easier to accomplish than we had imagined. We experience the relief that follows doing something that was nagging us. We also experience the pride, pleasure, and the benefits that follow from taking action. And the discovery that we have the power to control our destiny is nothing less than thrilling. When we embark on a life of endless ten-day programs, we discover adventure and excitement, and we live life to the fullest by daring to tackle what we could fail in, for as William James said, “It is only by risking our persons from one hour to another that we live at all.” All of the above points motivate us to continue leading a life of endless growth. In other words, the rewards we reap propel us forward.
The 10-Day Program I am suggesting develops self-reliance. By living up to your promises, you discover you can rely on yourself. This is what Aesop was alluding to when he wrote twenty-six hundred years ago, “The gods help them that help themselves.” Consider as well these words from William James, “Your hopes, dreams and aspirations are legitimate. They are trying to take you airborne, above the clouds, above the storms, if you only let them. Most people never run far enough on their first wind to find out they’ve got a second. Give your dreams all you’ve got and you’ll be amazed at the energy that comes out of you.”
What ten-day program will you begin today? Before you answer, heed the warning of William James, “He who refuses to embrace a unique opportunity loses the prize as surely as if he had tried and failed.”
Step 4. Taking Action
Now that you have eliminated the barriers to taking action and are free to take the steps that lead to your goal and success, begin. Start now!
- Procrastination: Why You Do It, What to Do About It Now by Jane B. Burka and Lenora M. Yuen
- Solving the Procrastination Puzzle: A Concise Guide to Strategies for Change By Timothy A. Pychyl
- Productivity Book Bundle: Learn How to Be Productive, Get Motivated, and Beat Procrastination — 10X Your Productivity by Dominic Mann
- The Procrastination Cure: 21 Proven Tactics For Conquering Your Inner Procrastinator, Mastering Your Time, And Boosting Your Productivity! by Damon Zahariades
- Hacking Laziness: How to Outwit, Outsmart & Outmaneuver Procrastination by Mike Buffington
- The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done By PhD Steel Piers
- The Procrastination Cure: 7 Steps to Stop Putting Life Off
- How To Stop Procrastinating – A Step-by-Step Process For Busting The Worst of Procrastination
- How To Stop Procrastinating Once And For All