Lesson 5 — Doing it Now
We all do it at times: we put off doing things until later. Whether or not this is harmful, and the degree of the harm, depends on the circumstances. It is a complex issue.
For some people, procrastination is a habitual coping behavior triggered by a deeply-felt need or fear, making it extremely tenacious and hard to get rid of. In its more extreme forms, procrastination can eventually lead to personal disaster of one kind or another, and for these people the solution lies in uncovering procrastination’s roots — usually through psychological counseling or therapy.
For many other people procrastination raises its head only occasionally, and may be related to poor organizational habits, inattention, or relying too much on a memory that’s not quite up to the demands being put on it. For these people the solution may simply be better time management and personal organization.
Procrastination is clearly a thicket; how can we make our way through it? In examining our own put-it-off-till-later behavior, we first need to ask if putting it off makes rational sense. Sometimes putting things off is totally appropriate. For one thing, it makes sense to put off doing something when there is a good chance that it might never need to be done at all. Examples of this occur frequently in the practice of law. Let’s say that Mr. Jones sues Mr. Smith, and the case is scheduled to come to trial in two months. Neither party wants the expense of a trial, so during those two months their lawyers will try to negotiate an out-of-court settlement. In this situation it makes sense for both lawyers to put off detailed case preparation until the last minute. If they prepared their cases well before the court date, and then settled out of court, Jones and Smith will have to pay for legal work that ultimately proved unnecessary.
Waiting also makes sense in situations where the best course of action has not yet become clear. In such situations we sometimes come across the opposite of procrastination. There are people who get very upset by uncertainty, and sometimes these people prematurely undertake a course of action just to ease their uncomfortable feelings. Bothered by not knowing, and by lack of action, they charge off too soon, and sometimes get themselves in as much trouble as habitual procrastinators do.
For those who do not have a deeply-rooted psychological need to procrastinate, appropriate planning can often help. People who manage large, complex projects such as engineering development projects and building construction projects employ some techniques that can also be used by the rest of us to better organize our personal lives. Engineers and contractors create detailed charts which break the large project down into specific tasks, show the duration of each task, and arrange all the tasks in a suitable order. If, for example, the project is to build a house, the excavation must be done before the concrete foundation can be poured. The foundation must be in place before the wall framing can begin. The walls must be up before the roof joists can be put in place, etc. But later on, the plumbing and electrical wiring activities can go on at the same time. By
- listing a project’s essential tasks,
- estimating the time required for each, and then
- arranging those tasks in a pattern of task-completion paths on a chart,
a task-oriented plan for getting the big job done is created.
Creating such a chart for our own projects undercuts procrastination in several ways. One reason people procrastinate is that the project they face seems overwhelming. There is this big amorphous thing that must be done, but where to start? Any starting point they might select, any individual task, seems so puny compared to the project-as-a-whole. They find the whole thing daunting, and hold back.
To overwhelmingness we must often add fuzziness. In big-project situations we often do not have a clear picture of everything that is involved, or the order in which things must be done. Here, confusion leads to procrastination. By charting the project we cut through the confusion. We see each task and how the various tasks relate to each other in time. Clarity replaces fuzziness, and the overwhelming bigness is cut into accomplishment-sized pieces.
Forgetting is another cause of procrastination. Most of us lead very busy lives, and our memories are sometimes just not up to the demands we put on them. As a result, we fail to do things simply because we forget, and then forget again. The pocket notebook is a tool that can help us deal with the kind of not-doing that is rooted in memory lapses. For years I’ve carried around those little 3″ x 5″ notebooks with the spiral binding along the top edge. First thing in the morning, I list the day’s major tasks. Then, as the day progresses, I cross off items and add new ones. If something doesn’t get done today, it goes on tomorrow’s list.
These little notebooks are useful in other ways too. They provide a temporary storage place for good ideas, insights, and the miscellaneous data we come across during the day: names, addresses, telephone numbers, and the like. I call these notebooks my paper brains, and because I’m a writer who is always jotting down some priceless thought or other, when they get full I save them. Naturally, for this notebook idea to work, your neurological memory must work well enough to put things on the list in the first place, and then prompt you look at the list from time to time during the day.
It’s easy to make a case that procrastination is usually irrational. In most circumstances, putting things off simply makes no sense. The postponed work must eventually be done, and if one waits till the last minute there is a high probability that some sort of conflict will arise — and with it, stress. Procrastination leaves no flexibility for handling the unexpected, and as a result, the quality of the work is likely to suffer.
At the same time, for those who have serious procrastination problems, merely pointing out the counter-productive side of procrastination accomplishes nothing. These people are already well aware of procrastination’s damaging and illogical nature. It is coming to understand the real reason or reasons behind their procrastination that frees these procrastinators.
In their book Procrastination,5 therapists Jane Burka and Lenora Yuen present brief case studies of many procrastinators, and explore the roots of their procrastination. The authors conclude that people procrastinate for a variety of reasons:
- Fear of failure, fear of not being as capable as they would like to be. (If I procrastinate I know I haven’t given the task my best effort. So if the results are not perfect, I can blame lack of time rather than any shortcomings in my own innate ability.)
- Fear of success. (Severe procrastination almost guarantees that you will not succeed.)
- Fear of responsibility and independence. (Procrastinating leads to missed deadlines and poor quality work, and this lessens the likelihood that you will be promoted or given more autonomy.)
- Fear of attachment. (Procrastination is a handy way of keeping others from getting too close. Arriving late for dates, not calling, and failing to keep promises works against annoying closeness. It helps maintain an interpersonal distance that feels safe.)
Procrastination, in its more pernicious forms, is a general-purpose destructive behavior that enables some people to cope with serious fears. Getting out of its grip often requires professional help. For those of us less seriously crippled by it, however, procrastination can be made to yield to logic, common sense, and a few tricks from the professionals who manage complexity for a living. Once we really begin to see the value of doing it now to both peace of mind and to the quality of our work, procrastination begins to lose its appeal. And through practice, it’s possible to replace the put-it-off habit with the do-it-now habit.
5. Jane Burka and Lenora Yuen, PROCRASTINATION: Why You Do It, What To Do About It, Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1983.
Professor Alan Nordstrom’s questions and suggestions:
If you’re inclined toward irrational procrastination, describe your history as a procrastinator, and indicate how you have improved—or propose how you might improve.
What is a big (or the biggest) project you have undertaken, engineered, and executed that involved planning and organizational skills? Describe your experience.
Or propose a plan for such a complex project for yourself.
Please turn now to your private journal and record your thoughts, feelings, and insights of the moment. What has your reading brought to mind? What are your responses to Professor Nordstrom’s questions and suggestions? Finally, is there anything you would like to share with others? If so, just enter it in the box below and it will soon be turned into a posted comment.
(For other wisdom-related resources, visit THE WISDOM PAGE at www.wisdompage.com.)
Lesson text is based on Copthorne Macdonald’s book Getting a Life, copyright © 1995, 2008 by Copthorne Macdonald. Nordstrom comments and suggestions copyright © 2008 by Alan Nordstrom.