When I think about what impedes the quality of my life, about what saps both my pleasure and my energy, it’s got to be procrastination. But not in the way you’d think.
While I procrastinate a LOT, I think the problem is the quality of my procrastination, not the fact that I do it, or even do a lot of it (which I do).
Google “procrastination” and you get all these ways to stop it, get around it, get beyond it. It is evil. It gets in the way of progress, moving forward, making things happen, growth, achievement. All those things that are what we (in the west) are supposed to be about.
Yes of course, there’s “bad” procrastination: not getting important work done (note the word, important); putting off a trip to the doctors when you feel that lump; not paying bills.
The problem with the bad, wishy washy type of procrastination is that it oozes insidiously into our lives, along with the attendant guilt.
But there is such a thing as “good” procrastination, and I believe it can improve the quality of life. The etymology of that particular word is instructive, or at least inspiring:
- 1540s, from Middle French procrastination and directly from Latin procrastinationem (nominative procrastinatio) “a putting off from day to day,” noun of action from past participle stem of procrastinare “put off till tomorrow, defer, delay,” from pro- “forward” (see pro-) + crastinus “belonging to tomorrow,” from cras “tomorrow,” of unknown origin.
I love the optimism of this: it’s saying that there’s a tomorrow (always a good thing). Procrastination is actually a profound privilege: it means that we have the option of putting something off till tomorrow – something that our subsistence forbears didn’t really have. I also love the wisdom of it. Maybe there are acts that aren’t supposed to be in the now. Not everything can be in the now: this is about what deserves to be compartmentalized into the tomorrow. Or the never.
Done right, good procrastination could bring us more joy, more pleasure in our lives. It could mean the time to be idle, to be inspired, to explore, try new things, to do something you want to do, or just to be. Instead, when I procrastinate (badly), I feel guilty, and my inner critic comes out and has a good romp at my expense. Given the amount of time I procrastinate, and how guilty I feel for the bulk of that time, it certainly means that I’m not living as well as I could be.
The key to better procrastination is to own it.
Own your priorities. Let’s be honest: not everything is important. Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield, famously wrote to his son, “Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today.” What sanctimonious blather. Not everything needs to be done today. Sometimes it’s too early. Sometimes problems do go away and you’ve either wasted your efforts or created an even bigger problem. Often you irritate people by jumping the gun.
As a friend once told me, “Every project has its own rhythm. It happens in its own time. Don’t fight it.” When I heard it, I thought this was utter bullshit, excuses for not working to MY schedule. But it worked out. And it worked out again. What he was saying was that big deadlines matter. Little ones, not so much.
And I came to understand that so many things are like that. Listen. Don’t push. Let it happen. And if you call that smart planning, being canny about timing, or procrastination, who cares? (The reality is that someone is going to call it procrastination.) I think it’s about being efficient, and it’s making time for what really counts, which is what you really want to be doing – or not doing.
Own your time. For me, I’ve found that “bad” procrastination often comes from making too many commitments. Make fewer commitments; get rid of the should’s and you’ll have less to procrastinate about. Ask yourself if something really matters. Commit – really commit – to being good enough, not perfect in some areas of your life. (Most research agrees that the root of most procrastination lie in the fear of not being perfect). Then stop thinking about it and let it go.
Own your decisions. I often put things off when I can’t – or won’t – decide what to do. Here’s the deal: you do know. Your body knows, so listen to it. Make the decision (which for me is usually “no”) and just say it. And move on. Less guilt: more time for pleasure.
Own that you dislike, or might even hate whatever it is that you’re putting off. Don’t sugar coat it. Don’t rationalize it. You don’t have to love it. In fact, revel in your hatred of it (there’s energy there.) There’s crap we all have to do, so just do it in short sprints at your most tired, grumpiest time of day (3 pm for me, when the urge for chocolate is strongest). I like to think of these as sprints, where you go all out to do it for 60 minutes. For things that take longer, I’ve taken to scheduling a day a month when I ruthlessly tackle everything on the refined (see above) to do list. In fact, I’m trying to create a procrastination list on both the home and work fronts. Anything I put off for more than a couple of days goes on that list, and I tackle it in my sprints. It’s working so far.
Own your pleasure. I’ve of course, waited till the end to say the most important thing. There’s no point in putting something off till tomorrow if you don’t know what you want to do today. Maybe it’s reading the paper (offline, even). Web surfing mindlessly. Social media. Shop. Organize your shoe collection. Pet the cat. Bake something wildly experimental that’s likely fail. Have sex in the afternoon. Have a drink. Stroll the city. Browse in a library. Read philosophy. Learn origami. Smell the flowers. Take a walk. Take it slow. Explore. Fall in love. Do nothing. Nap.
Just own it. Know that you want to do it and do it. And commit to being in it. All that other crap can and will wait.
I think I’m going to take a nap now.