Sunday, October 7, 2007

Procrastination: When it Serves and When To Break the Cycle of Inaction

“It is through acceptance that we overcome resistance.” Coach Karen

Just do it . . . Maybe

“I’m just a procrastinator!” As a Personal Coach I hear that quite often. One of the most frequent complaints people have about themselves is their tendency to put things off. It’s such a common problem that we have an entire language around it: dawdle, dilly-dally, poke, delay, fritter away, goof around, lazy, loaf, loiter, mosey, put off, waste time, and the list goes on. In spite of Nike’s urge to “just do it,” the frantic pace of today’s life seems to get in the way of that simple suggestion. My view is that procrastination has two sides to it. Sometimes procrastination serves, such as when we don’t have the information or skill we need to move forward, or when the activity really isn’t all that important but in the moment we think it is. However, most of what we call procrastination is truly damaging. It steals dreams, creates distrust and low esteem for ourselves or others, and perpetuates a cycle of inaction. Yet procrastination can be so easily overcome. And the most important single thing you can do is shift your thinking about it.

I was raised by two master procrastinators. As a child, our home was filled with partially-completed projects, the materials to start a project “someday,” and lots of reasons why a project couldn’t be finished. My own talent seemed to lie in “brinksmanship,” waiting until the last minute and finishing in a rush of adrenaline-filled activity. As a result, my work was never as good as I really wanted it to be. There was always a degree of disappointment, even though the adrenaline was a lot of fun. So I’ve looked at the issue of procrastination from a number of angles, both personally and professionally. Although there are a lot of reasons for procrastination, the one I’m addressing in this article is resistance.

Have you ever thought of something you need to do, and almost immediately experienced a feeling of “don’t wanna!” almost like a petulant child? Often when there’s something I “should” do, there’s the little voice that suggests that watching TV or playing video games would be a much more enjoyable use of time. And I don’t even like TV or video games! Yet there’s something that just wants to resist the action I need to take. Often people try to resist the resistance, having an argument with themselves about taking action. And as the old saying goes, “what we resist persists.” Rather than continuing the struggle, I suggest using acceptance to overcome resistance. To do this, acknowledge that you have the resistance, and accept that there’s some reason for it. Have you ever noticed that when you try to push someone, they tend to push back? If you push harder, they push harder. Yet when you relax and center yourself, your lack of resistance knocks them off center. So it is with procrastination.

Accepting the resistance means three things. First, it means that you are not “wrong” or “bad” by putting off action, only that there’s something blocking you. Self-criticism only creates low esteem and frustration. Somehow we think that self-criticism is motivating, and in the short-term it can be. Yet over the long term it has damaging consequences. Second, accepting the resistance allows you to observe the resistance to understand it. When resistance comes up it’s generally because of a belief (such as “I can’t be successful, so why try?”) and/or a fear (such as “What if I don’t do this right/perfectly?”). Once we allow ourselves to observe these fears and beliefs, we can choose to believe differently. And finally, accepting the resistance means opening yourself up to other possibilities. What if the resistance is trying to tell you something meaningful, such as signaling the need for more information or more support for the action? As I mentioned above, sometimes procrastination is legitimate, and questioning where the resistance comes from can help you choose a new course of action. Sometimes simply the mental shift to think of the procrastination differently, or to appreciate the situation, can make a difference in the resistance you feel.

The next time you find yourself procrastinating, accept yourself and the feelings you have. Then understand more fully what is going on, so you can then make good choices on how to move forward. Maybe the answer is “just do it,” and maybe not!

Copyright 2007, Karen Van Cleve. All rights reserved.

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