A Canadian industrial psychologist, Piers Steel, conducted a ten year study that shows the number of chronic procrastinators is increasing and that this habit results in being less healthy, less wealthy, and less happy. According to the study about 5% of Americans thought of themselves as chronic procrastinators in 1978. In the year the study was published, 2007, it was up to 26%. So in 2007, one-fourth of the American adult population were chronic procrastinators! According to the study, more men than women say they are procrastinators and more young than old. Procrastination by college students is as high as 75%. Procrastination is a growing problem and various studies have shown that there is no statistical difference between the percentages of chronic procrastinators from country to country.
Steel’s study found four main causes of procrastination:
• temptation to slack off (distractions)
• the sense that it is not urgent for a job to be done
• not perceiving the value of doing and completing the job
• lacking belief that one can get the job done
The most compelling factor was temptation to slack off.
Now more than ever, the world we live in offers countless opportunities to indulge in distracting activity. The internet, twitter, facebook, TV, movies, gaming, and on and on. Diversion can keep us occupied and often mindlessly engaged.
All four causes identified in the study imply seeing one’s life as a series of necessary tasks to be accomplished and enjoyments to indulge in. This reflects the reality that for many people, too little attention is paid to feeling good about oneself in a more profound and spiritual way. In this narrowed down zeitgeist, feeling badly about myself does not even motivate me to do what needs to be done.
Shifting just to the right of that perspective, not very far – just a touchstone over, one gains access to a dimension of doing that finds its motivation in the stillness outside the clutter and noise of the mental chatter of who I am and what I accomplish and am I responsible and why do I procrastinate and on and on ad infinitum.
In this other dimension I am able and willing to put aside distraction. Whatever distracts me from the task at hand, the job that needs to be done now, is taking me away from being grounded in the moment’s opportunity to be a simple soul. This is the one who is content to be masterful for just this one moment, this one task, here and now. Loving simplicity, I act now so that I avoid urgency later. I preempt that miserable feeling of needing to overcome a late start, anxiously try to run ahead of the past un-accomplishment, to catch up with some future vision of myself that I can’t quite see, as it stays just a few steps ahead of me. That’s all just so complicated!
The value of doing and completing a job that needs to be done is like being a fireman who runs into the burning building to save a child. It is like being a legislator who resists the powerful healthcare lobby and passes a bill that will provide health insurance to millions of uninsured people. It is like the mother who stands firm in order to teach her child right here and now when her child screams for candy, because she knows that giving in when the child screams is teaching that child to be demanding and impulsive and out-of-control. You say “those examples are ones that can’t wait – a fire, people dying without health insurance, disciplining an out-of-control child.”
Consider then that each time you procrastinate, you set a scorching destructive fire in your soul. Your vitality of person and character becomes just a little bit more dis-eased. Your inner child learns to be demanding, impulsive, and out-of-control. The job is there, it needs to be done, and you do it. That is very simple and the simplicity allows me the greatest availability of energy to get the job done. I have not frittered away my vital empowerment with the mental clutter and noise of inner conflict. I don’t indulge in the chattering debate – “I have to do it… I don’t have time…I’m tired now so I’ll do it tomorrow….” In fact, we humans are masters in coming up with rationalizations:
• “I work better under pressure so postponing it makes perfect sense.”
• “I really just don’t want to do this. It’s boring. It’s understandable that I keep procrastinating.”
• “Oh well, the world isn’t going to come to an end if this doesn’t get done now.”
• “I’m not in the mood to do this now. I’ll wait until later.”
• “I always wait until the last minute to do things and it works out okay.”
• “Circumstances have drained me. I’ll wait until I feel better.”
Notice how the thrust of all the rationalizations are toward feeling more energetic tomorrow, feeling in the mood later, feeling better before taking care of what has to be done. The point is that these people are pretending that tomorrow is different from today. They act as if they will have the motivation, the energy, the right mood, the stamina, the necessary competence later, tomorrow, sometime in the future.
What they don’t realize is that the only way tomorrow can be different from today in those regards is if I strengthen and discipline my will today. The only time that exists to do that is RIGHT NOW. Conversely, each time I procrastinate, I dig my heels into this habit even further, making the task that much more difficult tomorrow.
It’s been said, “Procrastination is the grave in which opportunity is buried.” (author unknown). What is that opportunity? It is to value the effort we make in and of itself. When we dedicate ourselves to striving for excellence in our daily living, the focus is on how simple and effective I can be in my efforts. I then realize that it’s not about success or failure. It’s about how I present myself to the moment when I encounter opportunity to take action when a task is at hand. This readiness, this availability of energy to do what’s in front of me, resolves the mental chatter and inner conflict. Thus anxiety, stress and depression related to the habit of procrastinating are dispelled. Self-esteem and self-confidence are enhanced. I am cultivating a self-concept of being dependable and responsible and that feels great. That is striving for excellence.
Think about a Japanese tea ceremony. It uses a common everyday experience – drinking tea – and approaches it as a ritual that can bring awareness of the smallest details, like how to hold the tea cup, observing the sights, smells, and sounds in the tea-making process, how to clean the utensils, and doing these simple things with a mindset aimed at excellence. The attention to detail and appreciation of the beauty found in the most ordinary and everyday experience, helps the participant in the tea ceremony to value the seemingly commonplace facets of his or her daily living. It is finding peace and harmony in mindfulness (being entirely present and profoundly aware) and the enjoyment of simplicity. Doing my taxes is not really about doing my taxes. It is about self-mastery. It’s about strengthening the will like a muscle. It’s about opening the heart to simple joy, to the joy of simply doing what needs to be done. And even though it might be boring or tedious, I attend to the task with a mindset aiming for excellence.
Every task or chore or activity that I might consider unappealing, like doing my taxes or washing the dishes, can be approached like a tea ceremony. For example, I make the intention to jog every day at 6 a.m. even though I’d rather stay in bed until 6:30. The next morning at 5:55 my chattering mind says, “Maybe I should go after work…I could then check my facebook page and answer a few emails before I leave this morning, and anyway I feel a little sluggish today…”. It would be so easy to give in, get distracted and put off jogging even though I’ve made the intention to do it every day. So what can I do?
I focus on the details not the outcome – the sights, the sounds, the smells, the physical sensations of moving and doing. The emotional nuances of weaving my life with the forms..textures…colors of chosen and serendipitous experiences make me feel vitally alive. Being alive (!) and choosing an action and going where my will and vision take me yield gems for my trove of treasured moments. These are the moments aiming for mastery of self.
I observe myself as I fend off procrastination, with the kindness and curiosity “me as my own best friend” would have.
I sit down to put on my jogging shoes, feel the laces as I tie my shoes, feel my feet on the unyielding tile floor as I approach the door. I watch myself moving from one dimension to another as I leave my house and enter into the world of nature. I watch as the sun plays a game – flickering intervals of light that hide and appear, again and again, so that I might seek that seemingly unattainable something among pale green tints of the giant oak newly in leaf. Can I find a moment of inspiration in this freshness of morning as it announces its springtime delight?
The reality is that I cannot always control the outcome of my action. What I can control is whether I take action when the task needs to be done and whether I pay attention, with discernment and caring, to the quality of my action
Yes, this is a new day, a new journey, a new opportunity to value this effort that I am making to excel in my own unique vibrancy of personality and character, now informed by intentionally. Mindful… meaning here and now with heart open to simple joy like a morning glory flower seeking the warmth of the sun. I feel no urgency and no sense of needing to be anywhere else… and enjoying the un-complicatedness of it all. I’m jogging and there is nothing else in the world to do at this moment. I’m actively avoiding tomorrow’s arrival with me feeling that awful sense of urgency, that miserable feeling of needing to overcome a late start, run ahead of the past un-accomplishment; to catch up with some future vision of myself that I can’t quite see, as it stays just a few steps ahead of me.
Yes, I avoid all of that because I chose to cut off any mental debate with myself; shut out all distractions; chose to see the value in my effort in and of itself; and I had confidence that I could do it. The vital energy that I didn’t fritter away is now empowering me and feeding my motivation to do what I choose. What I choose, over and over and over again, as a devotion, is doing what I know needs to be done… AND LOVING IT.
So let’s conclude by going back once more to the findings of Piers Steel in his study. Based on those findings, we can say that if we…
• choose to put aside and stand firm against distractions when something else needs to be done
• understand the importance of doing that thing RIGHT HERE AND NOW in order to avoid frittering away our vital empowerment; avoiding mental cluttering and the cacophony of inner conflict that transmutes into repressed urgency the moment we give in to procrastination
• perceive our doing it and doing it in a timely manner as a very valuable thing in and of itself
• believe that we can take action and/or do the job confidently and get it done …
…then we are not likely to procrastinate. We are more likely to seize the moment, nurturing each motivation through to its fulfillment and each task to its completion. In this way, our seeking of that seemingly unattainable something is no longer a game of flickering light – a game that procrastinators play with themselves – motivated and intentional living flickering on and off, endlessly, painfully, destructively. No more!
Now the world of nature, the natural world with its laws of cause and effect, have yielded up its open secrets of spaciousness, stillness, and perfect contentment. Like the giant oak or the morning glory flower, I feel…not closed and constricted and narrowed down by living my life in my head with all the mental clutter and noise of inner conflict… No!
I feel the liberating spaciousness of living my life with intentionally so that I can breathe deeply and aspire expansively.
I feel the exquisite stillness of peace resulting from avoiding urgency, regret, and self-blame.
I feel perfectly content with having mastered this one moment of doing what needs to be done. Simple. Joyful. Freedom.
Freedom found in paying attention to the details of my taking action. The reality is that I cannot always control the outcome of my action. What I can control is whether I take action when the task needs to be done and whether I pay attention, with discernment and caring, to the quality of my action. Now the seemingly unattainable something is in my hand and in my heart. I have found devotion to striving for ever greater excellence.
The Prophet, peace be upon him, said,
“Indeed, Allah loves it when any one of you acts, so let him perfect it.” (Al-Bayhaqi in Shoua’ab Al-Eman)
My quest is toward perfection of MY SELF.