A Surprising New Way to Think About Procrastination

 So many teens come to me distraught about how much they procrastinate! They always reveal it quietly, shamefully, as if procrastination is a huge sin.

But what if procrastination isn’t all bad?! What if — in fact — there are some gifts to be found in putting tasks off?

Let’s look at one of my clients, Lyndsey. Every week in our sessions, she assigns herself several tasks on which she wants to follow through. Lately she has been trying to review her anatomy flashcards every day for just 5 minutes. Just five minutes; that shouldn’t be too hard, right?

Each week, however, Lyndsey reports that she has — yet again — “failed” to follow through; there’s a different “excuse” as to why it didn’t make sense to do her flashcards that week.

Trying not to sound too frustrated, I asked Lyndsey about whether seeing me weekly is helping her break her procrastination habit. She had a fascinating response: although she’s not yet following through on the behaviors I suggest, she is actually NOTICING when she procrastinates. Whereas last school year she was procrastinating unconsciously, this year she is procrastinating mindfully, becoming more and more conscious of the choices she’s making.

This observation about mindful procrastination corresponds with a quote by David Whyte that a friend recently shared on Facebook:

Procrastination is not what it seems. …what looks from the outside like our delay; our lack of commitment; even our laziness may have more to do with a slow, necessary ripening through time and the central struggle with the realities of any endeavor to which we have set our minds. To hate our procrastinating tendencies is in someway to hate our relationship with time itself, to be unequal to the phenomenology of revelation and the way it works its own way in its very own sweet, gifted time, only emerging when the very qualities it represents have a firm correspondence in our struggling heart and imagination.

..Procrastination does not stop a project from coming to fruition -what stops us is giving up on an original idea because we have not got to the heart of the reason we are delaying, nor let the true form of our reluctance instruct us in the way ahead…

From Readers’ Circle Essay, “Procrastination”

Too often I — and my clients, as well as their teachers and parents — interpret procrastination as delay and lack of commitment. It’s all too easy for both Lyndsey and me to conclude that she is not committed enough to her studies because she is not using her flashcards daily, as we’ve decided.

What if, though, Lyndsey’s lack of follow through on flashcards was actually, as Whyte says here, a “slow, necessary ripening through time”? What if, rather than judging her relationship to procrastination, she were to view it as a revelation in the making?

What if I, as Lyndsey’s academic coach, see myself as someone who can nurture this revelation? Rather than just giving up on the idea of flashcards, what if we take Whyte’s advice to “go to the heart of the reason” that she is delaying and “let the true form of her reluctance instruct us”?

If we look deeply enough, we see that the real need here is not to follow through with flashcards. Rather, Lyndsey needs to learn about anatomy effectively and efficiently, in a way that works for her. The flashcards are just *one* of many strategies towards that goal. When I actually looked at the anatomy worksheets that Lyndsey’s teacher provides daily, I realized that perhaps she needs a more foundational study skill: to re-imagining her notes (which have been organized by her teacher) into a structure that makes sense to Lyndsey’s brain.

We spent the rest of our time practicing rewriting the notes, finding new ways to present the same information. It only took 5 minutes to work through one day’s lecture, and Lyndsey realized how effective it might be to practice this “reorganization” strategy every day after class. She appreciated this new problem solving task, which was more engaging than the memorization task that flashcards provided.

Will this new habit be the one that sticks for Lyndsey? Only time will tell. However, thanks to David Whyte’s re-framing of procrastination as a ripening, I find myself honored to be a witness to this “ripening” of habits that emerge only “when the very qualities [the habit] represents have a firm correspondence in our struggling heart and imagination.”

What tasks do you procrastinate on? What do you notice when you reframe them as a “ripening” instead? Please comment below; I’d love to hear.

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6 thoughts to “A Surprising New Way to Think About Procrastination”

  1. A few years ago, I got really honest with myself that I was a procrastinator. I put stuff off, felt miserable about it, and always managed to pull it all off and get things done by the time they needed to be done (mostly…I missed a few things, sometimes by a day or so, but for the most part, I get everything done). So, I finally realized that, even though I procrastinate, I still accomplish what needs to be done, so what I really needed to give up was how I FELT about procrastination.

    Now, when I am procrastinating, I simply notice it: “Oh, look at that. I’m putting stuff off again. Huh. I wonder why?” I don’t feel guilty, I don’t beat myself up about it, and I don’t think I’m a “bad person” for being a procrastinator (which I realized I had actually thought). Instead, I just notice it, let go of any negative feelings, and then get stuff done by the time it is due!

    It has been SUCH a revolution in my brain to simply give up the guilt about procrastination! I procrastinate as much as I always have done, and sure there are times I wish I didn’t, but since it doesn’t harm anything (including, now, my sense of self-worth)then I don’t spend much time worrying about the fact that I tend to procrastinate.

  2. Thanks, Celia, for telling us your story! I love that you’ve shifted from self-berating to compassionate-noticing. I also love your point that “it doesn’t harm anything.” I do think that’s normally true. Of course, in the situation of students, often the quality of their work is less than it could be if they’d planned ahead. So some might argue that the procrastination does “harm” the quality of their work. In your case, I bet that you have an inner clock that knows how long you can procrastinate and still get the quality you desire, and I bet that’s different for different tasks. Yay for inner authority and trusting the way we are.

  3. On my facebook page, Caroline made a comment I wanted to share with the world:

    “Just read this, Gretchen – most awesome! I have thought this way about the “P” word for some time now. Hating oneself and one’s actions is just wasted energy and becomes its own enemy – that energy can be recouped and redirected if we recognize that our bodies are wise teachers, and there are gifts in all our choices and actions if only we can “reframe” our thinking. Noticing, internal authority, affirmation = discovering our own best body wisdom practices, which may differ from what the world tells us they should be.”

    Thanks, for your comment, Caroline! Both you and Celia seem to have found the gifts in reframing procrastination.

  4. I find that when I am working on a project that is similar to projects I have done before, I am much more comfortable with the ripening process than when I am doing something for the first time.

    I just came off a team project where amazing things were accomplished at the last minute. I had no worked with most of the people before and was devastated by the amount of procrastination I saw happening. The process ended up being exceedingly stressful for the team because some team members were more comfortable procrastinating than others.

    There was a palpable moment when the whole group shifted into action together, when those who were most comfortable delaying knew that they could delay no longer.

    This was the first time this group of people worked together and the same team is going to be working together on a similar project in a few months. I am curious to see if the group timetable shifts for the next project or whether the folks who were less comfortable delaying become more comfortable with the timetable that worked before.

    The end result was amazing, so the procrastination did not affect the product. It is quite possible that the group will find a comfort with a degree of putting things off til the last minute based on what has worked in the past.


  5. In college, I learned that waiting until the last moment was sometimes the only way to garner adequate motivation. 20 years later, I went to work at a software company for a guy who was 15 year my junior and who was on the fast track to becoming a VP. Several times I helped him prepare an important report and presentation the night before it was due. From him I learned that it’s possible to do outstanding work at the very last minute in what appears to be way too little time. Since then, I define procrastination as “waiting until it’s overdue or past due.” Anything else is just doing things at the most appropriate time. ::grin::

  6. @Kate I love that your end product was amazing! How great to know that the final push really worked. There’s something to be said about having finite resources, like time. It seems that the big problem with procrastination is the stress that it causes, not the procrastination in and of itself. Reframing certainly helps take away some of the stress, as some of the comments above reveal. And it sounds as if, in regards to teamwork, some conversations about process might be in order, including what each person needs to pull of the project in as healthy a way as possible, (including an agreement about how — if procrastination is inevitable — to structure it so that the nonprocrastinators don’t feel too stressed. I’d love an update as to how the next project goes!

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