So, let me be honest. I wrote this title about ten days ago. And these next few lines followed today!
Of course, I had a ton of ideas in my head and I was going to incorporate them all and finish the article in no time. The ideas that came into my head were so numerous that I thought they would only get better with the passage of time. So, I waited (read procrastinated!).
No brilliant intellect can be considered valuable if one withdraws from action.
- Samuel Taylor Coleridge, British poet
Of course, the ideas, in keeping with their kind, came and went, some random, some brilliant. But without some development, they remained ideas and, predictably, over time, they became stale, anachronistic and uninspiring. The newer ones were nothing to write home about either. Other work replaced this article and soon, it was lying undisturbed on the backburner, the sparks ebbing, though not yet dead.
How did I explain the delay to myself? I thought my writing would be more powerful if I used some first-hand experience on the subject! Isn’t it amazing how quickly and easily excuses can be found!
However, as you can see, procrastination had a victim. This time, it was creativity.
It claims many other victims too, if you observe closely - health, peace, productivity, punctuality, and faith, to name just a few.
Beating procrastination is, definitely, not a piece of cake. The thing is that it may seem like a harmless, mental phenomenon, but its outcomes are starkly real, measurable, and sometimes, irreversible.
Victims of Procrastination
But, who suffers because of procrastination?
It could be a student postponing studying for an exam till the last minute. An employee delaying preparing for a presentation till the night before. A sick person avoiding a visit to the doctor. A sportsperson delaying the intake of essential diet supplements. A judge deferring judgment.
The effects of none of these actions is trivial. Then, how is it that we allow it to rule us?
How procrastination can be dangerous in everyday life
Procrastination can lead to serious consequences in simple everyday scenarios. How often do we read in the newspaper about a child being electrocuted because a live wire was dangling carelessly? The technician or electrician’s negligence cost a life. They probably procrastinated because it was one small task.
In a neighboring apartment’s swimming pool, there were many broken tiles along the floor of the pool. Despite repeated complaints by several residents, action was delayed for over two years. Understandably, the task involved massive planning, efforts, costs and inconvenience. In the meanwhile, at least fifty children and adults had sustained cuts to their hands and feet.
So you see, whether the task involved is small or big, the inherent value embedded in its completion cannot be written off.
Why do we procrastinate?
You know you have a deadline. You are behind already. It is not possible to catch up even if you work from now till the last minute. What do you do? Are you checking mail? Replying to a friend’s wardrobe concerns for a party?! Googling jobs that don’t have deadlines like your current one? Or obsessing about how many hours you have before you confess your predicament?
You don’t have to search hard to find out just why you are procrastinating. The root cause could be fear, dislike, distrust, dissatisfaction, incompetence, ignorance or, simply, your lack of mood. Additionally, if the task is difficult, cumbersome or time-consuming, you are more likely to postpone its execution.
Funnily enough, the task, itself, may not be as stressful as the emotions you wrestle with, when you contemplate it. So, the act of thinking and analyzing in your head bogs you down more than the task itself. Just being aware of this can help you tackle it.
Why we should overcome the habit of procrastination
Procrastination tends to make a very innocent and alluring entry into your life. You feel like you are enjoying some free time doing things you like, as you procrastinate some other task. But, the delay does catch up with you, sooner rather than later.
So, it would be helpful to deal with procrastination before the resultant anxiety, desperation, fear, defensiveness and resentment imprison you in their negative aura. So, take a look at these questions and see if they can act as keys that help you unlock your drive, initiative, and proactivity.
How to stop procrastinating and start living
Try answering these questions to understand and address your tendency to procrastinate.
1. Of all your pending tasks, which one needs to get done first?
Have you thought of life as an orchestra? The different tasks you have lined up are like the different musicians in the orchestra. They are all playing at the same time, except their tunes are not synchronized, and far from mellifluous. Each one wants to be heard and so, plays as loudly as possible! Perhaps they are hitting the correct notes of their song, but certainly not the same ones - because they are all playing different songs!
Have you encountered this situation before? So many pressing tasks simultaneously vying for your attention and frustrating you? Is this your reason for procrastinating? Do you have an impossible number of errands to run in limited time? If you do, naturally, something is bound to suffer from want of timely attention. The least enjoyable task, most probably, but not necessarily the least important. What can you do? Here are a few ideas:
a. Try to prioritize tasks, so something important doesn’t get neglected.
You could consider using the Eisenhower Matrix.
b. Another possibility is to make a timetable, and work your way through your tasks. It is a start, if nothing else. Well begun is half done, after all.
c. Sometimes you need to stop thinking, and just work. At such times, it might help to disregard unnecessary emotions and whims. Especially when it is time to be clear and practical.
d. You could also break down your main tasks into sub-tasks (Especially the ones you loathe the most), so that you can envision its conclusion. For instance, if you have to shift houses, your goal could be to pack just one carton with say, kitchen utensils on Day 1. There is a good chance you will get into a flow and do more than just one carton that day. If you don’t, you will still have achieved your target for the day!
2. Have you declared your goal to the world?
Did you begin your morning with a well-planned and conscientious diet plan for yourself - free from fatty, fast and fried food? Perhaps, you, proudly, stick to your plan during breakfast. However, as the day progresses and your work assignments pile up, you get caught up and miss your meal time. Suddenly, the sweet tooth monster attacks, and your oil craving begins. Water is almost dripping from your mouth. Perhaps courtesy the whiff of fries wafting in from the cafeteria…
You’re thinking, “After all, no one knows today is Day 1 of my diet. I could postpone this to tomorrow. It’s just a day’s delay, and I am too tired to fight my inner and outer demons at the same time today. I deserve a break - something to help me get through the day.”
Even before this mental conversation is over, you find yourself ordering that delicious-looking golden heart attack in a pouch. Case closed!
This is where that annoying but true friend and well-wisher, comes in handy, waving your beautifully laminated diet plan conspicuously. The one you confessed your diet plan to. Feelings of guilt quickly replace feelings of gluttony, and you are compelled to stay true to your diet plan and, more importantly, your word.
Herein lies the importance of announcing your goals to people. You will be accountable. The power of the spoken word cannot be underestimated. It is a lot easier to cheat yourself privately than publicly.
3. If your initial plan doesn’t work out, have you tried restructuring, rearranging and re-aligning it to suit your schedule?
Let’s say you plan to run the 13 miles that make up the half-marathon next month. You might have come up with a timetable that reads like this:
Week 1 - 3 miles
Week 2 – 6 miles
Week 3 – 9 miles
End of the month – 13 miles
Say you were busy, and put it off by 7 days. Now you should be running 6 miles. But that is too much for you to handle, so you are likely to put it off even more. Now, instead of indefinitely postponing your plans, you could change your schedule and try 3 miles for the first 3 days, then increase it to 5 miles by the end of the week.
You are still behind your schedule but not by that much. It is still possible. And, since you have made a start, you are more likely to want to finish it.
So, if you prepare to re-adjust your schedule, instead of ruing your lateness, you can, possibly, avoid postponing the commencement even more. Isn’t it better to be flexible than fickle?
4. Are you pursuing perfection in everything and everyone around you?
This is, perhaps, one of the primary reasons people procrastinate. Hoping for and expecting perfection. It is worth spending a few moments ruminating the cost of the pursuit for perfection. While you don’t have to settle for the mediocre, it is important to realize that if perfection is your condition for starting something, you will never start! And it is not possible to achieve anything without first starting it!
You want everything to be perfect, and in the pursuit for perfection you forget to see your own imperfection, and how you can improve.
- Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar
For example, let’s say you’ve been learning badminton for the last 3 years. You have a fair idea of the game, mastered a few shots, and picked up the footwork. Your coach feels you are now ready for a tournament. However, you have your reservations and want to wait longer. Why? You have seen Malaysian former World No.1 Lee Chong Wei play and want to equal his power and fitness. You feel you will be ready for a match only then.
It isn’t a bad goal or comparison but it prevents you from exploring your own level. Perhaps the improvement you seek will come when you enter competitions. You will only know when you give up your obsession with perfection (Lee Chong Wei in this case) as you see it, and work on your own imperfections.
One of William Shakespeare’s most famous protagonists, Hamlet, procrastinated endlessly. His inability to execute his uncle plagued him enormously. The result was that instead of one, several members of his close relations and friends also fell victims. Art follows life, after all. Hamlet is a classic case in point to fully appreciate the pitfalls of procrastination.
5. What activity in your pending tasks is simple and enjoyable?
There must be one task that you like doing more than the others. If you start with that interesting and enjoyable task, you are more likely to get into a flow and complete the rest.
For example, if you have to clean your car, you could start by using the hose pipe. Splashing water can be a lot of fun! If you have to cook a meal for 10, start with your favorite dish. If you have to go on a long official trip, see if you can break it down into several legs. Let the destination that excites you the most be the first one you start with, if that is possible.
On the other hand, if you begin with something that you know is going to take you a long time, it becomes demotivating to even start. And that is the beginning of procrastination.6.
6. Do you find yourself surrounded by distractions?
We live in the information age and so, there is no dearth of distractions that keep us from our tasks. These distractions disguise themselves as added learning, extra information, breaking news articles as well as juicy and relaxing entertainment! Unfortunately, they detract you from your main work.
So, you could try this. Turn off the internet. Disconnect cable connections. Keep your phone on silent. If you work from home, let people know, so you don’t get unexpected visitors when you are scheduled to work. Work in the living room, away from bedrooms.
If you expect to have a long session, keep some healthy snacks – cucumber or carrot slices, rusk biscuit or cut fruits handy to avoid getting up and moving away from your workspace. These small ‘disconnections’ will help you connect with your work and get it done on time.
7. Have you tried meditating to put off procrastinating?
The worst part of procrastination is that while you think you are buying yourself time to complete another activity, you are actually feeling burdened by the weight of the unfinished task. It bogs you down. This is largely because we don’t live in the NOW, but, in the past or future, regretting or planning endlessly.
Meditation can help you stay in the present. When you concentrate on what is before you, you will get much more done. Thoughts of postponing won’t be necessary when you are able to harmonize your work load and time crunch.
Also, the type and level of energy you have, at any point of time, plays a huge role in procrastination. As you mature in meditation you realize that energy (or lack, thereof) determines your level of commitment, interest, motivation, drive and focus. This awareness can help you better control these determining factors to tackle procrastination head-on.
8. Do you live a life true to your self?
This is a question that we all need to ask ourselves from time to time. Does what I do motivate me, is it who I am, am I getting to express the essence of me through my daily tasks? Your answer will, most probably, help you understand why you procrastinate.
This is because constant procrastination of work could be a sign that the task you are avoiding does not, fundamentally, suit you. Perhaps you are not feeling well-placed in your job or choice of career. If it is not rewarding you well – financially, intellectually or/and intrinsically, you might need to consider a change.
For instance, one of my friends had to write an article on the best ways that urine samples could be tampered with to eliminate any traces of ingested drugs.
Amidst the pile of other assignments, she didn’t put much thought into why she was procrastinating this one. Finally, when push came to shove, she found she was unable to make her peace with it. She was disturbed by the deeper implications of the article and, ultimately, had to surrender writing it altogether.
Is that happening with you? If it is, perhaps that is the reason that overcoming procrastination is so difficult for you. Being true to the person you are, and would like to be, might be easier as far as getting things done is concerned.
The Sudarshan Kriya and other practices taught in the Art of Living Meditation and Breath Workshop can greatly enhance your soft skills and help you overcome your barriers.
The promise of tomorrow
Gone with the Wind’s Scarlett O Hara mused, “Tomorrow is another day.”
Tomorrow is that glorious day when we will run the marathon, swim across the English Channel, perhaps even climb Mt Everest. Anything is possible – tomorrow! Unfortunately, though, we never encounter tomorrow. So, we never hold ourselves accountable.
If you follow a healthy lifestyle and maintain work-life balance, you may enjoy the present, rather than look over its shoulders at tomorrow.
Beat procrastination so you can achieve mental peace rather than become a mental piece!
Did this article strike a chord in your life? I know. I know. You’ll tell me later, right?!
Written by: Anusha Chellappa
Based on the inputs from Dr. Prema Seshadri, Faculty, The Art of Living
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