Recently I listened to a video by Marie Forleo, "How to Overcome Procrastination," and it brought to mind my own wonderings regarding this topic. Years ago, I was a chronic procrastinator, with tons of guilt and self-condemnation that often accompany this habit. I used to berate myself every time I didn't accomplish my goals or if I procrastinated an important project or an unpleasant task. Until I got curious and turned off my self-criticism.
To explore my procrastination, I made a simple little chart and tracked my behavior for one month without judgment.
I diligently logged 1) when I was putting things off, 2) exactly what I was putting off, 3) the emotion(s) I was feeling at the time, and 4) what was triggering the emotion(s). Every time negative self-talk popped up, I assure myself that I was taking action to change. After keeping this log for an entire month, I reviewed the information—and some repetitive patterns jumped off the page. With these realizations and insights came some major aha's and life changes.
I discovered and came to the same conclusion as Dr. Tim Pychyl: "Procrastination is an emotion-focused coping response. It's not a problem with your time management."
What Curiosity About My Procrastination Taught Me
Documenting my procrastination proved very revealing. Sometimes I REALLY didn't want to do what I thought I should do or what I had agreed to do. I uncovered multiple nonproductive patterns that were driving my life—and my procrastination.
INSIGHT 1: I regularly agreed to do things to please someone else, not myself. Bingo! My biggest error was committing before I really knew what was right for me. Even if it was a fit for me, did I have sufficient time and energy for the commitment?
INSIGHT 2: No matter how hard I tried to force myself and motivate or trick myself to get something done, I resisted. Fascinating how autonomy works—even if it's hidden in unconscious patterns. What I discovered was that when I wasn't 100% on board with a decision, my procrastination was a way of communicating to myself that I wasn't in agreement, that the decision wasn't good for me. There are many indirect ways to say no; procrastination is one of them.
INSIGHT 3: I was making other people's dreams and goals more important than my own. As an unconscious pattern, this habit of putting others first was rooted in outdated conditioning.
INSIGHT 4: Whenever I was trying to make myself do what I thought
I should do, I wasn't listening to my intuition. I was going upstream, paddling against my own truth. My intuition was trying to tell me, "Back away from this opportunity!"
INSIGHT 5: There were typically three obstacles that repeated whenever I procrastinated:
1) I viewed myself as having insufficient skill or knowledge to feel confident and successful.
2) By making procrastination and myself wrong, I always experienced negative emotional static: guilt because I wasn't acting; regret that I had committed prematurely; anger toward myself because "I should have known better"; resentment toward the person(s) who made the request I agreed to; a sense of feeling used because I was giving up myself; frustration from spinning my wheels and wasting time. And amid the clamor was a minuscule glimmer of excitement whenever I allowed myself to entertain thoughts of what I'd like to do instead.
3) Before I could actually do the task or decline the commitment altogether, I had to resolve a conflict with the person who asked me to do it or someone else, like my husband.
There was so much richness in these insights that it started to dawn on me that procrastination had gotten a bad name. My procrastination was actually acting in my own best interest and toward my highest good! So I made a decision: I decided to respect what was important to me and to choose freely how to spend my time and energy.
Related reading: "How to Stop Procrastinating"
Strategies to Support Change
To support myself in this big behavioral change, I put several practices in place:
• I gave myself adequate time and space to contemplate a decision.
Once I walked away from the person or hung up the phone, it was much easier to check in to see what I really wanted. (Pleasers, take note!) Many times, my answer was no. Whenever someone made a request of me (review an article or book; take care of their children; volunteer for a committee; etc.), I would give myself 24-48 hours before responding. I'd tell the person that I'd look at my priorities and schedule and would get back to them within a reasonable time. I'd also ask them what was the ideal date to get back to them and the latest date by which they needed an answer.
• The opportunity had to make me happy and be congruent with my values. Not that I stopped doing favors that weren't top on my fun list, but when I did commit, I really wanted to do it. And I scheduled the commitment so that it didn't conflict with other important goals and people in my life. The more important the relationship, the more I was willing to stretch.
• I checked in with myself and asked: "Is this relationship reciprocal?"
Keep in mind that due to my well-developed identity as a people pleaser, in the past I had set up a lot of relationships that needed me regularly but rarely gave back.
RESULT: When I did say yes and commit to something or someone, I showed up 100% and took effective action, while moving with ease, flow, and joy.
TIP: When changing a very entrenched and long-standing pattern, we often default to our old ways before the change is integrated. So sometimes I'd forget and say "Sure, I'd be happy to do that for you!" Those words would slip out before I realized it. To help me succeed in making this change, I made a commitment to myself that I'd be compassionate with myself while transforming this habit, especially if I committed too fast. Then I'd decide either to keep my word and fulfill the commitment or to revisit it with the person and renegotiate.
If I decided that I definitely didn't have bandwidth for the new commitment, I would go back and tell the person that I spoke too soon. I'd level with them that I was working on being more in integrity with myself by only committing to things I could dedicate myself to wholeheartedly. Much to my surprise, people were very grateful and relieved by my honesty. In fact, occasionally they had even found someone else who was a better fit, but they were afraid to tell me because it might hurt my feelings. This taught me that if it's not right for me, it's not right for other people either.
The more I practiced this new way of being, the less I procrastinated. Now I passionately do what I love. I support people guilt-free, and my life is overflowing with joy and fulfillment. Giving myself permission to say no was a very important ingredient in loving myself. From this solid place, now I actually serve and help far more people and accomplish lots more. Now that I have very little internal push-pull and rare conflicting feelings, my enthusiastic commitment makes things happen faster and more efficiently.
Procrastination can be a good thing. It's our compass pointing us to our true north.
As Marie Forleo says, "Sometimes putting it off is a sign you need to call it off."
What are you doing that might not be what you really want to be doing? Where are you procrastinating, and is it time to reassess why?"
If you want a daily practice in how to be true to yourself and an effective way to find emotional balance, start by observing the times you are procrastinating. And remember, all strategies for change begin with acceptance of where you are.
For more personalized support and proven tools for change, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.