A Peak Performance weblog

What is procrastination?  Just getting clear on exactly what it is is a significant challenge in itself. And the way we look at it determines the range of remedies for procrastination. Blanchard and Gottry wrote, “It’s when you put off doing something until later.” (p. xiii, The On-Time, On-Target Manager) But this is not quite correct.  Putting something off till later is no different from rescheduling something to another time, which is not necessarily a problem. And we know there is usually a negative connotation to the word procrastinate.

So what is it that makes procrastination problematic?  When we know that now is the best or most appropriate time to do something, and then we put it off to some other time, or don’t think about it or re-schedule it at all, it is a problem.  So this is a much better description of the word procrastinate:  We have something that we really want to do right now, yet we don’t do it now, perhaps thinking that we’ll do it later, perhaps not.

Example of procrastination

An opinion rom an Internet forum on procrastination: “I think there are reasons that you procrastinate and that if you can get to the bottom of why this is you can do something about it. If you can ‘just do it’ you probably don’t have a problem.”

To get clear on what’s involved in procrastination, consider this example:  Suppose I have a speech I want to prepare. It’s Monday, and the speech is to be delivered Thursday. Suppose I have a four-hour block of time today that I can use to prepare the speech, and no other open time before Thursday. This is definitely the best time I have to work on it.

I begin working on the script for the talk. The work goes pretty well. Sentences flow; the work goes almost by itself, effortlessly. Before long, I am so engrossed in the writing that I’m not aware of any feeling of time passing. Nor am I aware of past, present, or future. There’s only timeless absorption in my work.

But eventually I get a little confused about the message I want to get across. I don’t face the confusion head on, and my mind starts to wander. I look at the clock and realize it’s almost time for my favorite TV show. Pretty soon I’m thinking about how I might be able to finish my preparation right after the show is over, before I go to bed. Yes, it seems possible! I think I have enough time. So I put my work aside and begin to watch the show.

After procrastination, the quality of my experience suffers. Watching the show is not so enjoyable as I’d hoped it would be, because my awareness is divided between watching the show and being aware that I have to do my work. Time is passing relentlessly, and it feels like the future is closing in on me. I am watching TV here in the present, feeling anxious and guilty about a job waiting for me in the future. In addition, I have missed an opportunity, and feel less confident and capable as a result.

Summary of the procrastination process

Here’s a summary of the process:  first, as we think about doing, or actually do the thing we want to accomplish, some negative feeling arises. Then we get distracted, lose whatever concentration we have, and start to think about postponing what we’re doing in favor of some other, now preferred activity that we have in mind. We may visualize our schedule, identify an available ‘time slot’ when we can re-schedule the activity, and then we put the task off and take up the ‘preferred activity’. Then during our preferred activity, it’s difficult to concentrate on, or fully enjoy what we’re doing.  Our attention is divided between present and future, where our deferred task is lurking and awaiting our full attention, and our feeling of time passing is heightened.  We miss opportunities; suffer feelings like anxiety, guilt, and pressure; and diminish confidence.

Most explanations of the process that I have seen do not highlight the importance of avoiding some negative feeling, which actually causes us to put something off.  And no other explanation that I’ve seen explains how procrastination actually adds energy to the feeling of time passing out of our control.

How you handle procrastination depends on how you are experiencing things

There are many different ways of trying to handle procrastination, depending on the way we see it, and in general, on the way we have structured our experience of time.

Suppose that we are experiencing time in the way that is ‘normal’, or typical in Western cultures.  This habitual perspective, or way of experiencing time is often called of linear time.  We feel time passing from past to present to future at a fairly constant rate that seems beyond our control.  Past, present, and future feel like separate temporal ‘rooms’ in our experience, and we feel located in, and bound to, the present room.

Now let’s consider a series of six remedies, ordered from the most superficial to the most effective.

1. We may procrastinate because of confusion, doubt, or overwhelm about what we want or need to do right now.  In this case better organization will often take care of the confusion.   Some relevant statements from an Internet forum:

Part of the problem is starting: we often see the whole project in its overwhelming entirety, and this understandably puts us off.

I revamped a project that has been lingering for four months and wrote out a strategic plan for getting it done. I now feel highly optimistic and motivated about doing the next step rather than wilting when I think about it.

The most common culprit I see in my own system and in coaching people is a mislabeled next action that’s not really what comes first/next. I had on my list for months to call the insurance company to ask about a statement I received. I finally got smart and took a good look at what this thing was not moving and in fact was getting more repulsive as the weeks went by. “Call insurance company” was not my next action. Get my subscriber number from my files was my next action. Every time I was away from my files to make the call I couldn’t do it because I need that subscriber number when I call them.

To remedy this, if you’ve got a whole project and not just a task, make sure you’ve broken the project down into pieces that are doable. (See  http://www.manage-time.com/projects.html  )    You can do mind-mapping or some other method to break down the project. If you haven’t identified ‘bite-sized’, doable tasks, you’ll probably be somewhat confused and perhaps even feeling overwhelmed, more than enough ‘reason’ to put something off.

Then make sure you’ve prioritized the tasks in the project so you know what’s most important.  (See   http://www.manage-time.com/prior.html   )     Once you’re clear on what the priorities are, identify the one particular task to do next.  Whenever you’re doing something, you need to know with certainty that the current task is a priority, and is best done now.  Otherwise you won’t know why you should concentrate on it instead of doing something else, and it will be all too easy to get distracted.

2. We may procrastinate because we don’t like what we’re doing, or are thinking about doing.  It seems some things are enjoyable and other things just aren’t. It’s almost like the feelings are built into the activities or tasks themselves.

My procrastination is more a matter of dread: the things I procrastinate on are things that make me feel bad.

I have my to-do’s classified as Nice and Nasty. I know that when I look in the Nice tray, I’ll only see tasks that are positive. The Nasty tray contains things I feel bad about for whatever reason.

Once we’ve evaluated something as ‘nasty’ or unlikeable, even dreaded, our options are quite limited.   One approach people try is to just use will power, ambition, or some other strong motivation to force themselves to do the disliked task.

Procrastination comes from not feeling like or not wanting or to do something. So if I need to get something done, I must find a way to trick my mind so that I get motivated to invest the necessary effort in order to do it. Therefore, motivation should beat procrastination. But how do you keep motivation during your whole day?

We’re led to believe procrastination is only due to laziness, and thinking that can really make us feel so down about ourselves that we fall into an endless spiral. But even if we’re lazy, willpower alone won’t work!

Other people ignore the feelings and try to create a sense of urgency or significance in order to get something done.

Develop a sense of urgency to get a job done quickly. One powerful way to do this is to set a short-term deadline whenever you start a major task and to measure how long it takes you to accomplish it. In general, if you limit the time allowed for an activity you will work much faster.

Others will try to ignore how they feel now and imagine an expected ‘better time’ after the distasteful activity has been finished.

If you can imagine what things will be like when they’re better, you can make it happen. It’s this powerful vision that will naturally pull you forward and stem the tide of procrastination.

I don’t think there’s any way to get excited about doing the routine minutes for a recurring meeting other than looking forward to the satisfaction of getting them done, knowing full well, next week you’ll have to do it again.

I promise myself that after doing something distasteful I will somehow reward myself.

Mark Twain evidently said, “If the first thing you do each morning is to eat a live frog, you can go through the day with the satisfaction of knowing that that is probably the worst thing that is going to happen to you all day long!”

Others will do pleasant things first and try to build some momentum to apply to later unpleasant things.

Do pleasant things first, and build momentum.

However, once we label and believe that something is unpleasant or ‘nasty’, all these approaches will just reinforce our belief and add energy and intensity to the ‘bad feeling’ when we finally try to begin the task. Seeing something as unpleasant can become a counterproductive habit in itself.

Others use time limits to occasionally get some relief from bad feelings.

Promise yourself you’ll only do 10 minutes of each task.

This can be somewhat helpful because part of the problem is to stop resisting the unpleasant feeling, whatever it is, and just get started.

3. To break a procrastination habit it can also be helpful to see how procrastination has the ‘side-effects’ of undermining your confidence and depreciating your sense of fulfillment with whatever you’re doing from then on.

The process by which our feeling of time passing is created can again be summarized, but slightly differently, emphasizing what happens in our energy centers:  Some feeling begins to arise in awareness. But rather than feel the feeling, we turn away from it. The feeling is repressed or suppressed and we lose a measure of confidence as well as a bit of the natural sense of fulfillment that accompanies being fully involved in our energies. The energy of the heart is lessened and we feel somewhat pressured. Excess energy flows to the head and a sense of detached self-consciousness intensifies as our thinking skips about the separate past, present, and future rooms in our experience. Energy in the area of the throat, which is closely associated with time, becomes agitated as we become anxious and more aware of time passing. We feel more helpless; time becomes more threatening, a greater enemy. There’s a more dissatisfied sense of self trying to seek satisfaction via various objects and activities. (p. 38, Tarthang Tulku,  Kum Nye Relaxation, Part I)

4. We can do better than believe that something is unpleasant or ‘nasty’, and then avoid the feeling, or put up with small doses of it as we discussed in 2. above.  We can face the feeling directly, or even concentrate on it.

Research shows that we put things off and procrastinate because either thinking about, or actually doing our task has brought up some feeling or emotion that we don’t want to face, some kind of negative feeling that distracts us from what we’re doing or want to do. So the major part of dealing with procrastination is learning to face and fully experience such feelings that we don’t like. There are many time management techniques for dealing with procrastination, but without handling the feelings that cause us to avoid doing things, we do not get to the source of the problem.

To identify and begin to work with procrastination-related feelings, you can try one of these exercises:

There can be all kinds of feelings, such as boredom, depression, indecision, fear, fear of failure, guilt, and pressure. Edwin Bliss calls it “Pigeonholing,” to know what’s causing it.

My procrastination is more a matter of dread: the things I procrastinate on are things that make me feel bad. Not just things that are unexciting, but things that make me feel bad about myself. Either I feel like I’m letting someone down, or it’s something for someone who I’ve already let down, or it makes me feel depressed or hopeless or whatever. And that’s not something that a simple recipe-like process can handle. It’s not a matter of tweaking the process, it’s a matter of examining what hurts and why

5. After identifying and starting to feel the feelings involved, we can go further.  ‘Negative’ is often just a label put on top of neutral energy. If the ‘negative’ label can be seen through, there’s no impetus to avoid things. Here’s an excerpt from my book Results in No Time (see http://www.manage-time.com/rintbook.html ), in which Jyothi teaches Jed Stewart how to work with and change ‘negative’ feeling:

Jyothi: “Just stand and put your arms straight out to the sides at shoulder height.”

Jed: “Like this?”

Jyothi: “That’s it. Tell me what you’re experiencing.”

. . .

Jed: “My shoulder hurts a lot. This is dumb. I’m putting my arms down.”

Jyothi: “Please, Mr. Stewart, stay there a little longer. . . . The negative feeling tends to fragment one’s awareness and cause a lot of thinking about how to get away from the feeling. Try to focus lightly on the ‘center of the pain’. Be aware of the pain as if you were a spot of awareness inside the pain itself–rather than the way you’ve probably been feeling it, as an observer inside your head, and therefore outside of, or separate from the pain. While being aware of the pain, breathe lightly through your mouth and nose, inhaling and exhaling gently and evenly. . . .”

. . .

Jed: “That was interesting. For a short time there, when I went inside the pain, its quality changed. Or maybe I should say that for a while it wasn’t painful. . . . it was as if the same kind of sensation was there, but it just wasn’t painful any more. That was a real breakthrough.”

Jyothi: “When you are inside the pain, where is the sense of self?”

Jed: “Maybe the usual feeling of self isn’t there. When ‘I’ look in a certain way, there is only sensation. . . . It’s like a stream of energy flowing where the pain used to be. As if a dam across a stream had broken, and the water is flowing more freely. It’s actually easier to hold up my arms than it was when I first started. In fact, it’s pretty effortless, as if they stay up by themselves.”

. . .

Jyothi: “Perhaps we could review what happened . . . .”

Jed: “I realize now that before I got into the pain, I felt separate from it without knowing it. I was more like an outside observer, as you said, even though it was in another part of my body.”

Jyothi: “Have you heard of the principle ‘Your SOTP (sense of time passing) measures your separation from whatever you’re doing’?”

Jed: “Yes . . . . When the pain was really strong, I felt really separate from it, and time was really dragging.”

Jyothi: “Was the sensation still painful when you were not feeling separate from the pain?”

Jed: “No! It was kind of neutral.”

Jyothi: “Do you think it’s accurate to call the pain a ‘negative feeling’?”

Jed: “It felt negative in the beginning, but when I got into it, it didn’t really have any negative quality.”

Jyothi: “And when you were really absorbed in the experience, you said the energy started flowing, leading to a heightened awareness of what was going on?”

Jed: “Right. It felt like the energy broke through some kind of blockage in my shoulder. Afterwards my arm and trunk felt more integrated, there were fewer thoughts, and my sense of time flowing lessened. I felt a whole lot better–and more whole. . . . I never thought consciously about going into a negative sensation or feeling as you suggested. So when a negative feeling comes up, you lightly focus on it, or try to move your awareness to it?”

Jyothi: “Yes. Or you can even think of your awareness as coming from it.”

Jed: “And you stay with the feeling until it changes?”

Jyothi: “Yes, try to stay with it until the conflict resolves itself somehow. The different possible choices of what to do seem to arise most quickly when we lightly focus on the feelings involved, rather than thinking about where the feelings came from. Eventually it should become clear that one or more directions would enhance your sense of well-being. Other choices will probably seem less productive.”

While we do things, even things that we normally love, strong negative feelings can arise.  Then we can try ‘seeing through’ the negativity, as in the excerpt above.  In most every case we can find that the quality of the feeling changes,  as does our feeling of time passing.  We can learn that these so-called ‘negative’ feelings are not fixed, or unchangeable, but malleable energy.  The activities aren’t inherently distasteful.  By concentrating directly on the apparently ‘negative’ feeling, even getting completely ‘into it’, the feeling changes to a neutral energy, facilitating whatever we’re doing.  Then there is no distracting feeling causing us to put something off. This insight is essential to allow for a more immediate and complete resolution of procrastination.  (To even further explore the possibility of relating to feelings in different ways, see “Different ways of experiencing a feeling” at http://www.manage-time.com/heart.html.

6. In seeing through the apparent negativity of certain feelings, we dissolve the immediate motivating force for procrastination.  We can also dissolve the somewhat stable foundation on which procrastination depends, the linear-time structuring of time into past, present, and future ‘rooms’ in our experience. This is a very effective preventative process.

Consider my example once again. When I started my work, I really concentrated. The experience was timeless. There was no awareness of the passing of time, and no sense of the future separate from the present. After procrastinating, a river of time began to flow. I anxiously watched time pass, and was subtly aware of my speech waiting for me off in the future. There was a “present time” where I was hiding from the work up ahead in the “future time.” Clearly procrastination had the effect of changing my sense of time. Procrastinating actually creates or intensifies our sense of time passing, as well as our feeling that the present is separate from the future.

However, typically in Western cultures we think that time is simply a physical reality that is independent of our consciousness. It seems to ‘flow’ linearly at a constant speed, passing quite unalterably from past to present to future no matter what we think, feel, or do, and no matter what perspective we take on time. As Edward Hall noted in his book The Dance of Life (pp. 78-9, Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1983), time is like a conveyor belt moving a series of empty containers that can be filled with our activities. The conveyor passes through past, present, and future rooms in our experience, and we’re always in the present room. With this view of linear time, we can fool ourselves into thinking that procrastination is simply rescheduling a task to a future container on the conveyor of time. Such rescheduling seems to produce no serious side effects.

But in procrastinating we delude ourselves. Time is not simply a fixed physical reality independent of our consciousness.   There are three types of time:  (1) physical or event time–the occurrence of physical and experiential events, (2) measured time–ways of measuring ‘event time’, and (3)  felt time–various experiences and feelings related to time.  By procrastinating we actually fabricate and reinforce a variety of felt time, creating the conveyor with its containers, while intensifying the feeling of being out of control of time flow.  (See  http://www.manage-time.com/times3.html )

A redefinition of procrastination is warranted by this fuller understanding of the process. Procrastination is essentially the repression or suppression of an unpleasant feeling in order to temporally separate oneself from a task. We’re familiar with ordinary spatial separations, where we can build walls or just walk away from something. But we can also temporally separate ourselves from things we don’t like.

In order to procrastinate, we need to believe that there are past, present, and future temporal ‘rooms’ or ‘spaces’ in our experience.  Only then is it possible to ‘put something off’ into the future ‘room’, and temporally separate ourselves in the present ‘room’ from the task. We need to feel that the future is separate from the present, and this is certainly felt to be the reality with the view of linear time common in Western cultures.

With this past-present-future structure in mind, or in ‘place’ within our experience, we can then put something ‘off’ to the future containers. What seems to happen is that the energy of the feeling that we don’t like (confusion in my speechwriting example) is pushed away, suppressed, and it is transformed into a stronger experience of the conveyor belt of time passing between past, present, and future ‘rooms’, with the somewhat dim recollection of our postponed task off in the future somewhere. The energy of confusion isn’t lost, it doesn’t simply disappear, it’s just changed to a different form. So our stronger sense of time passing is a result of transforming the suppressed ‘negative’ energy. Time is not just an external physical reality that is ‘real’ or predetermined or constant. It’s more flexible than Western cultures teach.

Since time is very flexible, perhaps we can take the characteristic orientation of procrastination and planning in general, where we look from the present toward the future, and reverse it–look from the future back towards the present and past. If we reverse this view of time, we might be able to break our habit, as well as loosen the energy built into time’s structures by previous acts of procrastinating. In fact, the Turn Time Around  exercise does turn our ‘normal’ habitual temporal perspective around and release some of the energy frozen by putting things off, and by avoiding things by ‘looking forward to’ better times. Procrastination is an example of how we create our sense of time flow; for more general information on this creation, see How Our Sense of Time Flow is Created.

After working with the Turn Time Around exercise a while, you can take this way of breaking down the barrier between present and future a step farther by practicing more subtle Exercises 20 and 21 from Time, Space, and Knowledge by Tarthang Tulku (pp. 175-6, Berkeley: Dharma Publishing, 1979). If you have already done the “Turn Time Around” exercise, you have some experience of the first way of doing Exercise 20: “by visualizing yourself as actually being in the future . . . looking towards ‘the present’.” With sufficient practice, “you uncover a ‘knowing’ which is less tied to your self-image.” Then you can do the exercise a second way, using “‘knowing’ to perform the shift in relating to time’s past-present-future structure.” After this second type of practice of Exercise 20, “A More Subtle Structural Reversal” is accomplished with Exercise 21. For exercise instructions see pp. 175-6 of Time, Space, and Knowledge.


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