I don’t procrastinate. So when I do, I know something is wrong.
According to Psychology Today, people who procrastinate tend to fall into three categories:
- Those who enjoy the adrenaline rush from waiting until the last minute.
- Those who fear failure, success, or judgment of others.
- Those who are unable to make a decision and refuse to take responsibility for outcomes.
Reason #1: I’d set unrealistic deadlines for a task’s completion.
In the middle of August, I put “finish the rough draft of my next novel by September 30” on my to-do list. That involved writing 60,000 words in 6 weeks. But instead of working toward the deadline, I avoided working on the rough draft altogether. Writing the story wasn’t fun anymore. This is a pattern with me. I get addicted to speed and try to push myself faster and faster—a sure-fire recipe for eventually procrastinating.
Reason #2: The task evoked emotions that I didn’t want to deal with.
I currently have three sympathy cards I need to write. I know how much I appreciated the cards and messages I received after my dad’s death in 2014, but I just can’t write these. I don’t want to think about death today, much less write about it. Similarly, I have two closets in my house that desperately need to be cleaned. However, I know what I’ll find in those closets and I can’t handle my feelings about those objects...and so, I procrastinate.
Reason #3: I had no emotional investment in the task.
While I can summon the energy to paint a room to help my mom or get dental work done because I want to eat without pain, I struggle to complete an “unpleasant” task if it doesn’t directly benefit me or someone I love, or if it doesn’t align with my values, passions, or life direction. Because I’m a people pleaser, I often agree to be part of something I have no interest or investment in. As a result, several items on my to-do list are in a perpetual state of incompletion.
Reason #4: I wanted to punish someone.
I was angry at Sally*. Sally asked me to do something. I said yes, but then, I didn’t do it. Making Sally wait was a passive-aggressive way of punishing her without having to confront her directly about my anger. (I’m not proud of this one, but I do live in the Midwest…) I’ve seen teenagers procrastinate to hurt their parents or teachers, co-workers procrastinate to get back at their bosses, and spouses procrastinate to punish each other.
Reason #5: I was burned out.
I have a tendency work much harder than is good for me. I work long hours. I complete long to-do lists. Some weeks I operate outside of my comfort zone far more than I regenerate in a place I feel safe. But my body can only take so much abuse before it starts working against me. At that point, no matter how much I want to complete a task, I’m physically incapable of doing so.
Once I identified my reasons for procrastinating, I had to decide what to do with this new knowledge. Was I going to continue procrastinating or do something about the problems in my life? After some reflection and prayer, I realized procrastination gave me the unique opportunity to give myself five things I badly needed.
Gift #1: More time to find the joy in a task.
In my ideal world, I have plenty of hours to think and reflect, whether I’m writing a story, fixing dinner, or cleaning the house. I am at my happiest when I can move at my own pace and let the ideas percolate until they’re mature. Remember my rough draft? I moved the deadline to the end of November. With more time to enjoy the process, I’m writing again and actually having fun.
Gift #2: The opportunity to struggle with my emotional baggage.
I can’t conquer all my emotional struggles in a day. I deserve grace that says, “Michelle, I know you can’t handle this today, so you don’t have to.” Remember those sympathy cards? I still write them, but now I wait for the morning when I wake up and say, “I’m ready to write it today.” Every sympathy card I’ve bought over the last two years has eventually been sent out. I just have to wait for the day when I can emotionally handle it. And one day when I'm ready, I'm going to open those closets.
Gift #3: The ability to say no.
My talents are best used in areas I feel passionate about. I deserve to position myself in a place where my values align with the tasks. I’m not doing myself or other people any favors when I accept an assignment but don’t do it. Everyone would be better off if I said no to the things that aren’t important to me.
Gift #4: A release from my anger.
Holding on to my anger hurts me far worse than it hurts the person I’m angry at. I choose to free myself from the hold anger has on me. I recognize, though, that steps must be taken beyond choosing to forgive or the anger might rise again. I might need to change my attitude, confront the person, set clearer boundaries, or end the relationship.
Gift #5: Rest.
Not everything has to happen right away. I deserve time to take a break, sleep, exercise, eat right, watch TV, or do nothing productive at all. I only get one body, and I have to take care of it. Having experienced burnout several times in my life, I’ve learned that the best gift I can give myself is a chance to rest. With enough time and healing, I’m ready to tackle those items on my list.
I don’t like to procrastinate, but I’m learning that when I do, it’s a valuable warning that something is wrong and I need to fix it. I need to examine my motives. Maybe I remove some tasks from my to-do list that don't belong there. But most importantly, I need to give myself time, grace, boundaries, forgiveness, and rest.
When I do that, procrastination really does become a gift.
* Not the person’s real name.