Excerpt from Taming the To-Do List by Glynnis Whitwer. courtesy of Baker Publishing Group.
Everybody delays doing something, but not every delay is procrastination. There are good reasons why we put off certain tasks. Sometimes we don’t have the supplies or the information we need. Other times we don’t have the money. Most of the time, the honest reasons for delay are due to a shifting of priorities.
With small priorities, this is an ongoing process. A friend has a flat tire and is stranded at the mall, so you put down your project and head to her rescue. Or changes in priority can be big, like when our family adopted two girls from Africa and discovered their needs went beyond what we had anticipated. That act of obedience caused me to stop pursuing dreams I’d had for years as I set aside one set of goals and replaced them with another.
Life is full of surprises. Those that make us smile with delight, the everyday variety that feel mundane, and those that bring us to our knees.
A wise woman knows when it’s time to put the brakes on a project and turn to the needs God has placed in front of her. The Bible tells many stories of people whose lives were redirected. One
example in the New Testament is the story Jesus told about the Good Samaritan who took a detour to tend to a wounded man. Caring for a beaten and bruised stranger was certainly not on the Samaritan’s agenda. Jesus used this story to show us the importance of putting the needs of our neighbors above our own at times.
Blessed are those who listen and watch for what new thing God is about.
Procrastination, however, is a completely different issue.
We might blame the surprise need as the cause of our delay, but true procrastination involves a voluntary delay of something we could do but choose not to. Although it might include a shifting of priorities, its root cause is our resistance toward the task.
In other words, procrastination is an intentional delay of something that is in our best interest to do. For instance, it is in my best interest to exercise. And I could do it. I have an affordable gym membership. I can make time in my day. But the truth is, I don’t like exercise. There’s not even a sport I like to play.
Some people talk about feeling great once they start working out. In fact, studies show exercise releases feel-good endorphin in a person’s brain and should provide that so-called runner’s high. I think my endorphins run and hide when I start to work out, because all I feel is sweaty. And like I need a Diet Coke. But it would raise some eyebrows if I brought in my bottle of soda to the gym. So, given the slightest reason to change my plans, I do. Tomorrow I will feel more like exercising. Right?
If a friend calls with a flat tire as I am about to go to the gym, I secretly celebrate a reason to put off going to the gym. Of course, once I’m done helping, I rationalize that it’s too late to fit a workout in and cancel my plans, certain I’ll go the next day. But on most days it probably is still possible for me to go to the gym.
I’ve also been going to lose my “baby weight” . . . for about nineteen years. Which just so happens to be the age of my youngest son. Every day I wake up with the best intentions to start my new healthy eating plan, and that lasts until I actually have to deny myself something I enjoy.
A common excuse for me is when one of my college-age children calls and asks if I’m free for lunch. Of course I am! But rather than choose a salad, I celebrate our glorious time together and pick pizza. I could make a healthier choice but I don’t.
Maybe you’ve got similar frustrations. Are there things you know you should do . . . you have the ability to do . . . truth be told, you have the time and resources to do . . . but you simply don’t do?
We all procrastinate to some extent. We all make choices to delay doing the things that would make a positive impact on our lives. And there’s not much we won’t delay. We put off everyday tasks like cleaning, filing papers, ironing, and home maintenance. We put off important things like doctor’s appointments, paying bills, and making meal plans.
We put off spiritually enriching practices like praying, reading our Bibles, or serving others. We put off relationship-building choices like forgiveness, addressing an offense from a friend, or even spending time with people who are important to us.
And we put off our own dreams, things like going back to school, changing careers, adopting children, or taking a vacation. Sadly, most of us don’t even get to the dream stage because we know what will happen. We know that we’ll get excited, make plans, maybe even start—and then things will fizzle. And perhaps we don’t even understand why.
For some, this pattern happens again and again, bringing feelings of frustration, disappointment, and discouragement. Perhaps you’ve even labeled yourself a failure, certain you’ll never finish anything. Oh, how I understand.
Most of us have gone through a similar cycle and felt similar feelings. We’ve felt the despair. We’ve felt the condemnation. Perhaps just knowing you aren’t alone will help. Procrastination has a common cycle; see if you can identify yourself in it.
The Procrastination Cycle:
In their book Procrastination, authors Jane B. Burka, PhD, and Lenora M. Yuen, PhD, identify a six-stage cycle of procrastination that is common to most.1 This cycle can happen in hours, days, weeks, or months. The timing can vary, but the thoughts and emotions we share are similar.
Stage One: I’ll Start This Time
The moment you make a decision to do something, you declare that this time you won’t procrastinate. You won’t wait until the last minute. You may not start right then, but you are confident you won’t delay.
Stage Two: I’ve Got to Start Soon
At this stage, the early start is no longer possible. But it’s still not the last minute. Anxiety starts to creep in each time you think about what you need to do.
Stage Three: What If I Don’t Start?
All optimism is gone now. You realize you are on the cycle again and regret steps in. Burka and Yuen have me pegged perfectly when they say, “It is extremely common for procrastinators at this stage to do anything and everything except the avoided project.”
Isn’t that the truth? Perhaps this is a good time to make a confession: I procrastinated on writing this book. Most authors will tell you their biggest challenge while writing a book will involve the topic of the book. My friend Lysa TerKeurst, when writing her book The Best Yes (which is on making wise decisions), says she couldn’t make even the smallest decisions about it.
I should have seen it coming when I decided to write a book on procrastination. But that optimism of stage one was strong.
After getting the contract, I intended to start right away. But it was summertime and my kids had more flexible schedules. Then I was organizing a large part of an annual conference. My three college-age sons and my sister moved the next month. Then I took my mom on a ten-day trip. One thing after another became convenient excuses, and I started later than I wanted to start. But interestingly, each time I’d sit down to start, something else that I’d put off would hit my mind - and up I’d jump to go tackle it. Anything but keep my rear in a chair and my fingers typing. Stage three in action!
Can you imagine the snickers when friends and family asked me how the book writing was coming along? Yeah, it was embarrassing.
If you’re reading this now, you know I finally finished the book. But it wasn’t without applying all the things I’m writing about.
Stage Four: There’s Still Time
Although your heart and mind are filled with discouragement and you feel like a fraud, there’s still a sliver of hope that you’ll finish on time.
Stage Five: There’s Something Wrong with Me
When excuses have evaporated and there’s no one left to blame, you realize once again the problem lies with you. You might start comparing yourself to others, wondering what they have that you don’t. You believe there is something fundamentally wrong with you. Maybe you are missing an important personality characteristic or talent that everyone else has.
Stage Six: The Final Choice: To Do or Not to Do
It’s at this point you either abandon the project or nearly kill yourself and alienate others as you summon every last ounce of effort and slide into home plate, dust flying and scrapes on your leg, with milliseconds to spare.
Sadly, even if you finish you don’t feel good about it, because you know it wasn’t your best effort.
Does this cycle sound familiar? Perhaps you feel helpless and hopeless to break it. Do you wonder if you’ll ever be free from the guilt and shame that we procrastinators can feel?
Here’s some good news: just acknowledging the problem and the cycle is the beginning of breaking it. We aren’t forever chained to being women who procrastinate. We can make changes in our daily habits. But one of the problems with procrastination is it’s not always a conscious decision.
Why would we put off things that would improve our lives? It makes no sense. But we do it.