One of the dilemmas that I have frequently faced is in trying to determine whether procrastination is justified or not. Sometimes you need to be patient and wait and other times call for immediate action. What often ends up happening is the events you put off until later you never actually get to. Now never seems like a good time, so you comfortably push events off into the future.
How can you determine whether you are putting something off because of legitimate reasons or are just procrastinating until the fourth of never? Since our own fears and emotions are often carefully disguised through logic and rationality, it can be difficult to make intelligent decisions about whether that procrastination is actually justified.
This dilemma has forced many self-help experts to tout that the answer always lies in doing things now as opposed to never. Although this remedy certainly works in a lot of cases, most of my intelligent readers realize that it may not always be the best solution.
What if your dream was to start a business, but you’ve just found yourself in serious debt? Perhaps the answer here is to put off taking action and rebuild your funds before starting fresh. Similarly, what if it is impossible to act now and procrastination is a must. Let’s say you are going to ask your boss for a raise, but she is out on a two week business trip. How will you know you simply won’t procrastinate more when she comes back?
Initially I found this situation very difficult to deal with. Although many times I correctly procrastinated for legitimate reasons, too many times I ended up procrastinating until the threat of a consequence forced me to take action. If it was foolish or impossible to act immediately in all cases, how could I determine which ones were legitimate and which were just attempts to needlessly procrastinate? More importantly, when faced with these attempts at procrastination, how could I stop them?
Fast Forward to the Future
One of the problems that occurs when procrastinating is that it is very comfortable to push a deadline into the future, but eventually that future date must come. You can never do something in the future, only in the now. So all those events you’ve put off, eventually must come into the present.
This at first glance seems obvious, but it is an important point that seems to be missed by the subconscious when you are trying to procrastinate. Whatever you plan for in the future you eventually have to do, and when you do it, it will be in the present moment. Because much of procrastination stems from fear, your brain feels relieved thinking the threat is gone, even though it is just delayed.
The way to determine whether your reasons are legitimate is to do a little mental exercise. Sit back and close your eyes and visualize what it is that you need to do. Make the visualization as vivid as possible, and make no attempts to censor your inner emotions. If it feels lousy, scary or painful to do this activity, then visualize that too.
What you are trying to do is determine what it would feel like to be in the position of your future self doing the very thing you are putting off. Although it only exists in your head, you are imagining that instead of procrastinating, you are actually doing it.
Now I want you to notice what you feel when you are in that situation. Chances are it will be negative emotions and feelings. If you are imagining doing a boring, long-winded chore you might feel drudgery. If you are imagining doing something fearful you will probably feel scared. Look carefully, since your imaginations can never fully capture the true intensity of the emotions that you will be feeling.
Whenever you notice negative feelings and emotions during your visualization, that is your signal to put a red-flag on this activity because it is very likely going to be the target of procrastination. If you’ve built up enough inner emotional mastery and discipline, you may be able to overcome these roadblocks, but negative feelings mean you are far more likely to put it off.
When you come to this point you have a couple options. First, if possible, do the thing right now. Even though you may have wanted to put off the event to a later space in time, procrastination feeds upon itself, and any delay will make it harder to overcome. This is the easiest route to break free of the cycle of procrastination.
Since it may be impossible to take action right now, either because of a real, physical limitation or simply an emotional block that your willpower can’t overcome, you need to take steps to ensure that when the future date arrives, you won’t procrastinate further.
A good way to look at your problem is like a roadblock is stopping your path. Some of these roadblocks will be physical limitations (you can’t ask your boss for a raise because she isn’t there). Other times your roadblocks will be mental (I should start working on my project now, but you know the weather is just so bad right now…)
If you currently lack the willpower to jump over your roadblock, your next step is to try and reduce the size of the roadblocks so they don’t impede your success. Physical roadblocks can’t be removed, but most of your mental roadblocks can be.
Breaking Down Negative Expectations
The first way to break down those mental roadblocks is to go back to your visualization. Look at any negative expectations you have and the emotions you associate with them. These are your mental roadblocks. You know you are free of mental roadblocks if looking back at your visualization is free of negative feelings.
Look at these negative expectations and ask yourself how you can reduce them. If you think working on a project will be boring, why not add music? If asking your boss for a raise might be scary, why not prepare exactly how you are going to ask her? Come up with as many ways as you can to possibly reduce the negative impact of your visualization.
Depending on your creativity and experience using this technique, you may end up reducing most of your mental roadblocks, but inevitably some will still exist. Unless your willpower is significantly high to overcome these roadblocks, when the time comes to act you will end up putting it off again. Worse you are more likely to rationalize your procrastination off forever, never taking action.
The final solution if you can’t reduce negative expectations is to force yourself over them. Getting leverage is a powerful way to stay committed to something even when natural obstacles stand in your way. So if you can’t seem to build the willpower to overcome those last few obstacles, you need to build enough momentum behind yourself to push yourself over them.
There are many ways you can get leverage on yourself from making a public commitment, writing your goal down and even so-called “burning the ships” where you physically cut off any option for retreat like a conquering army burning the ships to prevent retreat. With enough leverage you can overcome strong mental roadblocks.
When to Act — Is it Really Now or Never?
By continually repeating the process of visualizing the future event, and systematically breaking down your negative expectation, you can remove many of the mental roadblocks that prevent success. When you can’t shrink the roadblocks any further, creating leverage can give you the final push over those obstacles.
This brings us back to our original question, when emotions are involved, how can you know when procrastination is justified? It is so easy to rationalize that it can be difficult to tell when those rationalizations are based off of emotional pictures rather than sound reasoning.
In some cases, such as the absent boss make an obvious need for putting the event off. Other cases such as the poor potential business owner can be a little more vague. Although it isn’t by any means a perfect strategy, this is a simply way to determine whether you should act or create a purposeful delay.
My basic reasoning is simply this. The larger the negative emotional burden you have attached with the possible outcome, the greater the risk of procrastinating. Even if it isn’t a perfect time, if the situation has enough negativity associated, it is probably best to do it now. If through visualization and systemic reduction of roadblocks, you can make the event neutral or positive, then it is more likely that your reasons for delay are justified.
If you feel strongly that there are legitimate reasons to delay, but you still feel a very strong negative burden, it is time to once again use leverage. Create a high amount of consequences that will happen if you fail to act by the given date, no matter what. Although acting now is probably your best bet, if this is impossible, creating leverage can do the trick.
To summarize, this is what you are going to do the next time you are thinking of procrastinating (especially if it is something big):
- Visualize the future event and try to detect any negative emotions or expectations.
- If the amount of negative expectations is large and it is possible to do it now, do it now.
- If you can’t do it now (real or imagined roadblocks)
- Finding creative solutions to reduce the roadblocks
- …or get enough leverage to force you over them.
There are going to be a lot of things you aren’t going to want to do but need to. Some of these may be boring and long. Some of them might be painful and hard. Some will be terrifying. Remove the disguises procrastination uses and take action. Life isn’t going to wait, why should you?