Procrastination is a state that we can all relate to. Somehow our well-intentioned minds and bodies destined for meaningful productivity find themselves captivated in the netherspheres of a far off land we call procrastination. This journey begins with good intentions. I just need to find a clock for my office. People need to know what time it is.
However, 3 hours later when you are shoulder deep in the history of the Egyptian 5th Dynasty sun god Ra, you might find it hard to explain to Jeanie from accounting that you don’t have her numbers because you are grieving the fact that you may have (as history would have you understand) been born from his tears and sweat. And for good reason, one it sounds crazy and second it takes a lot to admit that you have come from another man’s sweat and tears. Let’s be honest though, we are probably all born from some man’s sweat and tears!
Procrastination emerges because we need a break or are dissatisfied with our current work. Based on how quickly technology has required us to respond to work, family, and friends, and its unrelenting flashes and sounds, we become fatigued, and need some way to take a break. Feeling guilty about leaving our work or our home, we promise ourselves a short sojourn from our current work by focusing on work that is less stressful (ie: looking for a clock, laundry, rearranging your desk), and instead find ourselves locked into this new work.
Staying in procrastination mode happens often for two reasons: to get a break and to find relief.
We actually need a break, and while we are not getting a break we are experiencing something a little less stressful than the work we are postponing. Procrastination is not actually a break. It is simply another kind of work. It is in many ways driven by guilt and a lack of social support for breaks. When we are at work, we are validated for working, but not validated for taking care of ourselves, so the only way to take a break would be to take one that also seems a lot like work. I know that I have to finish this report, but I will take a break to run some errands. While you run errands, you remember more errands you have not run, and the process continues until you return to work stressed if you return at all.
We would probably take an actual break (walking, meditating, napping, catching up with coworkers), if our superiors modeled it as important for well being and performance and structured it into our day. Instead, people are validated for their productivity.
The media also values relentless work without breaks. There are scores of movies that showcase a person’s rise to success with an almost exclusive focus on working unreasonable hours. A common theme in television shows is the person with superpowers. Most of us want these powers so that we could do more work even faster.
With this information, we can’t help but come to the conclusion that taking necessary breaks neither seems to be supported by our work places nor the media. So it is no surprise that we don’t really take breaks, we just find more clever ways to work. The problem is that to be the most effective at your job, you need breaks. More work at a certain point just makes you more ineffective.
Procrastination promises the feeling of relief and provides just enough for you to continue procrastinating. We begin to procrastinate to stop feeling so stressed or to regain our capacity to think once we feel burnt out. It makes sense. You are experience a sense state that both prohibits continued work and the influx of cogent ideas. You realize that you need to reset your system, so you begin to procrastinate. Actual relief comes from the processing of stress and the wiping of the white board in your brain that is covered in obligations and ideas.
Only some form of meditation- traditional (sitting) or active (physical activity that is just active enough to connect you to your body and allows feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations to manifest and pass)- or therapy will allow you to process thoughts and stress to the point where you experience relief. Though you could make a good argument for talking your thoughts or worries out with a friend or family member- if they are skilled in helping people process thoughts and stress.
Procrastination does not process stress or clear your white board. It ignores these two things while slowly adding more information to your white board. The longer you procrastinate, the less time you have for work and home obligations and the more anxious you begin to feel about not working. So while initially procrastination provides some relief, eventually it provides more stress.
The Real Question
The real question you need to ask yourself is if we are so aware of procrastination, how do we find ourselves entangled in it, and why does it persist?
The reason we become entangled in it is that the need for rest and relief is so great that our mind develops what I call the elegant distraction. The elegant distraction is a reason that appears to be both legitimate and deserving of immediate attention, and as good people we try to resolve it. To meet the criteria for this kind of distraction it must be simple and involve other people. It also must have sound reasoning. The mind has a hard time acknowledging or even confronting sound reasoning even sound reasoning that is unhelpful.
Let’s look at an example of an elegant distraction. You find yourself exhausted from a poor night’s sleep and your mind tells you that you need to find darker shades so that you can sleep better. Sleep is essential and poor sleep means that you cannot be able in the ways you need to serve the needs of others at work and at home. Instead of getting right to work, and looking at shades during a break or once work has been completed for the day, you make this task the priority. Twenty minute of this work might give you the well being and reward that could justify making this work your priority, but then it would not be a very effective distraction.
The elegant distraction is an effective distraction. Once you accept the elegant distraction, it will probably keep you a minimum of 2-3 hours. Here is how it works in real time. You acknowledge that you need new blinds, but that you don’t know anything about blinds, so you research blinds. Then you realize that you need black out blinds so you research blackout blinds. Then you realize that these blinds need to be certain dimensions to cover your bedroom windows, so you go home and get those dimensions. You return to work only to discover that these blinds need to be held up by a mounted device, so you research that. Then you need to locate retailers who sell these apparatuses and find and narrow your choices by price and geographic proximity to you. Blackout blinds, you say. More like a blackout day. That is the magic of the elegant distraction.
The reason it persists is simple. The elegant distraction makes itself feel necessary, which causes you to think it is not procrastination. Because your body and mind need breaks but there is no support for breaks, your body and mind will settle for the next best thing, which in this case is the elegant distraction.
How Can Self-Compassion Help
Self-Compassion offers acceptance, wisdom, and action, which will give us plenty to handle procrastination. We need to accept that we all need breaks in our day to be the most effective. We are, after all, human. Listen to your body and take an actual break (ie; meditate, walk, self-compassion phrases, biofeedback breathing, socialize) when you can. We are all vulnerable to procrastination. Accept this and throw out judgment. Judgment is simply an elegant distraction. Much like meditation, when you notice yourself begin to procrastinate, notice it, recognize your humanity, and bring your mind back to what it needs at present. Then, look for an effective way to fulfill those needs. Wisdom is important because it asks us to look at our experiential knowledge (ie: I need to take breaks to be effective) over unhelpful social thought (ie: more work is always better). To use action, keep possible break options available and set time limits, so they do not prevent you from having enough time to handle your responsibilities and thus contributing more stress.
If you are having trouble seeing how self-compassion can help, I want you to imagine a day in which you begin to walk down a path, and rather than break when you are tired, I send you down less rough terrain but also put small rocks in your backpack. Continuing to imagine this, follow this day until its end, but instead of stopping to sleep, I merely fill you with caffeine and food and prompt you to walk further. By now, you are probably saying, “I don’t know what you know about hiking, but you are a real jerk.” You are right. I am a jerk, and my name is procrastination.
Don’t spend your days on the never-ending path of procrastination, filling your bag with tiny rocks and elegant distractions from your work and need for self-care. Instead, see if you might make some room for self-compassion. Listen to your body and what it needs.
Make time to work and to rest. Prioritize your fundamental needs first. When you find yourself procrastinating (it is inevitable), don’t judge yourself. Recognize your humanity instead, and engage in your self-compassion practice. End this practice with a time-limited action that will meet the needs your very wise body is asking you for. You will always have time for Ra and his tears. He comes up every day when the moon goes away, doesn’t he?
365 Days of Kindness. Self-Compassion. Day 41. In the Books.