How many of us would drop twenty dollar bills out of our car window as we drive down the highway or smash Rolex watches with a hammer as a means of relaxation? Yet, many of us consistently waste the most valuable resource available to us—our time. Benjamin Franklin put it this way: “Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time; for that’s the stuff life is made of.” From a biblical perspective, Paul admonishes us: “Therefore be careful how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of your time, because the days are evil”. If we are honest with ourselves, most of us will admit to feeling uncomfortable with our time stewardship. We want to use our time wisely, but when we look back on the last week, month, or year, we feel some remorse over the amount of time we wasted. A big reason that many of us are uncomfortable with how we use our time is the affliction of procrastination. One researcher in this field summarized her conclusions this way: “Procrastination is, hands down, our favorite form of self-sabotage.” In other words, procrastination undermines our attempts to accomplish our plans and goals.
Procrastination: The Consequences
As we continue to consider how to conquer procrastination, it would be helpful to have a working definition. An anonymous pundit quipped, “They said procrastination was the source of all my sorrow. I don’t know what that big word means—I’ll look it up tomorrow!” Procrastination literally means “to put off until tomorrow.” One study defined it as “postponing the completion of a task to the point of feeling uncomfortable about one’s delay.”
Well, feeling uncomfortable is not fun, but it doesn’t sound that bad. Is that the only consequence of procrastination? Whether it is putting off balancing the checkbook, yard work, term papers, filling out expense reports, or reading any book, many of us have learned to live with our favorite areas of procrastination. However, studies have shown that procrastination has many undesirable consequences.
A direct consequence is decreased performance and productivity. Some procrastinators say they put off starting projects because they perform better under pressure. Don’t kid yourself! A study of university students showed that students who procrastinated had significantly lower grades than those who did not. Christians are called to “keep our behavior excellent among the Gentiles” and to “work heartily as unto the Lord.” When procrastination impacts our performance, we are presenting a negative witness to the world.
These are extreme examples, but most of us have experienced times when we put off getting car repairs, working on the house, or starting a project, and found out that the consequences were much worse than we anticipated.In addition to the direct consequences, frequent procrastination increases stress, anxiety, and guilt with all their related side effects. A recent study found that “college students who procrastinate have higher levels of drinking, smoking, insomnia, stomach problems, colds and flu.” Many times we delay a task because we feel we need to relax instead, but the ultimate result is greater levels of stress.
Procrastination: Some Causes
Most of us struggle with procrastination in one or more areas of our lives. However, what we share are common symptoms, not necessarily a common root cause. Studies of procrastination have identified some distinctly different causes. If you have a pain in your foot, you need to know whether it is a splinter or bone cancer before selecting a course of treatment. If you are going to conquer procrastination, you need to be aware of your primary root cause.
Two of the most common causes are laziness and avoiding negative feelings. These cause us to delay starting tasks that may be difficult or unpleasant in favor of more pleasurable activities. Research has found that considering a task as boring or adverse is more likely to result in procrastination than a lack of capability to do the task well.
This cause is modeled by the college student who spends weeks playing video games and hanging out until the night before the term paper is due.
Two other common causes are lack of perspective and poor time management skills. This person is willing to take on an unpleasant task, but has a hard time knowing which tasks need to be tackled right away and which can or should be delayed. This cause is epitomized by the college student who begins working on their term paper at the beginning of the semester by spending hours selecting just the right binder and creating cover graphics rather than researching their topic.
Perfectionism and fear of failure drive some people to procrastinate. Some perfectionists recognize that they don’t have enough time to do a perfect job so they are discouraged about undertaking the job at all. Others believe they need uninterrupted time to be able to do a perfect job and they never can seem to clear off enough of their schedule to get started. And some wait until the last moment so they can blame any shortcoming of the finished product on insufficient time. They want to be able to say, “I am really much more talented than this shows, but I had to throw it together at the last moment. So, what can you expect?”
A very different cause is resentment. This person says, “I know I should be starting this task, but my spouse has been bugging me about it and I am going to show them that I am in control of my own time.”Procrastination: the Cure
Many of us feel frustrated by a pattern of procrastination. Like one author, we take the position “I am definitely going to take a course on time management . . . just as soon as I can work it into my schedule.”
However, God does not command us to make the most of our time without giving us the ability to do so. We need to tackle procrastination head on if we want to find a cure in our lives. From the rebuilding of Jerusalem under Nehemiah to the race to the moon in the 1960s, some timeless principles stand out. From my studies of literature and the Bible and my experience in simultaneously raising a family, working as a corporate executive, and pastoring young adults, I suggest five steps to reduce the impact of procrastination in your life. They are:
1. Probing your problem,
2. Praying for perspective,
3. Proper priorities,
4. Perspective-based planning, and
5. Proactive partnering.
If you are struggling with procrastination issues, don’t try to tackle it on your own.
Look around for someone who seems to be effective in managing their time. Share your dilemma with them and ask them to help provide guidance and accountability. Ask them to take a look at your weekly priority lists and project plans to see if they are reasonable. Pick out some intermediate deadlines that they will check on and hold you to. It is much easier to recover from missing one intermediate deadline than to be almost to the final deadline and realize that you are way behind.
An accountability partner can also help us avoid swinging from procrastinator to workaholic. Sometimes the partner needs to reassure us that it is ok to take some time for relaxation. After all, Jesus told his disciples, “Come away by yourselves to a secluded place and rest a while” Sometimes the partner needs to challenge our priorities.
You may have noticed that each of these steps will take some time. Productive people have learned that sufficient time spent in planning will save much more time in the long run.