Existential, Mythological, and Practical Secrets to Understanding & Conquering Procrastination

Published on August 24, 2008 by Stephen A. Diamond, Ph.D. in Evil Deeds // Psychology Today

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I appreciate Dr. Pychyl’s recent posting on existential psychiatrist Dr. Viktor Frankl’s approach to procrastination. Here are a few more reflections of my own I would like to add to his.

Dr. Frankl, one of the creators of existential psychotherapy, is someone who accomplished a great deal in his long life, and could not have done so had he given in too frequently to procrastination. Though, as professor Pychyl points out, Frankl admits that, at times, just like all of us, he did. And when procrastination won out, Frankl felt angry with himself, as do we all at some level. Chronic procrastination causes what Jean-Paul Sartre called mauvaise foi: bad faith with oneself, lack of integrity, a feeling of existential guilt.

Frankl recognized that, existentially-speaking, we cannot allow ourselves the luxury of procrastination. A future is not guaranteed to anyone. This is one of what I call the unpleasant existential facts of life. Death is an ever present possibility, an eventual inevitability. In a sense, to procrastinate is to unconsciously deny the existential fact of death. Procrastination is a pervasive expression of what Ernest Becker called “the denial of death.” One need not be a concentration camp survivor to recognize this reality: The evidence of death and mortality, the tenuous nature of existence, and the fact of finitude in life is readily apparent everyday if we choose to see rather than deny it. But deny it we do.

Another existential aspect of procrastination is what I call the Sisyphus syndrome. As punishment by the gods, Sisyphus, if you recall your Greek mythology, was fated to eternally roll a huge rock up a hill each day, only to have it roll back down just as he neared the top. We all share a similar existential fate. We are each required to roll our metaphorical rock–whatever that may be–uphill every day, only to do it all over again tomorrow. It is arduous, difficult, tedious and laborious work. This tedious aspect of life is something many people try to avoid via procrastination. We refuse to accept the difficult, dirty, tedious tasks in life, distracting ourselves instead with more amusing activities so as to avoid them. We avoid shouldering the boulder. But it should be remembered that for existential philosopher Albert Camus, Sisyphus found meaning and even contentment in accepting his fate. As must we all. As Friedrich Nietzsche put it: amor fati. Love your fate.

A similar mythological metaphor for procrastination can be found in one of the Twelve Labors of the Greek hero Hercules. Hercules was assigned the seemingly impossible task of cleaning the Augean stables–where the droppings of hundreds of massive oxen had accumulated over forty years–in just one day. The nasty task had been avoided for decades. Procrastination, when unchecked, creates one’s own personal Augean stable. Perhaps you know the feeling. Hercules, using both brain and brawn, diverts two rivers to get the daunting job done. What secrets can we learn from mighty Hercules about conquering procrastination? One secret has to do with the conscious focusing of life force into the immediate task at hand. We’ll return to this matter momentarily.

Often, procrastination stems from a conflict between our responsible “adult self,” who knows what needs to be done, and our irresponsible“inner child.” Without adequate supervision and guidance, the “inner child,” like any playful young boy or girl, will naturally resist tedium, preferring fun, pleasurable activities instead. This is in keeping with Freud’s concept of the pleasure principle: We instinctively avoid pain and seek pleasure. Children must be disciplined to do tedious chores like cleaning their rooms, brushing their teeth, doing their homework, etc. This is a fundamental part of good parenting. It is the same for grown ups. If there is not a well-developed adult component of the personality to oversee the inner child and discipline him or her, difficult or boring chores will be avoided as long as humanly possible.

Finally, I want to mention the power of presence in overcoming procrastination. Procrastination is a refusal to be present to what life demands of us right now, in this moment. It is an avoidance of presence. A denial of reality. It is an escape from mindfulness into mindlessness. In existential psychology, we say that to say “yes” unequivocally in any given moment to something always implies saying “no” to something else. This is what psychotherapist Otto Rank referred to as an “act of will,” an existential choice. When we exercise our will, consciously choosing the tedious, the banal, the mundane, the disagreeable, distasteful and unpalatable over the enjoyable, pleasurable, delectable and delightful, we commit ourselves to what Rank called “the willing affirmation of the must.” Some suffering, tedium and banality is intrinsic to life, and, ultimately, unavoidable. Like Hercules, we heroically choose the inevitable rather than putting it off. We courageously engage it fully, passionately, creatively and mindfully, resolutely saying “yes” to the mundane task in this present moment, and “no” to any and all other activities until the task is accomplished–at least for today. And, in so doing, we too attain the happiness of Sisyphus.
This article is based on several chapters from my forthcoming bookEssential Secrets of Psychotherapy. For additional secrets, see my recent series of postings here

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Power down procrastination thinking and power up your productive abilities.
Published on June 11, 2010 by Dr. Bill Knaus, Ed.D. in Science and Sensibility
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Procrastination thinking is like an octopus with similar but separate tentacles that can grab and bind its victims. You tell yourself later is better, thereby discounting the consequences of delaying. You tell yourself that the task is too tough, thereby excusing yourself from doing. You tell yourself you’ll get to it, but after you’ve read Encyclopedia Britannica first, then put off the reading. These tentacles all lead back to the procrastination octopus.

Procrastination thinking disguises and misguides. By recognizing this deception, you can debunk it with commonsense reasoning, by refusing to buy into its emotion al appeal, and by shifting into drive.

When procrastination thinking is habitual and automatic, how do you avoid the tentacles? Here is a two-stage awareness and action technique:

1. By thinking about your thinking (the metacognitive way) you can see how procrastination thinking gets in the way of productive actions. Educating yourself about procrastination thinking speeds this awareness process.

2. Taking corrective behavioral action is a second step, but you can make this step one. By taking on what you feel tempted to put off, you can tune into task-blocking emotions and thinking. The corrective actions that you take can lead to a can do thinking.

Here are three awareness and action examples that point to ways to free yourself from procrastination thinking. As a byproduct, you can get more useful things done and enjoy your life.

Classic Procrastination Thinking

You have an uncomfortable priority. You don’t want to do it.  You decide that later is better. Following this tomorrow or mañana line of thinking, you sidetrack yourself into “safer” or more pleasure activities. Mary Todd Lincoln understood this thinking and expressed it in this phrase: “My evil genius Procrastination has whispered me to tarry ’till a more convenient season.”

Contingency tomorrow (mañana) thinking adds another complication. You decide to combat procrastination. You con yourself into believing that you need to read up on procrastination first. So, you buy books on how to end procrastination. You put off reading them. You may, however, read them and then wait to feel inspired before you use your newly acquired scholarly knowledge. Waiting for inspiration is a form of contigency thinking.

Here are two awareness and action techniques for rejecting procrastination thinking: (1) When you feel tempted to procrastinate, boost your awareness of procrastination thinking by recording what you’re thinking in a procrastination log. (2) Teach yourself to test procrastination thinking by raising questions about its results. Why would you expect to do better later? How does setting an interfering contingency ploy help? By asking and truthfully answering these questions, you exercise mental muscle as you act to power down your procrastination impulses. By engaging the delayed action, you can change your thinking from procrastination to an action direction.

Beat the Wheedler

Wheedling involves using guile and flattery to persuade. What does it mean when you wheedle yourself into procrastinating?

Your inner Wheedler is a con-artist. The Wheedler has many tricks up its sleeves. Upon learning that combatting procrastination takes work, you may hear an angry and defiant Wheedler: “Screw this BS. I’m not going to do it.” A Wheedler whines: “Oh, life should be convenient and easy. It’s awful when it’s not.” Abraham Low, the founder of Recovery Inc., described this boomerang effect: “It is the anticipation of discomfort and nothing else that causes the apprehension.”

Discomfort dodging is a common motive for procrastination.

The Wheedler lacks foresight. Nevertheless, this impulsive thinking is influential. Larry tells himself: “I’ll be good forever after this one last ice-cream and pizza feast.” Later he repeats the same pattern. Chalk up another victory for the Wheedler.

How do you beat the Wheedler? Well, you don’t escape human nature (see May 24, 2010 blog). But you can strengthen the reasoning and resilience-building part of your human nature with awareness and action: (1) Wheedler recognition is a start. (2) Follow this recognition by debunking toxic Wheedler logic and simultaneously by stretching to follow enlightened choices.

Where you choose to reject Wheedler logic, the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky offers an alternative: “Whatever diminishes constraint diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self of the chains that shackle the spirit.”

Procrastination Jokes

It’s easier to joke about procrastination than to take procrastination antidotes seriously. How do you tell when procrastination joke is a sign of good humor or reflects a resistance to change? The answer is simple. You can tell by the results. When jokes detract from addressing performance anxieties, aversion for inconvenience, or other preludes to procrastination these results suggests that the joke is defensive.

Most people can joke about procrastination as they might about the weather. However, jokes are a cult phenomenon to a sub-group who procrastinate, who downplay their serious problem habit, and who seem frustratingly stuck in a procrastination rut. Such procrastination jokes have a distancing effect.

Procrastination jokes, such as “I’ll read this procrastination book later”, can echo a feeling of helplessness. Helplessness thinking muddles positive changes. This form of procrastination joking reflects defensiveness.

You can decrease defensive joking with an awareness and action approach: (1) Do you downplay procrastination by defensive joking (i.e., “I’ve put off filing my taxes but don’t I get credit for applying for an extension, ha, ha, ha.”)  (2) If so, ask: “Where do these junk jokes lead?” Do you tangle yourself into a pattern of delays? If so, force yourself to take corrective actions, profiting from feedback, and express and extend your positive abilities.

Ill-conceived procrastination joking is not the only form of defensive distancing. If you can marginalize a tested process for positive change, you can justify avoiding doing the work to do better.  As a defensive action, you complain that helpful resources are inconvenient to use, or that an author didn’t funnel motivation into your brain. You whine about a sentence in a self-help procrastination book you don’t like, or you find a concept that doesn’t apply to you. You overgeneralize and disregard the entire corrective process because of miniscule stuff.

When you stop joking about procrastination and take responsible corrective actions, then your procrastination jokes may no longer serve a defensive purpose and can be humorous.

If you want to know more about how to recognize and combat  procrastination thinking, see:

The Procrastination Workbook and\or End Procrastination Now

Dr. Bill Knaus

Author of 5 books on procrastination, including the original psychology self-help books on this topic.

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with passion & gratitude — jennifer

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3 thoughts on “Existential, Mythological, and Practical Secrets to Understanding & Conquering Procrastination

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