I never used to procrastinate. If there was something I didn’t want to do, I’d do it first, to get it out of the way. I used to work 18 hours a day, too. I was one of the most productive people on the planet. I got a tremendous amount of stuff done. Sure, a lot of it was arbitrary paperwork that no one would ever look at again, but damn it, it was done on time. I used to do a lot of things that now make we wonder what the hell I was thinking. But that’s the point: I wasn’t thinking. I wasn’t questioning. I was reacting blindly. And it led me down a path that cost me my health on several occasions, nearly my sanity more than once, my social life for years, and my sense of self for more than a decade. I’ve made a lot of changes in my life and in myself. One of them is that I’ve become a master procrastinator. Here’s why I think you should become one too:
When we’re children, we get told to clean our rooms tonight, do our homework by a specific time and date, do our chores before we get to play ball, etc. We are trained to meet deadlines. And when we enter the workforce, it only gets worse. The goal in life, as it was taught to most of us, is to be as productive as possible. To what end? Well, for many it’s to die with the most toys, but often productivity seems to be the goal in and of itself. Many of us produce continuously and as quickly as possible without ever questioning why. It’s just what we’re supposed to do. We have this mentality in our work life – meet deadlines, show up early and leave late, have as much to show for your work at the end of the day as possible, and in our home lives – clean the house on Saturday, cook dinner for the entire extended family on Thanksgiving, lawn work on Sunday, and vacations only when you’re close to a nervous breakdown.
But here’s the thing: The goal in life isn’t to be productive. It’s to be happy (i.e. whatever you want it to be). And when you change your focus from some arbitrary goal that you never consciously agreed to, to something of your choosing, your priorities change. And procrastination is just about prioritizing, really.
When we procrastinate, we’re just trying to avoid doing something we don’t want to do. Nothing wrong with that. Sure, we were all taught that doing unpleasant tasks is part of life. It’s just how it works, and we’d better get used to it if we want to be successful (note, not necessarily happy). And so, we bite the bullet and we force ourselves to do the unpleasant things that make us sit on the couch at the end of the day, exhausted, depressed and wishing for an easier life. We just assume that we don’t have a choice here. Stuff has to get done and it’s up to us to do it. That’s life. That’s what it means to be an adult. You do the stuff that you don’t want to do and you don’t complain.
Why? Why do we have to do the stuff that we don’t want to do? What would happen if you didn’t do it? Why does it have to be done NOW? What would happen if you postponed it? I know, I know, we were told that if we didn’t act responsibly (lingo for doing crap we don’t want to do) the civilized world as we know it would come to a screeching halt. Well, guess what? It won’t.
No, you shouldn’t stop feeding your children or yourself for that matter, but chances are that these aren’t the tasks that are creating stress in your life. And make no mistake about it, forcing yourself to do things that you don’t want to do is stressful. Even seemingly small things, like mowing the lawn when you’d really rather be watching the game, will add to that burden. And all those stressors add up. And then you wonder why you’re so damn tired all the time.
I procrastinate all the time, and my world hasn’t fallen apart. In fact, it’s only gotten better. When I first started, when I was a newbie-procrastinator, if you will, I triggered a fear: If I didn’t force myself to do those things, they would never get done. For example, I don’t much like cleaning my house. Oh, I hate dirt (I’m half German, after all), but I don’t really care for the process of cleaning. I used to force myself to do a thorough cleaning every weekend. I’d spend 3 hours polishing every surface until it gleamed. And I hated every second of it.
Now, I don’t clean my house when I don’t want to. Like I said, at first, I was afraid that I’d eventually suffocate in my own filth. Except, that didn’t happen. You see, it all comes down to priorities. When the apartment gets too dirty for me (which isn’t all that dirty), when it bothers me too much, I begin to clean. I don’t have to force myself to do it, I just do. Happily. The dirt bothers me more. I never leave the house with dirty clothes, but I no longer have a designated laundry day. I do it when I feel like it, or when I need to (remind you of your kids? They have a point!), and I’m happier for it. When the desire for a clean apartment or clean clothes becomes greater than whatever else I would rather do, I don’t have to force myself to clean up. It just happens. I now clean my house every 10-14 days (it used to be weekly). That extra half a week or so means the difference between forcing myself to clean, and bopping around the house in an inspired cleaning frenzy. And that’s just one of many, many examples.
You too can learn to procrastinate. Start by asking yourself some questions:
- Does it have to be done at all? Dig down a bit here. Don’t just assume that it does, even if it’s part of your personal life. Ask WHY. If you can’t come up with a good reason to do it, just cross it off the list. Don’t be afraid to ask these questions at work, too. Tons of “productivity” is nothing but arbitrary paper pushing. Say no to useless meetings. Say no to favors and activities that you don’t want to do (obligation is not a good reason to do things. Wanting to do them, is).
- If the answer to question number 1 is YES, then ask yourself if it has to be done NOW, and if so, why? What would happen if you did it later? How does it feel if you think about postponing it to tomorrow or next week? You’ll be amazed at how many things you can rearrange if you just start questioning them. When I was working for a multi-million dollar corporation, I’d get a lot of deadlines. I’d be on a conference call on Wednesday and be told that I and 20 other people would have to deliver something by Friday. In my last couple of years (I was already making some major changes then), I began to question the deadlines. What struck me was that first, no one had apparently ever thought to question a deadline – they didn’t know it was possible, and second, with some digging, I more often than not (seriously!) found out that the “urgent” deadline had been arbitrarily set by some manager, and as soon as I called them up, they had no problem changing it. Question every deadline, even your own. If you don’t mow the lawn today, will it still be there tomorrow? If you don’t clean the house today, will your children die of dirt poisoning?
- If it’s a reoccurring task that you don’t like to do, can you outsource it? Can you get a cleaning lady, a dog walker, a neighborhood teen to mow your lawn? Can you trade favors at work? Can you hand off a task that you don’t like to do to someone who gets joy from it in exchange for something unwanted of theirs that you don’t mind at all? You may assume that this would be difficult, but generally no one has ever thought to ask. A cleaner two hours a week might not be able to clean your whole house, but she could do the bits that you hate most, and wouldn’t cost you an arm and a leg.
Question everything, even the little things. If you don’t want to do it, it’s not worth it. Find a way to cancel it, postpone it until you actually feel like doing it, or outsource it. And if none of those are an option (and they are much more often than you might think), then line up with the thing you need to do before you do it. Work your way into a place where you can perform that task with joy. You can wait for the inspiration to strike you or you can create the inspiration.
For example, I post on this blog 3 times a week. I made the decision right from the start not to write if I wasn’t inspired; in other words, never to force myself to write. I quickly realized that the quality of my writing and the ease with which it flows is exponentially higher when I’m connected and joyful about it. But, I also have a schedule, and I want to stick to it if I can (although if it comes down to posting a crappy, forced article or nothing, I’ll go with nothing). So, on the rare occasion when I find myself wanting to write something for that day and not being inspired, I inspire myself. I meditate, connect, keep searching for a subject that I resonate with and consciously work myself into a place where I feel the energy flow. And then I write. If for some reason I couldn’t get there, I wouldn’t write that day. The point is, I never EVER force myself to do something I don’t want to do. Not only do I then end up resenting the time I spent, the outcome is generally less than sub-par (i.e. total crap). It’s just not worth it.
It takes some time to develop some trust in your ability do get inspired before your world is swallowed by piles of the un-done. It’s a fear that many of us have, but it’s an unfounded one. Will you ever be inspired to clean your house? If a clean house is important to you, then believe it or not, yes. At some point, you’ll be inspired to clean it, or find another solution to get it cleaned. And if you cannot be inspired to do something, then you should really ask yourself if this thing really needs to be done.
So, embrace procrastination. It’s all about honoring yourself and your own priorities – what’s truly important to you. If you’re having to force yourself to do something, if it drains you and exhausts you, you’re following the wrong list. The real list of priorities feels inspired, amazing, energizing and passionate, every step of the way.
Have you had success procrastinating? Share your story in the comments!