– Dr. Seuss, Horton Hatches the Egg
Can you remember when you were younger, when time seemed to move slower and moments seemed to last longer? With fewer hours, days, and weeks for comparison, nothing mattered more than the immediate present. It took years of experience to train yourself to look past the now, to make goals for the future, and to learn how to achieve more than short-term happiness.
But even now, when you’ve learned the importance of delayed gratification, there are still moments when the comfort of the immediate present takes precedence over your important goals. It’s easy to understand the concept of delayed gratification; it’s much harder to resist delaying irritation.
Procrastination. When it comes down to it, you tend to procrastinate when you face events that are uninteresting, complex, or unpleasant. Boredom, uncertainty, and fear can make an hour seem like an eternity when you remember it, and these emotions tempt you to put off certain tasks. Thankfully, with a little practice and a shift in your mindset, you can conquer each of these three sources of procrastination.
You might not remember it, but your parents surely do. At least once in your life, they asked you to do a small chore, only to have you complain, “But it’s BORING!” The inevitable argument then lasted much longer than the time it would take to complete the task.
Your mind is drawn toward the novel, the new, the exciting. It wants to expand, to make connections, and to realize your important personal values. But achieving these ends often involves tedium: a million taps of a keyboard to write an epic novel, callouses built over months of playing before you master the bass line of your band’s newest song, night after night of tweaking marketing and sending out email blasts before your home business takes off.
The key to success in long-term efforts is to align your activities with your most important values, or as Stephen R. Covey taught, “Begin with the end in mind.” And because the world isn’t just about you, this involves relying on the strength of other values when your life is lacking in certain areas. For example, you might not have the perfectly fulfilling, world-saving career you pictured when entering adulthood, but knowing that it supports your family and social values can make up some of the difference and make it easier to work toward a better situation.
Your mind is wired to learn from its mistakes. When something is both important and complex, you know how important it is to get it right the first time. Sometimes, it feels like there’s nothing worse than spending time and energy on a task, then finding out you have to rethink and rework what you’ve been doing. Taking the third trip to Home Depot in three hours to finally fix the sprinkler or getting your recent proposal back covered in red ink provide memorable life lessons in preparation.
But like any other principle, mental preparation can also be taken to extremes. When faced with a complex situation, it’s easy to want to sit back and wait for a change: more information, a better thought, a newer strategy. This brand of procrastination has a fun, rhyming name: analysis paralysis.
Analysis paralysis takes time away from progress on a complex task and replaces it with circular thinking, usually, ironically, on how to be more efficient. Analysis paralysis has a secret goal: if you think about it long enough, an external force will simplify the task for you, whether it’s the muse of inspiration, a helpful co-worker, or just the quittin’ time whistle.
Of course, once you understand the truth about analysis paralysis, you can take the initiative to solve your situation. Write down your brainstorm sessions in your planner notes section instead of thinking things twice or three times. Add delegation and communication to your planning strategies instead of waiting for others to develop telepathy. And if the task really isn’t as urgent as it seems, you can defer it for a time when resources and collaboration are more available.
As you do what you can, ask for the help and resources you need, and analyze while acting, complex problems break down into a series of manageable steps.
In a perfectly rational world, everyone would follow the previous advice, working personally and together to achieve great things. Unfortunately, your mind also has one other ingredient that gets in the way: fear. It might have evolved, going from fear of getting eaten to fear of disappointing your parents to fear of economic consequences, but the message is the same: scary things are bad, and you shouldn’t let them happen.
While extra caution is certainly warranted in a survival situation on the African savannah, most of the time, the fear you associate with small, unpleasant things is blown out of proportion. It can be tempting to take a single failure and magnify it to fatalistic proportions, as young people do sometimes. If life is overwhelming and you’ve ruined it forever, the thinking goes, you’re justified in retreating, in giving up.
Your planner gives you a daily space to ask yourself these important questions:
- What will happen if I put off this task?
- How will I feel about putting off this task?
- Will this task nag at me? Will I regret not doing it?
- Do I work well under pressure?
- Is my procrastination habit feeding into a negative cycle that affects my life and my relationships?
The only antidote for fear is experience. In this regard, your planner is an excellent tool to conquer your fear-based procrastination. Not only does it have the space you need to prepare and plan, but it also provides you with a record of your non-fatal failures. As you review them, you’ll discover that the pain associated with even the worst of them pales in comparison to your regrets—your thoughts about the things you didn’t do and the opportunities you missed through inaction.
But as you continue toward your goals, your planner is also a record of your success. It acts as a milestone marker that helps you keep track of your progress while helping you retain your perspective.
Everyone procrastinates, and for a wide variety of reasons. Understanding your own personal procrastination blend is the first step to overcoming it and starting on the journey toward achieving what truly matters most to you.