Procrastination: How soon is now?

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After weeks of dithering and delay, Warren Heggarty finally got round to completing this article on procrastination. But is it now too late?

by Warren Heggarty

‘I’m not ready for it.’ This is a common response to questions about looking for a job or pursuing some other worthwhile aim on our recovery journeys. The obvious response to this is ‘When will you be ready?’ Perhaps even ‘What do you need to do to make yourself ready for it?’ However, people can answer as vaguely as they like: ‘later, after I do a TAFE course, when I am less stressed, when I fix this problem with my medication.’ Everything can be made to disappear in a cloud of vagueness for which no one is accountable. 

When is ‘what if…?’

What if you NEVER did that TAFE course? What if you are NEVER less stressed? What if you NEVER fix the problem with your medication? Will you therefore wait an eternity in limbo? Perhaps you are procrastinating, that is, deferring to the future something that should be done now. 

Whether the cause is fear of failure or even fear of success, procrastination is a problem for many of us because it stops us from making progress, including progress on our recovery journeys. 

Burka and Yuen’s Book ‘Procrastination, Why you do it, What to do about it NOW’ first came out in 1983 and went on to have a 25th Anniversary edition. However it might never have seen the light of day, because its authors freely admit that they procrastinated on it. 

Burka and Yuen make it clear that they see constant, problematic procrastination as a major enemy rather than a nuisance, because it is a kind of defence mechanism against fear. ‘They fear that if they act, their actions could get them into trouble. They worry that if they show who they really are, there will be dangerous consequences to face. They are afraid, underneath all the disorganisation and delay, that they are unacceptable, so much so that they may hide not only from the world but even from themselves.’ (Burka & Yuen, 1983; 2008, p. 17)

For some of us, this fear has a pretty extreme effect. ‘When they are disappointed by their performance on a task, they think not only that they have failed on that task, but also that they have failed as a person’ (Burka & Yuen, 1983; 2008, p. 20)

‘People who worry about being judged as inadequate or unworthy, usually are afraid that is exactly what they are…’ say Burka and Yuen. ‘They fear they are unlovable. Who could love me if I have nothing to offer?… [they] think that their ability… will determine whether or not they deserve to be loved.’ (p. 22)

What to do about it

Let’s look at two chains of procrastination. Delay in getting a drivers’ licence and delay in getting a medical check up. These stories, incidentally, are REAL. 

Wilbur’s experiences exemplify two types of procrastination. In one case, he is frightened that learning more about his health condition will make things worse for him, a viewpoint that doesn’t stack up to reason. Increasing worry forces him to discover the truth. In the second case, it is a fear of failure. Not having ever had a licence means that one can at least reserve any judgement on his driving ability. But not having a licence is taking its toll. 

In both cases, a decision to bite the bullet and take action lead to empowerment. ‘Procrastination is the theif of time’ the saying goes, but had he not been lucky, in Wilbur’s case it might have stolen his life!

In the next instalment we will look at how making your sense of self worth dependent upon your performance can actually work against you and lead to procrastination that stops you in your tracks. 

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