A Spectator of Your Own Life

 
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Vic, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Postponing chores until the last minute seems completely illogical. Why would you want to undergo a stress that causes existential dilemmas, every time you have to complete a task? A stress you could easily avoid if you wouldn’t constantly end up achieving 99% of the task in the last 1% of the time you had originally assigned to it. The very idea of procrastination defies logic. But it remains a very real problem for many – a bad habit which we struggle to kick.

So why is it so hard to stop procrastinating? In a 2016 Ted Talk, founder of Wait But Why blog Tim Urban shares his explanation as to why we procrastinate. Urban believes that the existence of the ‘Instant Gratification Monkey’ explains the inexplicable. In our minds, Urban says, there is a ‘Rational Decision Maker’, who is often at the helm of our being – attempting to keep us focused on important tasks and getting things done in a reasonable amount of time. The problem is that this ‘Rational Decision Maker’ is often diverted from their goal by a hedonistic Monkey who has very creative but unreasonable ideas about how we should spend our time so that we feel good. This metaphorical monkey is messing around in our head, and would do so indefinitely if the ‘Panic Monster’, who is usually asleep, didn’t suddenly wake up when a deadline approached to scare the monkey off.

We are all used to talking about chronic procrastination and making fun of our own time management skills and irrational behaviour. But the thing that surprised even Tim Urban is that, after he first wrote his blogpost about procrastination, his Inbox was flooded with e-emails mostly showing desperation, not amusement, as he would’ve expected. “These people were writing with intense frustration about what procrastination had done to their lives, about what this Monkey had done to them,” Urban said.

The blogger thought seriously about what might be behind this pressure. “Now if the procrastinator’s only mechanism of doing these hard things is the Panic Monster, that’s a problem, because in all of these non-deadline situations, the Panic Monster doesn’t show up. He has nothing to wake up for, so the effects of procrastination, they’re not contained; they just extend outward forever. And it’s this long-term kind of procrastination that’s much less visible and much less talked about than the funnier, short-term deadline-based kind. It’s usually suffered quietly and privately. And it can be the source of a huge amount of long-term unhappiness and regret. . . it’s that long term procrastination has made them feel like a spectator, at times in their own lives. The frustration is not that they couldn’t achieve their dreams, it’s that they weren’t even able to start chasing them.”

Who is writing your script?

Being a spectator of your own life means looking at your own experience as you would watch a movie, convinced that you have no say in the writing of the script. You have a life plan, but its implementation is something which is left as a vague to-do list for your future self: “tomorrow I’ll start… eating healthier, drinking enough water, exercising, reading that book that gathers dust on the nightstand, I’ll open a business, get married, have a baby”. In the case of life projects, not only is the Panic Monster missing from the story, but it often seems that the Monkey is also missing, because the reasons that can prevent us from starting to work for our goals right now are not always visible and not always straightforward. If the period of time for a goal is unclear or indefinite, the Monkey from Urban’s explanation is less likely to appear.

When we postpone taking creative steps, it may seem that we are getting ready for the moment of decision, that we are boosting our morale before a difficult step, that we are gathering skills for a difficult goal to achieve, that we are ensuring a good capital of self-respect to face the challenge. It may seem that we are procrastinating to gather the information we need to cope regardless of the scenario or that we need to regain our energy to prepare for the new situation we will find ourselves in. Perhaps we state that we are respecting our right to live our lives as we like, not as we “should” – or even that we really are just waiting till we have “enough time to do it right”. Some of these reasons may even have a noble appearance, but psychologists recommend that we honestly analyze them because, under the guise of a well-founded reason, we often hide excuses that we give too much credit to.

The Academic Success Center at Oregon State University discusses six reasons for procrastination. The university’s research shows that one of the most important reasons is a lack of skills to perform the task you have to do. Therefore, instead of accepting that they lack certain skills and making an effort to acquire them, people prefer to postpone that task, because it’s too difficult. Another reason would be a lack of interest in the subject. On top of these, we can add a lack of motivation to perform that task, a fear of failure, a fear of success, or the fear of not rising to others’ expectations and, last but not least, a rebellious attitude toward imposed things.

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What’s your favorite excuse?

The U.S. Center for Clinical Interventions (a U.S. government nationally implemented program) identifies five types of excuses used by people who tend to delay making important decisions or actions.

The pursuit of pleasure, which can start from a rule or an unconstructive presumption such as:

  • life is too short to do boring or difficult things;
  • fun should always come first;
  • the most important principle should be pleasure here and now;
  • if I don’t respect my right to have fun, I’ll become boring.

So what’s wrong with this presumption? To get somewhere in life, you will have to work hard, get results and sometimes make sacrifices. At the end of the day, if life is just endless fun, we get stuck at a point where we don’t grow and we don’t get where we want to be. We all have to endure some boredom from time to time, that’s life.

Fear of failure or disapproval, which may manifest in thoughts or beliefs like:

  • I have to do everything perfectly;
  • I am not allowed to make mistakes;
  • I can’t allow others to think something bad about me;
  • if I try, it will certainly not work out for me;
  • if I make my work public, others will have a bad opinion of me.

Unfortunately, perfection is a utopia, and imperfection is inevitable. It’s more realistic to expect to do well in some things, mediocre in some and not very good in others. That keeps a balance. Not everything is black and white, success or failure. People do not deliberately seek to judge you; they are often focused on their own needs. Criticism can be a constructive way to learn – something which many perfectionists may love to hear.

Fear of uncertainty or fear of a catastrophe, which can lead to an excessive concerns over small problems:

  • I need to know for sure what is going to happen;
  • I have to be prepared for the worst;
  • I don’t like not knowing what the result will be;
  • If I do something, something bad will surely happen.

The problem here lies in the fact that no matter how hard we try to prepare, it’s impossible to be sure of everything. In life, we will have to tolerate a certain degree of uncertainty. Lack of action or concern does not make things safer, nor does it prevent the negative outcomes we might anticipate. Focusing on the issues that may come instead of what you can do in the moment can lead to poor mental health, which in turn may cause some of the bad things which you feared in the first place.

Low self-confidence, where you may find yourself plagued by negative emotions or thoughts such as:

  • I can’t solve these things because I’m incapable;
  • I am not suitable for this, therefore I cannot do it;
  • if I try new things, people will realize that I’m inappropriate;
  • I shouldn’t try things that I know won’t work out.

These thoughts can be devastating, both for your emotional health and your work ethic. When you consider yourself incapable from the start, you do not take into account both your qualities and your weaknesses, but you are unfair to yourself, focusing only on your weaknesses. You can’t just assume you’re not good at something, and doing so only further compounds your procrastination problem.

Lack of energy, which can be seen in ideas such as:

  • I am not able to do anything when I am stressed / tired / unmotivated / depressed;
  • I have to rest when my energy is down;
  • I need to be energized to be able to do something.
  • if I do something while I am tired / stressed / unmotivated / depressed, It’ll be worse.

With this pattern of thinking, you will not test yourself in different situations to really see what you can and cannot do. In life, we are often unprepared for what we are going to do, but if we always wait for the moment we’ll be and feel ready, we’ll never get to do anything. Laziness is one of the many ways procrastination can manifest in our lives. Who hasn’t found themselves saying “I’ll do it next week” when confronted with a particularly difficult task.

Keeping an en eye on studies

Numerous research projects that have focused on the psychological issue of procrastination concluded that it is a failure of self-control capacity, impulsivity and intrusive thought regulation. However, opinions differ, depending on the psychological school of thought. For example, behaviorists believe procrastination is generated by avoidant behavior that manifests itself on contact with a stimulus that causes aversion. Nevertheless, this perspective is criticized for not taking into account the individual differences between the people who postpone.

Cognitive perspective postulates that procrastination is an illogical behavior that isn’t goal-oriented, in which irrational cognitions play a key role. Several cognitive constructs would be involved in procrastination: perception of the difficulty of the task, confidence in the ability to solve the task, self-esteem and perfectionism.

Other psychologists have attributed the delay to a calculation of perceived utility, in which the procrastinator weighs in on his aversion to that task, the wait for that task to be useful, the time the individual will have to wait for a realization of the utility, and the individual’s ability to to tolerate the postponement of the reward.

Psychologists still continue to propose theoretical models to clarify the mechanisms underlying the tension between the motivation to act and the motivation to avoid, some even invoking structural abnormalities and spontaneous metabolic alterations in the para-hippocampus and frontal cortex.

Others yet appeal to the role of meta-cognitions, that is, those thoughts that we have about our ability to orchestrate our own thinking, attention, bodily sensations, and behaviors. They say that procrastination is a result of the mistaken belief that we have no control over our thoughts and that we are the sure victims of our wrong way of thinking.

However, change is possible, and arguments for it come not only from psychology, but also from the spiritual realm.

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Bonus excuse

A special class of people who postpone are those who have outsourced the decision-making process and delegated it to God. “Many Christians take a ‘passive trust’ approach to seeking guidance and direction from the Lord. They think that knowing God’s will comes as God reveals his secret plan to them; then they will know what to do”, writes Paul David Tripp in Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands: People in Need of Change Helping People in Need of Change (Resources for Changing Lives).

Fear of not falling into what is often perceived as the very precise and detailed sphere of God’s will paralyzes the decisions of many well-meaning believers. In Tripp’s view, believers beat procrastination when they realise that, in fact, divine guidance is “a matter of obedient, active trust. I examine the options before me using the principles, themes, and perspectives of Scripture. Then, to the best of my knowledge and ability, I apply biblical wisdom and make a decision.”

Tripp argues further, emphasizing that “My decision is not based on reading God’s mind, but on things he has clearly revealed in his Word. As I step forward, I entrust myself to the Lord, knowing that he rules over everything and will place me where he wants me. This is the biblical model of guidance. Too many people have their ‘Christian divining rods’ out in hopes of discovering the secret will of God. Meanwhile, the Bible in their hands is unopened—the thing God has said will be a ‘lamp to their feet and a light to their path’!”.

Harvey Cox presents a similar vision in the book On Not Leaving it to the Snake. He says that “apathy is the key form of sin in today’s world. For Adam and Eve, apathy meant letting a snake tell them what to do. It meant abdicating from … the exercise of dominion and control over the world. ”

The American theologian John Stott, who quoted Cox in the book The Cross of Christ, added his own perspective to Cox’s. “Decision-making belongs to the essence of our humanness. Sin is not only the attempt to be God; it is also also the refusal to be man, by shuffling off responsibility for our actions.”

The place where no one looks

Religious ideas may be ignored by clinicians who treat religious people either because an intervention on this level seems to go beyond the realm of psychological training, or because the professional treats religious ideas as a manifestation of magical thinking. However, it is on this field that the discussion with a religious person who chronically postpones becomes fertile, because it tackles their beliefs about life, about the nature and abilities they possess, about the character of God. All these have a variable role in the cognitive and emotional universe of the religious person, and this opens many possibilities for change or self-improvement.

If I procrastinate because I feel that God does not love me unless I have a perfect behavior, my fear of failure will heal along with the healing of my image of God. If I force myself to begin to tolerate failure in dissonance with the way I see God, this will put me in conflict not with God, but with my projection of Him.

Or maybe I’m feeding my habit of procrastination along with the habit of disregarding myself, cultivating the idea that my fallen nature doesn’t deserve to be credited with confidence. If I don’t consider myself able to complete a task, I will postpone it as much as possible so that I don’t have to face another reminder about my incapability. However, this seemingly religious conception (based on ideas about the fallen human nature) ignores other religious concepts such as vocation, the talents received from God, the support God provides for those who ask for it, and the skills development throughout religious life.

God has give us talents and skills to use – not to procrastinate with. Instead of waiting for the next day to start something, He calls us to use them now. It is through Him we can also find the answers to many of the questions which lead us to procrastinate. God’s love is not-conditional – no matter what our confidence, or if we fail or not, he will love us all the same.

Alina Kartman is a senior editor at ST Network, the European version of Signs of the Times. A version of this article originally appeared on ST Network and was reposted with their permission