I was in the final year of my undergraduate program. In just a few short weeks the semester would end and the due date for my research proposal was fast approaching. This was to be my last assignment for the course, Research Methods II and it was worth a major chunk of my final grade. The trouble is, I had not even yet begun to write my paper. Apart from school, current life circumstances had me feeling overwhelmed and frustrated, maybe even a little bit depressed. So the days slipped by and my anxiety heightened. In spite of this I did not take any action; my procrastination continued. I could not bring myself to begin writing the paper. I seemed to lack the physical strength and motivation needed to get it done. Besides I did not even know where to begin, the task seemed impossible.
I was unsuccessful in securing a sick leave from my doctor, which would be a good enough reason to apply for a deferral and afford me the opportunity to redo the course the following semester. I decided that I had no choice but to accept defeat. I went to my professor, explained to him my predicament and let him know that I was prepared to fail the course. At this point there was no way I was going to meet the deadline for submission.
Procrastination, the word glares at me from my computer screen. For me it represents defeat and lack of strength or will power. But yet, I find myself more often than I would like to admit, doing battle with this word that so often seems to keep a tenacious grip on me. I think this word creeps up on most if not all of us at one point or the other, displaying its will to affect our thoughts and our minds.
Procrastination is defined as the process of delaying or postponing something. It is derived from the Latin pro meaning forward and crastinus meaning tomorrow. In essence it means move forward tomorrow. The problem is tomorrow may never come; and no action is ever taken. Progress on the other hand, pro means forward and gress means move. To make progress is to move forward. But why do we procrastinate? What stops us from moving forward; from making progress? What stops us from taking the action that we need to take in order to reach a desired goal, fulfil a particular dream or utilize our gifts or walk in our purpose?
There can be many reasons why we procrastinate, but I believe at the heart of all of them are negative self-talk and cognitions – our thinking. I would explore this further in another post, but for now let us look at just three possible reasons for procrastination and how to overcome them.
A very common reason is fear. What are you afraid of? Failing or succeeding? Kevin Hall, the author of the book Aspire says that fear is just False Emotions Appearing Real. Carefully consider your arguments for fear, your negative self-talk and thoughts, I suggest you even write them down. Then test each one; challenge each one. Also ask yourself, if you were to take action, what is the worst possible outcome and what is the best possible outcome. Would you pass up the best possible outcome just because you fear a bad outcome? Yes, you could fail, but what if you don’t; and if you do, why would that be so bad?
Psychiatrist Dr. David Burns suggests the can’t lose technique. Make a list of the negative consequences if you did fail then expose the distortions in your fears and show how you could cope productively even if you did fail. He also suggests focusing on the effort rather than the outcome. When you focus on the process, you are able to seize every opportunity for learning, even in failure. So you see, in spite of what you may tell yourself, you really can’t lose at all when you stop procrastinating and take action.
Another thing which can lead to procrastination is perfectionism. I must admit that I myself had a great tendency towards perfectionism which often led me to not begin a project at all. I felt that if I can’t get the thing to turn out just right there is no point in doing it. I also always needed to wait for the perfect time or the perfect conditions. It was a friend who called me out on this trait and helped me to see it for what it really is.
Writer, Alli Worthington calls perfectionism a form of procrastination. She writes, “no one feels completely capable or has unlimited funds, time and energy to achieve his or her goals. And everyone is terrified of failure, looking foolish and letting others down. It’s not about waiting for the time to be right. It’s about taking action because your vision is worth it.” She suggests, ask yourself, “am I striving for excellence or demanding perfectionism? Excellence is a worthy goal that energizes and inspires, perfection wraps us in guilt and ends progress.”
The third reason for procrastination I want to explore is feeling overwhelmed. Sometimes a task seems too large or too difficult and we sink into a valley of despair. To help with this, try breaking your task up into smaller more manageable tasks. Take it one step at a time. When I would become overwhelmed by circumstances in my life a friend would often tell me, “don’t buy wholesale Carla you have to buy retail”, meaning don’t try to go the whole mile at one time take it a little at a time.
Now let’s return to the story about writing my research proposal. When I approached my professor explaining to him my situation, and that I was prepared to fail the course, he would not let me. Instead he broke the project up into smaller pieces and challenged me. I was to write the first chapter of the proposal by a specific time and return to him; just focus on that chapter alone he said. When I did, he looked it over and then challenged me again on the second chapter, and so we went on until I completed the entire project.
Finally, I submitted my paper. Yes, I was about two weeks late and I was marked down for it, but the important thing is I completed it. I got a B grade on the paper, I passed the course and I learned a valuable lesson in the process. I have never forgotten my professor for facilitating that lesson and I am forever grateful for his act of mercy and kindness. This experience is one that stands out most in my mind whenever I think about my time at university.
There are two other points I want to share with you but I fear my time with you has run out and I don’t want to make this post too long or make you restless or impatient. So I will share them with you in next week’s post. For now, why don’t you let all I have said thus far sink in, then do some of your own research if you feel so inclined. There is so much that can be said on the topic. Maybe procrastination is not a problem for you, but if per chance it is, I recommend you read chapter 5 of Dr. Burns’ book, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. The chapter is titled Do-nothingism, How to beat it. You may find it quite helpful. The book was recommended to me by a friend and then I found it on the Scribd app.
Next, take action today! Not tomorrow or the day after or next week, but today. Take some small step towards what you have been procrastinating about and break procrastination’s power over you. Don’t test the water with your feet and decide it is too cold to get in, just jump right in. You can do it!
Lights, camera, action! It is your time to shine!