The deadline for completing your tax return is looming but you haven’t made a start. You’re planning to apply for a new job but somehow you never get around to it. Or maybe you’ve made a start but run out of steam and now feel stuck.
Procrastination is no joke. At any stage of life, it’s a source and a consequence of stress and anxiety. So how to break the cycle of negativity and shift the habit? Rosh Hashanah is the ideal time to tackle it.
I’m not convinced it’s helpful to look for explanations. Delving into the past can be a digression. Analysis takes you into your head; it doesn’t kickstart you into action.
My approach to overcoming procrastination is to review and reframe the excuses that we make. What are you telling yourself when you avoid important tasks at home at work or while studying? How do you perceive the situation? And how can you move forward? These are the questions explored in my book, Being More Productive. My aim was to compile a list of excuses that people make for procrastinating and to share practical tip to shift these perspectives.
I regard excuses as stories, based on assumptions that can be challenged. “What’s your excuse?” isn’t an accusation, it’s an invitation to explore different perspectives.
Throughout my career as a university lecturer, life coach and professional organiser, I’ve had countless conversations with people who berate themselves for not getting things done.
James had been accepted to take a postgraduate law conversion course but was struggling to complete assignments on time. Instead of reviewing lecture notes and drafting commentaries, he daydreamed or researched obscure and irrelevant information online. Beneath his placid façade, panic was brewing. And the more he worried, the harder it became to focus. During coaching conversations, he revealed his fear of not making the grade. “I might fail” had become an excuse for avoiding work altogether. We talked about learning from mistakes and the importance of taking risks when learning new skills. And we also considered the assumptions he was making. Would failing a course make him a failure? Was he confusing an outcome with an identity?
Clare contacted me because she was intimidated by the piles of papers — household bills, unread newspapers and journals, old newsletters, personal correspondence as well as junk mail — that had spread surreptitiously over the surfaces of her home. She wanted to declutter but was uncertain which documents to keep. “I might make a mistake” had become a dominant excuse. Again, we talked about the ramifications: what would a mistake entail? What were the risks of discarding important papers? And most importantly, what information did she need to make decisions and who could provide it?
We construct narratives to not only explain but also to validate actions, or more often, inaction. Labelling yourself a procrastinator is problematic because it implies there is something innate or fixed about who you are.
Why not talk about the experience of procrastinating rather than resign yourself to being a procrastinator?
Similarly, telling yourself that you work well under pressure is a way of giving yourself permission to leave your essay or report to the last minute. Consider how much better your writing could be if you weren’t so aware of the clock ticking? Or take the broader view: maybe you regard yourself as working well but do you live well under pressure? How could the quality of your life be improved by alleviating the stress you’ve created?
Excuses are not limited to self-perceptions. They can express mood (“I’m too tired”) and uncertainty about how to proceed (“I’m overwhelmed” “I don’t know what to do first”) Excuses can reflect assumptions about the nature of the task — “it’s too boring/too large/ too difficult”— or insecurities about the outcome — “I might fail” or “I might succeed”. Alternatively, excuses may attribute blame to others — “someone else is holding me up” — or question the timing — “I still have plenty of time”. In all these cases, it’s interesting to explore the premise and think together about different possibilities. There may be a kernel of truth but it may not be the whole story.
Stories areat the heart of Jewish traditions and holidays. Excuses, like ancient texts and modern dramas, are open to interpretation.
A new year marks a fresh start, an opportunity to look back at what we’ve achieved and to formulate resolutions for the future. Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it’s also customary to reflect on judgment. We’re encouraged to ask those whom we may have hurt or offended, for forgiveness. It’s a good opportunity to take stock of self-criticism, to declutter the limiting stories about ourselves that we’ve accumulated.
Next time you find yourself avoiding or delaying an important task, identify the excuse that you’re making to others and to yourself. Chances are you’re not stuck in a situation but in a story.
By the way, this article was submitted two days late. As the saying goes, we teach best what we most need to learn.
‘What’s Your Excuse for not Being More Productive?’ (WYE Publishing £7.99)