At some point in your life, I’ll bet you felt like you weren’t getting enough done. You wished you could keep your attention on your work, and stop “procrastinating” by doing frivolous or unimportant things, but it just didn’t seem possible. I used to have this problem myself, until I had a realization one day that transformed my understanding of what procrastination is and how to deal with it.
At work, I would sometimes have trouble staying on task. After working on a project for a little while, I’d find myself losing focus and finding ways to avoid being productive. I would deal with low-priority work issues, read the news, or get antsy and pace around the room. I’d try to get back to my project, but I’d feel like every cell in my body was resisting my will.
My normal reaction to this experience was one I think most of us identify with—I shamed myself. “Come on, get a work ethic,” I’d tell myself. My belief was that I procrastinated because I was fundamentally a lazy and selfish person, and that I only cared about doing what I wanted to do instead of helping others achieve their goals. The only way to change this mindset, I figured, was to punish myself until I became willing to change my evil ways. Unfortunately, beating myself up only seemed to strengthen my body’s resistance to getting work done.
One day, however, I made an interesting observation while I was having trouble focusing. I noticed that, while I was reading the news, checking e-mail, or doing some other unproductive activity to avoid work, I wasn’t actually enjoying myself. Even as I procrastinated, I was thinking to myself “this is boring. I want to do something else.”
This observation didn’t support my theory that I procrastinated because I was lazy and only cared about having fun. If that were true, you’d think I would have enjoyed my frivolous diversions. But in fact, while I was in “procrastination mode,” I didn’t like doing anything. Procrastination, I recognized, was just a symptom of an overall attitude that sometimes overtook me—an attitude of refusing to accept the situation I was in, regardless of what it was.
For whatever reason, I had moments when my mind basically decided it wasn’t okay with any aspect of reality, and became determined to reject anything the world gave it as inadequate and “boring.” I call this mindset one of non-acceptance. Some spiritual teachers call it “saying ‘no’ to the present moment.” I procrastinated when I was in this state.
Happily, simply recognizing that I was in a place of non-acceptance had the effect of liberating me from that place. If I just admitted to myself that I was saying “no” to my situation, without punishing myself for it, I’d find my refusal to accept reality dissolving, and a peace and alertness pervading my body. Once in this state, I could concentrate on my work again.
If you find yourself procrastinating at times, and you want to improve your ability to focus, I have two suggestions for you that build on the realization I described.
First, be aware of, and acknowledge, when you’re in a state of non-acceptance. To start doing this, notice that, when you find yourself procrastinating, nothing seems to satisfy you. You can try doing a few different activities to prove this—you can read the news, play solitaire, call a friend or loved one, and so forth. You’ll start to see that, when you’re in a state of non-acceptance, everything you do seems to be inadequate, boring or unfulfilling for one reason or another.
The central lesson here is that, when you are in this state, looking for something better to do won’t help, but recognizing that you have this attitude will get you back on track. Once you see that your mind is generally rejecting reality in that moment, admit it to yourself. Saying it out loud, for me, is the quickest way to dissolve my state of non-acceptance. “I don’t like anything right now,” I’ll say to myself. “Nothing is good enough.” Normally, when I say this, I find myself laughing, and the boredom and discomfort I had been feeling disappear.
Second, start noticing what events tend to put you into a state of non-acceptance. In other words, what usually happens right before you lapse into that state? Maybe it’s a communication with a certain person at work; a particular type of document you have to prepare; a certain hour of the day; or something else. For example, I would start “saying no” to the world whenever I’d get an e-mail from a colleague checking on my progress on a project. I’d feel like they didn’t appreciate the quality of my work or how much effort I put into it, and I’d start getting resentful. For at least a few minutes after I got that e-mail—and perhaps a few hours—nothing I would do would seem enjoyable or meaningful.
When I figured out that I’d start rejecting reality whenever I would receive this type of e-mail, I became mentally prepared for, and able to stay productive in, that situation. Whenever I’d get an e-mail checking on my progress, I would simply acknowledge to myself that I was about to enter a state of non-acceptance, and that, once I was in that state, nothing would be able to satisfy me. Admitting to myself I was about to say “no” to the world would dissipate my resistance to reality and help me regain my focus.
Why do certain situations cause us to reject reality? In my view, we say “no” to the world when we feel that the world doesn’t love or appreciate us. Saying “no” is our way of telling the world “you don’t care about me, so I’m not going to enjoy you or do anything for you.”
Often, the situations where we react this way resemble moments from our childhoods when we felt rejected or neglected by our parents. For instance, after some reflection, I recognized that, when a colleague would ask how my project was going, I would feel the same way I did when, as a kid, one of my parents asked whether I was done with my chores yet. In those moments, I felt like I was only appreciated for the quality of my work—as though I were a machine, or something less than human—and I’d feel the vindictive urge to shut out the world.
Overcoming procrastination is about becoming aware of those situations where you tend to reject reality. Simply gaining that awareness, and acknowledging—without beating yourself up—when you’ve said “no” to your circumstances, is an effective method for dissolving that “no” and getting your productivity back. Just accepting the fact that you’re in a rut, without blame or judgment, is often the fastest way to pull yourself out of it.
(This article appeared in the Carnival of Engaged Spirituality, located at http://virtualteahouse.com/blogs/beth/archive/2008/05/05/2nd-carnival-on-engaged-spirituality-engaging-resistance.aspx.)