Positive “Procrastination”

June 22, 2011

“Never put off until tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow.” –Mark Twain

This humorous comment on procrastination is meant to be a somewhat biting commentary on our modern life, where everyone seems to run around worrying constantly about how they have not done all that needs to be done. Heaven forbid, maybe they even took a bit of time to play a game or sit and enjoy a cup of coffee with a friend, or even just alone with the newspaper or the birds.

Modern usage of the term “procrastination” is wholly negative. The Wikipedia article on procrastination, for example, almost makes it sound like a debilitating psychological condition, one that requires treatment in many cases. Is it due to perfectionism (horrors!), low self-esteem (oh no, your self image is not perfect – how awful for you…), impulsiveness, or some other mental defect?

According to Wikipedia, procrastination “…refers to the act of replacing high-priority actions with tasks of low-priority, and thus putting off important tasks to a later time.” But according to Dictionary.com, the definition is quite simple – to defer action or to delay. The word is directly from the Latin verb prōcrāstināre – which means to put off until tomorrow. Think about that – the Romans actually had a single word that means to put off until tomorrow. The idea has been around a very long time! It is just possible that people have had more than enough to do almost since the dawn of time? Then Mark Twain comes along and jokingly tells us why not put if off until the next day, too.

I certainly understand that procrastination can be negative and based in neurosis. We put off all sorts of unpleasantness. The number of articles and discussions of procrastination on the web are in the absurd range – Google tells me it found over 15,000,000 results before it stopped counting. It appears that we are collectively beating ourselves up over this.

Now, I’m not encouraging you to put off things that need to be done. Do your teeth need to be cleaned? You should do that. Is your boss waiting on a report from you? You should do that. Neurotic procrastination really can cause a great deal of mental clutter at the very least, and a great deal of stress or even failure at the worst.

Here’s what I am saying. Take Mark Twain’s words to heart – and truly never put off until tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow. And whatever you do – if you can put it off until tomorrow – don’t do it today! It’s a very powerful statement when you think about it.

I had a boss once who told me that he was often very busy all day but that he rarely got much done. (I can attest that he was telling the truth about that last part.) He claimed it was the nature of working for a large organization – a federal agency. That was, in fact, one reason that I quit my highly-paid government job and went into business – I felt that my life was wasting away doing tasks that had no meaning. I remember once I was required to spend two full days traveling, plus one day at my destination, to attend a half-day workshop on how to reduce my stress while working. I had to spend funds from our program that could have gone to support the research we were tasked to do. When the end of the year came, the best way for me to have lower stress was to be able to show what we had accomplished – not how many stress reduction workshops we had attended!

Since I left that government position I have sold the original business, I am running a small company, and I have started another company. There is a lot on my plate. And yet my stress level is much lower than it was when I was being forced to fritter away my valuable time doing tasks so that someone else could check off that the tasks had been done.

Now that I am in charge of my own paycheck, it’s strongly in my best interest to spend my time wisely.

How do I do that? By putting off what I can put off. By delegating what I can delegate.

The next time you feel that you are “procrastinating”, take a moment to look at what can be put off. Often those tasks just don’t matter all that much. Put them off – perhaps forever. Ask yourself what you need to do today to be successful today. If you have too much to do, find that part of it that someone can do for you, and then get the help doing it.

Please don’t put off: enjoying life, taking care of yourself, being with people you love, laughing, and doing the things that will make you successful. Trust your gut on this one. You are perfect just as you are.

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