Procrastination Reframed

By pushing your dreams further down the road, yet again, are you truly procrastinating? If this concept has been plaguing your life, then I have a gift for you. The word “procrastination” cannot define a truth or be the guide that your behavior actually represents, unless drill-sergeant-berating fosters your growth, creativity, curiosity, and an adventuresome spirit. Join me in striking the word “procrastination” from your vocabulary and begin describing your choices and behaviors with more precision (and self-compassion). Adopting this practice promises both optimism and freedom from the albatross of guilt that weighs on you whenever you fail to accomplish to-dos on a schedule that ignores life’s changing demands, competing priorities, and the rewards of spontaneity.

Life is simple. Everything happens for you, not to you. Everything happens at exactly the right moment, neither too soon nor too late. You don’t have to like it . . . it’s just easier if you do. —Byron Katie

What finally opened my eyes to the uselessness of this word were my own observations when I just let things in my life happen in their own good time. Repeatedly, I would observe that, when life is left to its own time schedule, disregarding any ideas I might have about good timing, so much more is accomplished in more creative ways and with more pleasure. And these rewards deliver delight in the magic of everyday happenings that, at best, were once a mundane tedium and, at worst, overwhelming chaos.

There was the morning when, each time I turned around, crisis in the kitchen seemed to spin out exponentially—appliances flooding the floor, burning out lights, not turning on and not shutting off. It had taken less than an hour for me to need a plumber, an electrician, and an appliance repairman. I “procrastinated” by ruminating over the difficulty of scheduling this long list of professionals, juggling my calendar to make myself available, and hyperventilating over the unknown costs. You could say I dawdled, taking my time cleaning up the mess—buying time to surveil the situation and contemplating next steps—as if I could explain any of this. I was stymied. If I waited this out, would a Ghostbusters-style rescue team show up to save me?

I roamed the house looking for insight. Who to call first? After an hour of cleaning and contemplating my options, I finally called Mo, the appliance guy. Not unexpectedly, he sized up the situation and said it was probably best that I call his friend and my plumber, Doug. I held Mo on the phone just an extra half-minute to speculate with him about a theory on this kitchen meltdown and, in those thirty seconds, he realized he was finishing work at a house on the next block, so he could run by and see how he could contribute.

My timing was impeccable! Forty-five minutes later, peace had returned to the kitchen: the lights were working in the refrigerator; the repair was made to stop the dishwasher from dumping its full load of soapy water on the floor; and . . . just an hour earlier, I had been completely rattled by all these mishaps occurring at once. Now I was ecstatic that they had all happened at once, when Mo was just half a block away. I was delighted by what I was now experiencing as a magical morning. Unbeknownst to me, while I wandered the house whipping myself into a bigger froth of angst, solving nothing, Mo was finishing up work a few doors down ahead of schedule, which left him feeling generous and willing to take on life’s next challenge. Life was unfolding with perfect timing.

So curing yourself of procrastination only requires a simple change: word substitution. Strike the word “procrastination” from your lexicon and replace it with words that support your ability to be ready for anything and to achieve the things that you find rewarding. Examine the behaviors you are describing as procrastination, and you will recognize they actually hold value for you. They give you a break from narrowly focusing on a project that needs space to flourish or fresh air for a new perspective. They can be precious encounters with those you love that revive you. They awaken you to new opportunities and clever solutions; uncover misplaced documents, memorabilia, reminders, etc. They actually prepare you to be more productive in new and rewarding ways. They promise gifts that enrich your pursuits. These behaviors are not wasting your life; they are fulfilling your life.

Observe the unpredictable, the serendipity, as well as interruptions, detours, and surprises that may offer a side trip, a scenic flyover, or a new route around a project, into topics, through pursuits. Allow yourself to follow these invitations, disregarding the fact that they are spontaneous, not accounted for in all your prior planning. Know that in any moment you have the freedom to turn your attention toward what you recognize as that which you want to engage in next.

Here are some other everyday examples of how we naturally align for greater productivity or, as a friend’s mother says, “allow life to unfold.”

The doctor’s orders were for my husband to return in three months for another checkup and to arrange a blood test after fasting. The three-month checkup date comes, but my husband has just not been in the mood to fast for a blood test. We arrive at the appointment without lab work. As the doctor reviews his notes and the lab work from our previous appointment, he determines there actually is no need for more lab work for another year. My husband’s actions (or lack thereof) managed to align with life’s unfolding for greater efficiency.

Though M, my fellow book club member, lives in my neighborhood, I let the day slip away without offering her a ride to our evening meeting. I was weighing the options of walking or driving there. With dinner cleanup behind me, I put my pup in her crate with only enough time to drive to book club. I learned when I arrived that M was recovering from an eye treatment earlier in the day and could not attend that night. M had actually spent most of her day traveling to and recovering from this eye treatment. My failure to offer M a ride to book club meant I’d avoided interrupting her. Life unfolded. When left undone, these taken-for-granted, everyday responsibilities have a way of becoming unnecessary. So our focus slips, conscious or unconscious, toward what feels like a more rewarding, important, and desirable use of our days.

The deeper the channel, the greater the flow. —David Allen

Call the following: “getting ready.” These are necessary tasks, or as productivity guru David Allen wisely identifies: “the creation of deeper channels for greater flow.” They contribute to accomplishing what you value by making space and attracting opportunities. Refuse to find fault in turning your attention toward readying yourself. It is both good and essential work. Never mislabel any of these tasks as “procrastination”: reading, experimenting, grooming, listening, walking, meditating, planning, list-making, note-taking, corresponding, sketching, questioning, googling, gazing, musing, music-making, cleaning, dancing, shopping, cooking, eating and drinking, rehearsing, podcast-surfing, sunning, taking in the fresh air, calendar-reviewing, scheduling, knitting, breathing, resting, collecting, settling, digesting, goofing off, contacting one’s muse, aligning, connecting the dots, dreaming, organizing, gathering, studying, exercising, rallying, setting the tone, testing the waters, regrouping, contemplating, thinking, treasuring, savoring, playing, recording, loving, giving, receiving.

When I clear my desk at the end of the day, I stand at my office door and take pride in the day’s accomplishments, knowing where I will begin tomorrow. With a bit of mise en place, I grant myself a new start for the next day, when I will begin again—fresh, expectant, and grateful. There is no end to good work, this creative effort, this wisdom, all productivity as life unfolds. Don’t make the mistake of mislabeling any of it as “procrastination.”

In her online newsletter, Craft Talk, novelist and memoirist Jami Attenberg tells the story of how she quit a decade-long cigarette habit “in an instant.” After hearing a voice while meditating that directed her “to stop punishing herself with smoking,” she went cold turkey and never had the desire again for a cigarette. Yet she readily admits that, for several years, she had started and quit numerous times. Though she doesn’t refer to these failed attempts as procrastination, she describes them as: “in a way I was quitting the whole time.” And she’s right. What some might call the frustration and disappointment of procrastination, she instead recognizes as part of her progress toward success—readying herself.

It is affirming and even empowering to rename “procrastination” what it truly is: “readying.” An online difference of opinions over naming between Adam Grant and Austin Kleon really brought this home for me. This occurred informally on blog posts (in no way reaching the level of a duel or even mudslinging). Grant began by labeling the pandemic’s insufferable doldrums as “languishing”—granting permission and empathy for this seasonal low mood. Kleon picked up from there, suggesting a better label: “dormancy.” This is a natural and annual cycle of life, when the work of a living plant goes unseen underground. It is a time for the root growth that will support next season’s growth above the ground. “Dormancy” is life-affirming. “Languishing” is stultifying, stymieing. You choose.

My approach to what I do in my job—and it might even be the approach to my life—is that everything I do is the most important thing I do. Whether it’s a play or the next film. It is the most important thing. I know it’s not going to be the most important thing, and it might not be close to being the best, but I have to make it the most important thing. That means I will be ambitious with my job and not with my career. That’s a very big difference, because if I’m ambitious with my career, everything I do now is just stepping-stones leading to something—a goal I might never reach, and so everything will be disappointing. But if I make everything important, then eventually it will become a career. Big or small, we don’t know. But at least everything was important. —Mads Mikkelsen

Whether it’s a performance, a celebration, or a daily routine task, it is an important thing. When one’s ambition is a career, each thing is only a stepping-stone toward that goal of which the details can’t be known. By making everything important, as Mads Mikkelsen says, eventually it all contributes to every aspect and nuance of the ambition achieved, big or small. And then everything was important. There was no time that could have been described as procrastinating.

In preparing this blog post, I traveled deep into rabbit holes—informative but not spot-on useful, more time-sucks. But that’s the nature of research, not to be confused with procrastination. There is one article that I recommend that stands out among these references. It is a New York Times piece by journalist Charlotte Lieberman from March 25, 2019, titled: “Why You Procrastinate (It Has Nothing to Do with Self-Control).”

Is procrastination a kind of laziness, self-harm, poor judgment, unproductiveness, or wasteful distraction? Or is procrastination the avoidance of emotions (self-doubt, anxiety, insecurity)? Or is it even worse: failure, irrationality, prioritizing short-term needs over the long-term, and on and on? These reasons for procrastinating are familiar to most and can be summarized as our attempt to feel better. But the irony is that pursuing procrastination with the understanding that it is about putting off what we should be doing while choosing to do something else is only going to come back to bite us with shame or some other awful consequence that will inevitably make us feel worse, not better.

So it’s time to reframe procrastination and stop berating ourselves. There is much we can learn about ourselves by accepting this behavior and recognizing it as a guidepost with useful information about what we do value and how we want to use our resources, time, money, creativity, social capital, brain, and muscles to foster health and healing—living a better life. Consider that there is no bad behavior that is labeled “procrastination.” Examine every action you take that you recognize as procrastination and see what insight it is offering and/or what value it brings to your life. I thought today I would write a poem. Instead, I wrote a condolence letter to an acquaintance who had lost her husband, made a nice dinner, folded and put away laundry that I washed yesterday, edited two poems, and read a collection of poetry. These tasks gave my mind plenty of material and bandwidth to inspire prompts for two new poems. I recorded these ideas in a notebook and am looking forward to creating first drafts tomorrow.

Psychiatrist and neurologist Dr. Judson Brewer suggests clients tackle the bad habit of procrastination by giving the brain a “bigger better offer” (BBO). A BBO is a “safe reward” that relieves the discomfort that the task at hand represents in the present moment without creating a regrettable consequence for our future selves. My reframing recommendation assumes the task that is pursued and recognized as procrastination is already the BBO and that is why curiosity and self-examination are so useful. Call procrastination what it really is: research, curiosity, calming, seeking, practicing, resting, contemplating, timing, easing, feeling, focusing, examining, digesting, preparing, scheduling, exploring, resolving, settling, warming up, chilling, waiting, clearing, organizing, etc.

How we spend our days is of course how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour and that one is what we are doing. —Annie Dillard

Make all you do important. Whatever takes you away from what you thought that you

might/should/could/would do next, do it as though it is the most important thing you can do next. When you reflect on how you have spent your days, you are following Annie Dillard’s wisdom. You spent your days doing important things and your days became your life—important.

We are not inadequate, broken, bad, or wrong. There is nothing to fix. There is only looking again with fresh eyes. Don’t head straight into this. Instead, look around it, to the side of it. Take another tack. Ask what is right about this “procrastination” thing? How is it serving us? How is this choice a BBO? Close your eyes, spin around, open your eyes, and squint. Take delight. Make whatever you are doing important and do it well.

The Fork in the Road of Emotions

In October last year, I began to see Brené Brown’s promos for her new book, The Atlas of the Heart, which was just published on November 1. This romp through the spectrum of feeling holds no appeal for me in its promise to dive into all 87 human emotions. Absolutely terrifying. Do we even need 87 emotions? Where do they come from? And if they are all eventually tossed on a waste heap, I’d like to plan detours around this pile of detritus. Like all thought, emotions are ephemeral, flowing through us, dissipating, dissolving, disappearing. There is nothing to hang your hat on here, much less to hang as a shingle with your occupations embossed and gilded on it.

Right up front, you will recognize me as a compiler, rather than a splitter. I learn by making complex concepts simple—neatly ordered in drawers, on shelves, stacked and arranged for easy access. Brené is in the splitter camp. Maybe academics add another comma to their salary by splitting easily digested, single-digit servings of categories into multiples of a dozen Thanksgiving banquet offerings to feed three generations and the once-removed, as well as first, second, and third cousins. I know two emotions that encompass (compile) all 87 of Brené’s.

The curtains rise. Consider this: There are only two emotions—doubt and joy.

Yes, it’s that easy. Imagine going through every day “compiling” feelings into these two states of being: doubt or joy. There are degrees of each, yet neither end of the spectrum—strong to weak—allows an emotion to slip out of the shadow of these two categories.

The beauty of this simplicity is irresistible to me. Why complicate matters by splitting emotions into 87 possibilities when emotions are too often dramatized with strident arm-waving and chest-beating, projected beyond walls. How emotions can serve us best is as guideposts or maps. Good feelings of any varietal indicate you have chosen the fork in the road toward Joy. Celebrate, embrace, stay on this road, and your thriving will continue and contribute to the lives of all you touch—your family and your community. But if your experience is suffering, pain, anger—an emotion that feels like a contraction of your life and being—examine it. It is likely rooted in doubt—a loss of trust in your innate security and freedom. When you feel doubt, you have surrendered your life-given privilege to grow and thrive.

Through a daily practice of mindfulness meditation, you become keenly aware of your emotions—doubt or joy. Awareness is the first step toward using the guidance they provide. Is the emotion a feeling of contraction, thus falling into the big category of Doubt? Or does your emotion give you a feeling of expansiveness, curiosity, awe, and delight, thus falling into the big category of Joy? Seek joy and use the information that doubt offers to rewrite the story you tell yourself in order to pivot toward joy.

Two Final Thoughts

1. A memorable “aha!” moment in my life was learning that, at its root, anger is fear. When a parent screams a visceral alarm bell at their child, whom they see running into the busy neighborhood street, they are in abject terror of their child being maimed or killed by a passing car. This blood-curdling anger emanating from them is a “cry” of fear. Does the parent feeling anger turn to punishing the child with a belt to the butt? Or does the parent recognize her feeling as fear and gather her child up in a bear hug, to rock her babe and herself gently until the tears subside? Understanding the root of one’s emotions is critical for clarity in human relationships.

2. Why “doubt vs. joy” and not “negative vs. positive” or “fear vs. love” or “angst vs. calm” or “discomfort vs. equanimity”? It’s personal to me. It’s not scientific. Doubt and joy do not assume fault or frenzy, nor are they solely identified with romance, religion, maturity, or specific relationships. They are universal, free of assumptions and associations. They are not lumped with shame, regret, wisdom, health, lack of health, or even something to be transcended or outgrown. Clean, uncomplicated, and accepted as a part of everyday life at any age and stage—any educational level, intelligence, custom, gender, ethnicity, origin—south or north of the equator. Choose these two words—doubt and joy—or any two words that work best for you: contraction vs. expansion, angst vs. flow, etc. Let me know what categories you decide for yourself at: ellie@elliealtmanpoet.com.

Announcing New Website Under Construction

This fall my poetry website will go LIVE! This will be a way to follow my work. I have so much work to share and am excited that I will have this vehicle for keeping you abreast of my work. Please check back soon and often for announcements and new content! Thank you for being a part of my journey.