FORGETTING LIFE PURPOSE: THE REAL COST OF PROCRASTINATION
Updated: Apr 1, 2019
Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: Too Late. (Martin Luther King Jr. )
WHAT IS PROCRASTINATION
Based on the definition of procrastination, everybody is doing it. Procrastinus is Latin for “put off till tomorrow” and “akrasia” is a Greek word which means “doing something we shouldn’t be doing”. So when we procrastinate we are doing something, but not exactly what we should be doing. We may be cleaning when we should be cooking for example, or watching television when we should be doing our taxes, or going on facebook instead of exercising. But who decides on these “shoulds”? Actually, WE do. We have goals, intentions, dreams and life purpose. When we engage in activity that is not aligned to our own intentions then we are out of sync with our lives. We are now procrastinating on life itself. Procrastination then, is the gap between intention and action. It is so pervasive and pernicious an issue that all major world religions mention this gap between our best intentions and our actions as the only real purpose of spiritual practice. St. Paul said, "My own behavior baffles me. For I find myself doing what I really hate, and not doing what I really want to do". In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says, "Undisciplined, vulgar, stubborn, wicked, malicious, lazy, depressed, and procrastinating; such an agent is called a taamsic agent, unworthy of rebirth." Similarly, in Islam there are warnings against procrastination known as taswif, the postponement of good deeds.
We digress from our stated intentions, and lose self-efficacy i.e a belief in our own abilities to shape our lives. As soon as we start "shoulding on ourselves" as one teacher puts it, we layer our procrastination habit with guilt, self-hatred and low self esteem and get caught in the vicious cycle of low motivation and zero action. Why do we do this to ourselves?
Recently, psychologists and social scientists who have extensively studied procrastination have distilled this peculiar form of human behavior down to a science. It even has its own equation, encompassing several components.
Motivation = Expectancy X Value
Impulsiveness X Delay
Where the motivation to complete a task (Motivation) is directly proportional to our perception of our ability to do it (Expectancy), the possible pay- off of that task (Value), and is inversely proportional to impulsive behavior that distracts us (Impulsiveness) or a delayed deadline by which the project may be expected to be completed (Delay). (1)
By way of illustration – let’s say I have a term paper due in three weeks and I sit at my desk to write down some sort of an outline. The D is high here (the deadline is three weeks away), so I have lower motivation, I’ll just quickly check the news feed. A friend pops in and invites me to go for lunch, and I enthusiastically say YES! High Impulsiveness. The term paper is momentarily forgotten. Two weeks later I sit down again to write that term paper. But now I’m not sure if I’ll be able to do it. The material to cover is vast, I can’t even begin to wrap my head around some of the concepts let alone write a paper on them. Low Expectancy is in operation now. I feel anxious and stressed and my palms get a bit sweaty. My heart races at the thought of my plunging GPA. I tell myself – "its not even like this effort will pay off. I don’t even think this course has any value per se. After all its just academic knowledge, not real world experience. Experience what employers are looking for, not some number on a transcript". Low Value. I put it off some more. At the end of the three week period, I probably will turn in the paper as panic sets in, and some fear of repercussions is activated, but it will be far from my best work.
AVOIDING NEGATIVE FEELINGS
The Steel equation breaks down the components and possible reasons we engage in self-harming behavior but it fails to capture the emotional aspect of this bad habit. But according to Pychl, procrastination is ultimately a problem of emotional regulation and not time management (2). When we procrastinate we are giving in to feeling good in the moment i.e. instant gratification. Web surfing is more gratifying than working on the resume, for example. As the deadline gets closer, we try escaping negative emotions such as anxiety and self-doubt by again, engaging in some other task that makes us feel a bit better. Without understanding the role that underlying emotions play to guide our decisions we are flummoxed why we behave so irrationally. Knowing something is not good for us, we still do it. Knowing what we really need to do, we still avoid it. It seems so irrational – and it IS – because procrastination is not governed by the pre-frontal cortex (the part of the brain involved in rational executive decision making). Rather it is ruled by the emotional brain or the limbic system, and takes its orders directly from the little part of the brain known as the amygdala, the seat of our emotions. The amygdala is a protective system that wants to make sure we have a pleasant experience rather than a painful one.
The implications of this are huge. We sub-consciously tend to assume we are too busy juggling different aspects of our lives and that’s the reason we have put off some important goals. We will get to them later when we have time. But the research points in a different direction. We will never get to do the things we want to do unless we learn to manage the emotions around those tasks. It is the fear of failure, the fear of unpleasant emotions and the desire for instant gratification that are the Achilles' heels of procrastination. But avoidance does not help, because we then add on negative emotions of self-blame, low self-esteem, guilt and shame - judging ourselves for the things we should have done.
PROCRASTINATION WHEN WE HAVE DEADLINES
According to data, about 95% of the student population engages in procrastination, and it is a serious problem on school and college campuses. The challenges posed by technology compound the problem of impulsivity. There is the dopamine factor to contend with, the "high" associated with being on social media. Sometimes the fear of a bad grade or the lure of a great career cannot compete with the pleasures of the internet. Our lowered attention spans (again, the internet is largely to blame) make tasks seem more difficult than usual, and they take much longer too. In addition there is the problem of low self-esteem brought on by over critical parents (or even self- critical minds) and the resulting pressure we put on ourselves to be perfect. Why even bother doing something because we know it’s not really going to be good enough.
Students have deadlines to meet and this works in their favor. They often power up with caffeine, or drugs (both legal and illegal), put in all-nighters and somehow manage to hit that “Send” button a few seconds before the deadline. It usually is sub-par work and it takes a huge toll on the body. Years later these serial procrastinators will find their cardiovascular systems compromised, their immune systems ravaged by the stress hormones, and their family lives affected by their poor work habits. They will also usually suffer from feelings of low self esteem and dissipated energy levels.
IMPACT ON HEALTH, WEALTH AND HAPPINESS
Once procrastination gets deeply rooted into our behavior patterns, its spreads into the rest of our lives like a virus. We delay and put off anything that causes even mild stress. Financial planning, that dreaded colonoscopy, the dentist’s chair or that weight loss program. We procrastinate at work, causing loss of productivity and increased costs for the organization. In our private lives we avoid difficult issues of financial planning and management, instead mounting the credit card bills. Stress levels rise as health and financial troubles rise. Slowly we shrink our world down to a safer place, and add substances like smoking or drinking to combat the difficult emotions. The very problems we are trying to avoid start mushrooming before our eyes. We avoid difficult conversations so we miss out on deep relationships. We avoid work that is demanding and miss out on the joys of a fulfilling life.
PROCRASTINATING ON LIFE PURPOSE AND EULOGY VIRTUES
When we have a deadline and we don't deliver, we are forced to confront the hard truth that we are irrational procrastinators. However the real cost of procrastination is when we don't take the time to formulate intentions and take action towards our life purpose. Life purpose is a strange thing in that one doesn’t actually decide volitionally about it, rather it is revealed to you if you pay attention. What kind of work makes you come alive, what kind of work utilizes your own unique strengths and also gives you an opportunity to share your gifts with the world at large. This is the work that gives your lives meaning, and fills you with boundless energy. It is not always the chosen profession we may be in, so it may take some deep thinking to find this life purpose.
When we work towards our life purpose, we are developing what David Brooks calls “eulogy virtues” versus our “resume virtues’. Resume virtues are all about the skills we bring into our jobs, and attaining success in the material world. They teach us to be competitive, to be acquisitive and to dominate our environment. Eulogy virtues on the other hand, tell us about who we are at our depth, the nature of our relationships, our ability to feel great love, our reliability, inner consistency and how live in harmony with our environment. These two virtues work with different logics and need totally different mindsets. When we relax and surrender into life, feel empathy towards the suffering of others, meditate, increase self-awareness - the eulogy virtues start growing in us. But in our meritocracy based culture, we usually value the fast food type resume virtues and discount the slow cooked eulogy ones – thus we focus all our attention on the former and procrastinate on the latter.
We often forget about that last deadline we all have – our imminent death. In fact, most people find the idea fearful and unbearable to think about and choose instead to engage in something more pleasurable in the moment. We focus on happiness but not purpose, but it is purpose which connects us to something larger than ourselves. Purpose helps us bring about change and transformation in not only our lives, but in the lives of those around us. It is what aligns us to the grander purpose of the universe, and the impulse towards evolution.
People who are dying often feel a lot of regret on sins of omission rather than sins of commission. Some of these have been documented as not making a difference to someone’s life, not being happy and enjoying with what they had, not being compassionate towards others, not having had enough self-love and self-acceptance and never resolving one’s core character flaws such as anger, jealousy or lack of forgiveness. These are things they put off because they seemed so difficult to deal with or they had no guidance.
NINE SOLUTIONS FOR PROCRASTINATION
If emotional regulation is the main culprit for why we procrastinate then this is where the solution lies. We must become more aware of our emotional landscape. Where should we start though? The brain get overwhelmed with too much - we must have a step by step plan.
1. Specific Goals: Choose three out of the 12 major life domains the ones that mean most to you. Some common domains are Career, Health, Education, Finances, Friends, Family, Spirituality, Self, Community, Romance, Leisure and Parenting (1). Make a detailed list of how you could improve on the top three domains. If you chose Health for example, you could enunciate that you will walk everyday, eat more vegetables or cut back on alcohol.
2. Create Habit Loops: Use the Cue – Routine – Reward loop for each of these goals. (see my blog on Habits).
3. Feedback Mechanisms: Take time to visit your goals and your progress on these goals frequently.
4. Breaking Task down to Small Bits: We can train our brains by keeping the tasks associated with the goals really small and incremental. What would the next step be if I were to do this? If I had to write this term paper for example, what would be the smallest next step I would take?
5. Use an Obstacle Course: create some distance between you and your distractions. Put the phone on silent mode, turn off social media or online shopping; use these distractions as occasional rewards.
6. Give yourself a "Bigger Better Offer" as suggested by Judson Brewer (4). Yes – that cookie would be yummy but eating a date would satisfy the sugar craving and also lead to better health.
7. Start Meditating: it is a keystone habit that powers up self awareness and emotional regulation. It will give you back many folds the time you invest into it.
8. Cultivate Curiosity: Watch yourself deviate from your stated goals. What did you feel or think that made you digress. How did it feel in your body and how can you allow those feelings instead of circumventing them with pleasurable options.
9. Self Compassion: Always motivate yourself with kindness, not self-judgment. Remember your humanity, your fallibility, your good intentions and honest efforts to live your best life. These are difficult changes to make and we deserve a lot of credit for even trying.
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1) Steel, Piers. The Procrastination Equation
2) Pychl, Timothy. Solving The Procrastination Puzzle
3) The New York Times Article March 25th, 2019.
4) Brewer, Judson. The Craving Mind. From Cigarettes to Smart Phones to Love. How We get Hooked and How to Break Bad Habits
5) Brooks, David. Ted Talk on Eulogy Virtues. Should You Live for Your Resume or Your Virtues.