Most of my coaching clients aspire to do great things with their lives. They hire me because they have a big bold vision of how the world can be a better place for all of us. They choose to be front and center, throwing everything at it to make sure everything happens in the best possible way.
Most of the people I know are surprised and disappointed when they do not come through on all of their plans in the timeframe they expected. When putting things off (or “procrastinating” as it is commonly called) takes over, the first solution most people want to apply is to push a little harder. Oh my god, I didn’t make my deadline of writing for an hour last week, I better do two hours this week. I’m going to get up earlier and lock myself away to finish it.
I have also had my troubles with putting things off till later and not following through. I have discovered that the underlying principles behind procrastination are actually quite simple. It all comes down to understanding your relationship with thought and emotion.
You can sit down and do the thing you had planned to, only to find there are a few possibilities of what could happen. Either you do what you said you would do, or you follow some other impulse.
There are only a limited number of sources where these impulses can come.
- You have a random thought and you follow it. Oh I just remembered I should check Facebook. I think I am going to measure the living room now in case we need new carpet. I think I will check what is going on with the impeachment hearings one more time. These are all mental phenomena that arise unexpectedly in the mind, that advocate taking action.
- You have an emotion. This could be a feeling of anxiety, or feeling disheartened, or anger, or frustration. Whatever kind of emotion it is, it is going to flood your consciousness and then compel you to various kinds of action you have not previously contemplated.
- Someone other than you has a thought which then affects you. This would include receiving random text messages, receiving emails, people knocking on your door, or starting up conversations, etc.
- Someone else is in an emotional state, expresses it, and you feel pulled in.
Although sometimes we get distracted by events like a FedEx package needs signing for, or the cat needs to be let in, these are not generally the real distractions, and they allow you to return quickly to what you were doing. It is the four categories that I have mentioned above that cause the real problems: internal and external mental and emotional events. You can try and deal with distractions one by one, but the more effective way to deal with distraction more long term is to shift your attitude towards thought and emotion in a deep and lasting way.
Many years ago after I met my teacher H.W.L Poonja in Lucknow, India, he asked me to return to America to be a teacher. I did not do it for very long, just a few years, but during that time I used to tell a story to illustrate a healthy relationship to the mind and emotions.
Imagine that you have an insane relative who has been institutionalized. We will call him Uncle Joe. You go to the asylum, fill out the necessary paperwork, show your identification, and you are allowed to take Uncle Joe out for a few hours to the shopping mall. You get Uncle Joe into the passenger seat of your car, mumbling and drooling, and you get to the mall. Now you are walking together through the shopping mall, past the Apple store and Crate and Barrel, on your way to get some ice cream. “They are all FBI agents,” Uncle Joe murmurs. “Don’t trust any one of them, they are going to kill you. That woman, see her, she is a robot. This is all being controlled by hamsters in the basement.”
On and on Uncle Joe continues, sometimes excited and happy, sometimes paranoid and hiding, sometimes greeting strangers inappropriately. Now, you love your Uncle Joe. He is your blood relative, and you are kind to him, but you can confidently ignore everything he is telling you to do. Don’t act on his advice. “Come on Uncle Joe,” you say. “We said we would go for some ice cream, let’s just go and enjoy it.” You can politely ignore all of his fearful and urgent reasons to change course, and you can stay on track and enjoy a nice treat together.
If we want to reduce procrastination in life, we need to develop the same relationship to the random arising of thoughts and feelings. You can think of your mind and fleeting reactive emotions as something similar to an insane relative. You can be kind, calming, and considerate, but you know better than to act upon what they tell you to do.
A great way to increase your capacity to see the mind and emotions as an unreliable basis for action is to spend a little time every day, preferably early morning, just observing what goes on. You do not have to call this “meditation,” you can simply sit and close your eyes to observe. Most people recognize within a few minutes that there is a completely out of control machine generating all kinds of nonsense all of the time. When you sit and watch, it is clearly bizarre, but as soon as you open your eyes and start the day, you forget how crazy the machine is, and you start following Uncle Joe’s highly unreliable advice. As you develop the capacity to observe both thought and emotion as unreliable, you are left with a much more stable guide for what to do: you do what you said you would do. You edit chapter three. Why? Not because you suddenly had a random thought, not because it feels good, but for one simple reason: because you said you would.
When thoughts and emotions pop up with all kinds of reasons to do something else, you can calmly and kindly ignore them, to keep on track with completing the task at hand.
There is actually an “ice cream” at the end of the journey. It is a completely different kind of feeling in your body. It is actually quite sane and settled. It is the trust that you develop in yourself for keeping your word. It floods your body with safety, ease, and stability. It sings the mantra of I’m not as crazy as I thought I was. With each and every task that you complete, in the way that you said you would, kindly and calmly ignoring the mental and emotional bumps along the way, the easier it becomes to build trust in yourself and for others to build trust in you as well.