Re-thinking procrastination

Yesterday I had an urge to send a card to someone. I knew it would feel good to do, and probably bring a smile to their face, too.

But almost immediately, I got anxious. I felt my chest tighten as my mind frantically sought out other ideas for what I should do instead.

I recognized it as the way I feel when I'm about to procrastinate.

But why would it be kicking in now?

I'd always assumed that I procrastinate because I'm afraid something is going to be hard or unpleasant, or that I might fail or feel stupid. But here I was, about to procrastinate on something I find fulfilling and enjoyable, and not particularly risky. 

Did I secretly not want to reach out? Was I afraid of rejection? In the past I might have assumed one of those must be it. But this time, for whatever reason, I actually stopped and asked myself what was going on, and I got a totally different answer. It was in the form of a deeply rooted belief: You have to work before you play.

It could have come straight from the lips of my Puritan ancestors, and yet here it was still alive in me, basically telling me that I'm not allowed to do this thing that I enjoy until I've earned it by first doing something unpleasant.

The "work before play" advice might make sense if enjoyable, fulfilling (play) activities were harmful for me or the people around me. But for the most part, they are not! Reaching out to others is helpful. Working on exciting projects is helpful. Attending to my well-being is helpful. 

And while there's a place for doing unpleasant chores from time to time, for the most part, I don't think my slogging and suffering particularly benefits the world.

The big problem with a "work before play" mentality is that it treats work and play as if they are separate and in opposition to each other -- as if work can't feel playful and play can't create value. But it seems to me that when I'm at my best, both things go together. Isn't that what I want to aim for?

All this makes me wonder if I've been inadvertently passing down an unhelpful "work before play" attitude to my children: Eat dinner before dessert. Clean up the living room before you watch TV. Do your homework before playing games.

There are practical reasons for these instructions, of course, but am I teaching them that there is an inherent trade-off between being responsible and being happy? Are they learning that they have to earn enjoyment by first paying their dues to the Powers (Parents) That Be?

As adults, will they unnecessarily postpone doing things in life that they really want to do? Will they come to believe that procrastination is a form of virtue? 

Not if I can help it.

For my own sake, as well as theirs, I am going to start modeling something different. Starting with sending out that card.

What do you want to do?

Don't do it because you have to; do it because you want to. And if you don't want to, don't do it.

I've met a lot of people who think that sounds like dangerous and irresponsible advice. If people actually followed it, they think, it would lead to mass laziness, ignorance, and social breakdown.

I disagree. 

I don't think people want to be lazy or ignorant. Nor do they want to sit idly by while their society breaks down. Those things don't actually feel good! 

Sometimes, though, it can be hard to know what our real desires are. What we want is mixed in with things we think we should want, that other people want, and that we've wanted in the past but don't actually serve us any more. Not to mention, powerful memories of those times when we did what we wanted and got punished, teased or rejected for it.

It's often a lot easier to just do what we're "supposed" to do and avoid asking what we want altogether.

That said, I find for myself that when I do take the time to sift through all the noise in my head, I am heartened by what I discover. What I really want to do isn't just good for me, but tends to be good for other people too.

I want to tell the truth with kindness and listen with humility. I want to take good care of my body and my environment. I want to follow through on my commitments. These things aren't always easy or comfortable, but they are aligned with my deepest values, and when I act on them, good things happen.

Following the "do what you want" advice is only a problem when I don't sit with the question long enough to find an action that would really feel good, and instead act on the first idea that pops into my head (e.g., yell at the person I'm mad at, eat yet another slice of cake, renege on a challenging commitment, etc.). In those cases I'm not actually doing what I want to do, but rather running on auto-pilot. It's not a problem of bad advice, but bad execution.

What do you think? Do you have a good sense of what you want to do? What would happen if you did those things more consistently?