I’m a procrastinator. There, I’ve said it. I’ve been meaning to do that for a long time.

That last sentence is a joke, but not the first sentence. Apparently I was born on my due date, but it’s been downhill ever since in respect of getting things done in good time. Homework for school was always last minute. I needed ‘extensions’ for most of my university essay assignments. Preparing sermons involved stealing hours of sleep the night before the preaching date. It was the same when I wrote books. Editors gave me final deadlines so I would submit the work. I coined the phrase, ‘A deadline is the mother of motivation’ because nothing else got me going.

Not everyone procrastinates, but the procrastination club does have a lot of members. And those members ‘never quite get round to doing…’ everything from buying groceries or returning a phone call, to making life-significant decisions like changing careers or proposing marriage. For some, it’s not just procrastination about proposing marriage but procrastination about getting married. I worked beside a woman who’d been engaged for twenty five years, and she and her fiancé still hadn’t fixed a wedding date.

Procrastination is not laziness. The lazy person can’t be bothered to get off their couch, but the procrastinator could be energetic and active about many things, just not the right things, not the things that should be done. They’re postponed until…? Well, procrastinators prefer never to answer the ‘when’ question.

Nor is procrastination necessarily indecision. Often the procrastinator knows exactly what to do but just doesn’t get round to doing it. It’s inaction as much as indecision.

Why procrastinate?

Here are reasons that have sometimes applied to me.

I procrastinate when I’m not sure what to do or how to do it    There’s a warning light showing on the dashboard of my car. It’s not obvious what that light signifies, and the car is running fine. So I’ll do nothing and see if the light goes off. I should cut our tall hedge lower, but should it be down to six feet, seven feet, or compromise at six and a half feet? I’ll have to think about that… So far, that’s been for about a year. This kind of procrastination is compounded either when I have to choose between several options or when a decision can be delayed, because then it will be delayed.

I procrastinate when I’ve so many things to do I don’t know which to do first    I could prepare the talk I have to give next week. I could read the book I’m committed to study. I could walk the dogs. I could hang the pictures that have rested on the floor against the wall for ages. I could finish repairing the liner on the garden pond. Or I could do any of another twenty things. The multiplicity of tasks is a fog I can’t see through to what matters most. So, instead, I’ll go and play golf. A casual game of golf is neither urgent nor important, but a lot more pleasant than dealing with the things which are. Procrastination loves diversion to unimportant alternatives.

I procrastinate when I don’t want to do a hard thing    I don’t actually want to cut the hedge. It’s not an easy or fun job, so inability to decide on its height justifies delay. If I would be fined if I hadn’t started cutting my hedge by 12 noon, I’d say, ‘Okay, it’ll be 6 feet 6 inches’ and get the hedge trimmer out. But with no looming fine, I put off the work. Which is what I do with many ‘not easy and not fun’ things. One day I’ll probably have to do them, but not this day. Procrastination thrives on hard-to-do stuff.

The let-me-do-everything-now people of this world can’t understand why procrastinators are procrastinators. It’s just not sensible. It’s not rational. But rationality doesn’t have complete command in virtually anyone’s life. Our shortfalls are different, and, in my case, it includes procrastination.

I have no doubt, though, that procrastination is damaging and can be dangerous.

In practical things    My car’s warning light does mean something’s wrong, so perhaps one day the engine will fail or I’ll have an accident. My taller and taller hedge won’t kill anyone, but it is getting progressively harder to cut.

In relational things    At the end of a church service, a delightful older lady asked me if I’d give her a call as she had something she wanted to talk about. It didn’t sound urgent, so I put if off… After two weeks she called me. She was polite but she was mad at me. I’d said I’d call, but hadn’t. She felt unimportant.

In economic things    I was driving from Glasgow to Aberdeen late one night, a journey of nearly three hours. Mid way home – probably around midnight – I became aware of headlights in a field off to the side. Had a car gone off the road? I glanced over. No, the headlights were moving. Then I realised. It was the time of year when farmers cut down their crops, and this farmer was driving his combine harvester up and down his field. ‘Foolish man,’ I thought. ‘He should be in his bed.’ I got home, went to sleep, and woke the next morning to the sound of the wind howling, rain lashing and then hailstones crashing down. What if the farmer hadn’t worked through the night to get his harvest in? He’d have lost it. Delay would have been economically disastrous.

In psychological things    I thought I was bad when my email inbox had 500 messages. Until, that is, I found a colleague had 5000. And then I heard of someone with a crazy number like 50,000. But comforting yourself that you’re not as bad as others is false and cold comfort. I still had 500 emails I’d not actioned, and that weighed on my mind. What had I read and then neglected? What important message had I never even read? A procrastinator lives with constant anxiety that more and more things are mounting up, things that should be done but aren’t done. It’s a heavy burden to carry.

Have I found the answer to procrastination? Certainly not.

But I am better than I once was.

Here are the four key steps to improvement that I’ve taken.

  1. When I don’t know where to start, I start somewhere that matters. In other words, I no longer divert to something easy but unimportant. Instead, I take anything from my must-do list and do that. The result is one thing less on the list, and a feeling of satisfaction that motivates me to take on another must-do item.
  2. When I actually do something I’ve been postponing, I reward myself. The reward can be as small as a coffee and cake moment, or reading a (short) chapter of a novel. I’m celebrating an accomplishment. And the reward motivates me for more accomplishments.
  3. I remember a sentence I read many years ago in a ‘spiritual autobiography’ of the Scottish theologian, William Barclay. He was talking about ‘writer’s block’ for those who prepare sermons or academic papers. I won’t get Barclay’s words exactly right, but it was as snappy as ‘The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair’. Just sit down and start. That advice has helped me many times.
  4. I came up with a phrase of my own, and have used it to challenge congregations or audiences to actually make the changes in their lives they’ve always said they would. My phrase is: ‘Today is yesterday’s tomorrow’. Some promised yesterday that they’d lose weight. Some resolved to repaint a room. Some decided to get up earlier and exercise. All of them promised to start tomorrow. But they didn’t. All they did was invent new tomorrows. So I challenge them: today is the tomorrow you promised yesterday. This is the time – perhaps the last time you’ll have – to make the change you promised. Now or maybe never. And I accept that challenge personally. A promise for tomorrow is meaningless if that tomorrow never dawns.

Perhaps the most famous procrastinator in English literature is Shakespeare’s Hamlet. His lack of action is blamed for the deaths of many. I certainly hope my procrastination has never led to such dire consequences. But there have been negative consequences, and I regret each one.

And I’ll regret procrastinating about posting this if I don’t do it now!