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Procrastination - the Universal Equalizer

Procrastination is an extremely versatile phenomenon. It does not discriminate: it is practiced by both sexes, and is cross-cultural, observed in all ethnicities and religions-a sort of one-size-fits-all force with which we all have at least a passing familiarity, and all participate in to one extent or another. It is also a uniquely human condition. Our pets don't procrastinate. Have you ever seen a dog off its leash not chase a squirrel, if the opportunity presented itself? Procrastination can even be hazardous to your health. We might notice something a little "off" or wrong physically, but we make excuses and keep putting off that doctor or dentist visit. Procrastination is compact, so it's portable and you don't need a suitcase to take it with you. But above all, procrastination is creative! At it's heart, procrastination is really about self-sabotage, and each one of us is the master of our own version of that. We will do just about anything else but the one task that really needs our attention. This in turn becomes yet another way for us to divert our attention away from what needs to get done, which causes stress and often adds lots of drama to our lives as a byproduct. Procrastination often shows up in the form of what I like to call "The Brat", that incessant, distracting voice we often hear and argue with in our heads, wanting our attention and to be in control.

Procrastination can attack every aspect of our everyday existence, from taking care of ourselves and our relationships, to getting our taxes ready, getting our work done, educating ourselves, or creating a plan to carry out our goals-you name it. And what do we do instead? Just about anything that will keep us distracted. I believe procrastination is a learned behavior that we can change once we recognize it, which is often the hard part. Procrastination can become such an automatic habit, we often don't even notice when we are doing it. Like most human traits, we recognize it more easily in someone else. There are a plethora of procrastination styles; below are three stories that illustrate three differing styles of procrastination and how to combat them.

"Striving for perfection is the greatest stopper there is. You'll be afraid you can't achieve it. It's your excuse to yourself for not doing anything. Instead, strive for excellence, doing your best."
~ Sir Laurence Oliver

This is the story of Sam.

Sam was a perfectionist and he was very proud of that. He had, as a performer, always been the star of the show. After graduating from college he moved to NYC to make it and quickly found out that his vocal technique wasn't as good as it could be. So he found a teacher he liked and studied voice for the next 3 years. He devoted himself to practicing most days. He worked with coaches to help with diction and prepare his audition arias, as well as some new roles his teacher though would be perfect for him. He took advantage of all the wonderful classical music available in the city and would often get standing room to see whatever he could. He even took acting classes and performed with a few local companies which gave him the opportunity to try all his new skills and gain more performance experience. He never felt he was ready to audition, but on his teachers insistence he auditioned for a B House. In doing so, he actually got a job singing a leading role.

He was very excited and couldn't wait to get started. It was going to be great to finally be working with singers, a conductor and stage director he felt were up to his level. The company was in Texas where the air is very dry. Sam noticed it when he got off the plane. Immediately he started worrying about not being able to sing well because of the dryness. There was air conditioning in his room and in the rehearsal space. What if he wasn't able to perform up to his usual perfect standards? What would everyone think of him then?

He started wearing a scarf around his neck. He focused on worrying about his health and whether he could live up to what everyone seemed to expect of him. He wasn't very present in rehearsals and management began to worry. Was Sam going to be able to deliver as he had done in his audition? Sam went to the drug store and got a saline nasal spray and lozenges to keep his throat moist. He drank gallons of water. He ate no dairy, meat or sweets. He turned off his air conditioner when sleeping. He even marked during the sitzprobe. Management asked him if he thought he was going to have to cancel. He said he would be fine by the dress rehearsal. He rallied during the dress rehearsal and started to feel somewhat better.

By opening night he had worked himself into frenzy. His Brat (that self talk) was raging in his head. He couldn't shut him up. He went out for his first entrance telling himself he was only going to focus on vocal technique and get through this thing. And that is exactly what he did. He did what he thought was only a mediocre job. Sam wanted to be excellent, the best in the show. He wanted to show everybody that his high standards for himself had been achieved.

At the opening night party, Sam told everyone he met how he could have been better if only. He said he hoped he would have the opportunity to come back and perform when he was in better health. He did receive a nice review, but he felt that if they had only known the circumstances under which he had been performing, they would have realized how truly great he was - better than anyone else. Once Sam got home he told the same story over and over again to anyone who would listen. Sam never got hired again by this company and he couldn't figure out why.

Sam is a type of procrastinator called THE PERFECTIONIST - someone who won't do most things until they can do them perfectly. Their criterion for perfect, of course, is only their view point of what perfect is. This type of procrastination allows us to believe that our ability is greater than what is seen in our performance. It's wanting to be perceived as being better than anyone else. The perfectionist is always making excuses as to why they aren't able to be excellent. Their mode of operation is as follows. They procrastinate long enough to force themselves to rush into an event that is less than their definition of perfect, thereby allowing themselves to think that perfection is still a possibility for the next time. Of course that would only be if they had everything in place to live up to their particular rules of perfection. I liken this type of procrastination to standing in the wings with costume and makeup on and not going on. It's a losing situation.

Try this:

  • Be ordinary! Tell yourself and everyone else you are ordinary just like the rest of us. This will alleviate a lot of the stress and pressure you are putting on yourself.
  • Strive for optimal in everything you do. Because most people have their own idea of what perfect means to them, it would be impossible for you to live up to each and every one of their standards.
  • Make a mistake on purpose. What would be the worst thing to happen if you didn't live up to your perfected standards? Would anyone else care?
  • Don't do anything "special".
  • Do a less than a perfect performance.
  • Think about this, procrastination may be robbing you of your potential. Is it time to take back control?
  • Instead of looking at the whole enchilada, try working with only the smallest next step. Then move onto the next small step, etc. In other words, don't get overwhelmed by the overview. Chunk it down.

There is an old saying "Do anything, even if it is wrong. You can make adjustments as you go." Don't put unreal demands on yourself, and strive for the unattainable. As James Sherman writes in his book, "Do It!", "There is no way procrastination can be eliminated until risk is accepted as a natural part of life." So, take the risk and give yourself permission to do "it" imperfectly. Reach for optimal.

"Both abundance and lack exist simultaneously in our lives, as parallel realities. It is always our conscious choice which secret garden we will tend... when we choose not to focus on what is missing from our lives but are grateful for the abundance that's present -- love, health, family, friends, work, the joys of nature and personal pursuits that bring us pleasure -- the wasteland of illusion falls away and we experience Heaven on earth."
~ Sarah Ban Breathnach

The story of Lisa.

Lisa was a drama queen. She walked around the opera house, her hotel room and at home with 3 scores under her arm at all times. She had accepted 3 new roles that she would be performing in the next 2 months. She was always under the gun to learn a new role in a new opera. She was known for it. In fact, she was proud of it. She said she was putting her life on hold until she got through learning these next 3 roles she had coming up one after another. There was no room for any unexpected anything in her life right now. No colds, no calls from home with emergencies she would have to deal with, no kid problems, not anything else. She loved and felt motivated by deadlines. She was happiest when she had too many things on her plate. She had made her debut by stepping in for an ailing singer and had learned the role in 1 week. She did whine and complain sometimes about needing a break, but when she had one, she didn't know what to do with herself and would wind up sitting in a chair eating junk food and watching TV. This type of life style left her little time for her husband and children, which was becoming a real problem in their lives.

I call this Deadline-Drama Procrastination. Time is of the essence. Some people cannot work at all unless they are under pressure. There has to be a pressing due date to keep them motivated and feeling stimulated. It's like being an adrenalin junkie because it makes you feel empowered which boosts your feeling of self worth. However, it does create chaos and drama in your life, and more importantly, in the lives of those around you. Your need for action and drama becomes a self induced prophecy which creates stress, but you relish the stress because if makes you feel important as you are at the center of excitement and drama. How many of you have put things off to the last minute and then feel inspired and challenged by the deadline? We often say we work best under pressure. We know that if we have 15 tasks to do in a day, we can get them done, but if we have only 1 or 2, we can't seem to get motivated until we reach the critical deadline.

Try this:

  • Notice the difference between activity and accomplishment. Which one do you really want?
  • Ask yourself, what is the drama and stimulation doing for you?
  • You might try increasing activities in other parts of your life to become a more balanced person. When you procrastinate you have, so to speak, put all of your eggs in one basket. If you do not have to deal with what is in that basket, you don't know what to do with yourself, so you continue to procrastinate.
  • What other activities in your life create focus without a deadline?
  • Learn to live your life at your own pace. You don't have to impress or please anyone else but you.
  • Often completing a deadline gives you a feeling of having really accomplished something which makes you feel good about yourself. So why not chunk down a big task into small bite size pieces and give yourself deadlines for accomplishing each one thereby creating more opportunities to feel good about yourself?

"We tend not to choose the unknown, which might be a shock or a disappointment or simply a little difficult to cope with. And yet it is the unknown with all its disappointments and surprises that is the most enriching."
~ Anne Morrow Lindbergh

The story of David.

Mr. Nice Guy, David, like most young singers in NYC, held a full time job in addition to attending voice lessons, coachings and singing gigs. He was a kind, caring, easy to get along with kind of guy. He had a beautiful tenor voice and it was easy for him to make additional money with steady church work. He seemed to be managing making ends meet, but he didn't seem to be making enough progress at his voice lessons and coachings. David was frustrated by this. At work he often had to stay late because at the last minute colleagues would ask him if he could do them a small favor. This meant sometimes missing half of his lesson, which he paid in full for, while that colleague was out at the bar with his buddies. Sometimes it meant not being able to practice because it would be 9 PM by the time he got home and there was a no noise policy after 9 PM. At his church job, the choir director asked him if he would be the librarian, which the last person had gotten a small stipend for, but he was asked to do it gratis. He didn't know how to say no. Soon the job became really time consuming and he began to resent it. David was in trouble and started to feel very stressed, angry and out of control. What David couldn't see was that his problem was that he didn't know how or couldn't say NO.

Being Mr. or Ms. Nice Guy doesn't really get you what you want. Often times not being able to say NO to something you really don't want to do means you are more concerned about rocking the boat, than taking care of yourself. You are more concerned with not being liked and accepted by others, than trusting and believing in yourself. It could be that you are afraid of conflicts in your interpersonal relationships. You don't ever want to be the "bad guy", so you often wind up with tasks you don't want to do or won't be able to figure out how to do. It is hard to ask for help, and you certainly don't want to appear uneducated or stupid in any venue, so instead of saying no, you smile, grit your teeth and say "yes". Your emotions start churning and "The Brat" rears its ugly head with all that very hurtful inner self talk. You may notice that you are feeling not so confident and your self esteem is lower than ever. You may even give small gifts, food or drink to help get you off the hook when you don't get the task done that someone else put on your plate. You either didn't have time or just plan didn't know how to accomplish it, but you gave it your Boy Scout try.

Try this:

  • Practice saying NO to small insignificant things. Like, "No, I won't be able to bring back coffee for you while I am out. Sorry." Practice this small task for just one week and see if you don't feel more empowered. Notice if the reaction from others changes. Were you scolded or respected for saying NO?
  • Examine your feelings as they are happening. Notice where you are holding tension in your body. Remember, there is a mind body connection. Ask yourself if this is really how you want to feel.
  • Do you still like and respect someone else who is honest when they say they can't do something? Are you being honest with yourself when you say "yes" all the time?
  • Realize that you are an example to others. What kind of example do you want them to experience? Do you truly know who you are from the inside out? Take some time to figure that out.
  • You might want to take a class in assertiveness.
  • Find different ways of being nice to people, other than saying "yes". Be creative. It might just be a kind word or opening a door for someone. They don't even have to be people you know, but it can be your outlet for being nice. There is nothing wrong with being nice as long as it is not at your expense.
  • Stand up for your own values. You might notice that your self-esteem gets a tremendous boost from this.

As I imagine you have gathered from these three examples, procrastination is something we all do at one time or another - some more than others. The art of procrastination can become an even more creative process by combining several of these types. Beware of procrastination, because while some instances of procrastination are blatant and consciously chosen, others are insidious and deep seeded. It takes an objective sleuth to uncover the hidden pockets where our procrastination may be wearing a clever disguise. Once we have caught ourselves in the act, it takes courage, perseverance, and presence to stop the action and create a new pattern; a new habit. It takes stepping outside your comfort zone and taking a risk. Ask yourself, "What is the worst thing that could happen if I choose to behave differently?"

"The self is not something ready-made, but something in continuous formation through choice of action."
~ John Dewey

If you want to start the process of changing your habits, it is important to remain curious about yourself. Ask yourself:

  • Who am I?
  • How do I get through each day?
  • What and who gets me down?
  • What is really of importance to me?
  • How balanced a life do I lead? Is that important to me?
  • How well do I know my inner Brat?
  • Do I respect myself?
  • What makes me feel either in or out of control?
  • Which style(s) of procrastination do I practice? Do I like the results?
  • Do I take action or do I just react?
  • Am I willing to at least take an honest look at the things I don't especially like about myself? Do I really want to change them? What would it take to make that change?

In today's world it is so easy to get caught up in the frenetic feeding frenzy of what is going on out there. We rarely take the time to look inside ourselves and notice if we like what we see; if we are holding on to old habits and behaviors that we could easily let go of.

Having and keeping a job is not at all an easy task and definitely not what it used to be. We have become so "plugged in" that we don't make time for ourselves to simply be quiet and observe what is going on within. Speaking from my own experience, I need quiet in my life. It gives me an opportunity to look deep inside or just rest with my eyes wide open. I like giving my thinking brain a vacation during each day. When I am working, I try to let my attention rest where the working surfaces meet. That quiets my mind and allows me to focus only on the task at hand. And procrastination is put off until another time.

"Life moves on, whether we act as cowards or heroes. Life has no other discipline to impose, if we would but realize it, than to accept life unquestioningly. Everything we shut our eyes to, everything we run away from, everything we deny, denigrate or despise, serves to defeat us in the end. What seems nasty, painful, evil can become a source of beauty, joy and strength, if faced with an open mind. Every moment is a golden one for him who has the vision to recognize it as such."
~ Henry Miller

Keep your observations, comments, and suggestions for my future newsletters coming.

Till then, Carol

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