I’m one of the tax procrastinators: One of my worst tax filing performances was when, not too many April fifteenths ago, my husband and I had a fight—in front of a neighbor, no less—about whether or not we needed to send anything in that day if we were filing an extension. (I am prone to tax amnesia where I forget some key part of the process every year. I blame the same mechanism that helps mothers forget the pain of childbirth.)
While not a proud moment, I want to take a minute to reframe procrastination so that those of us who do it can stop beating ourselves up about it.
Procrastinating isn’t inherently bad in and of itself. It can actually be helpful. Some of us—myself included—need to build up a little agita before we are compelled to sit down and do something even remotely unpleasant (like rifle through receipts or fire up the QuickBooks). If you don’t procrastinate, you don’t get the pent-up energy that, in search of release, finally inspires you to roll up your sleeves and get to work.
Oh sure, you could train yourself to stop procrastinating and you would probably save yourself some peaks in your stress levels. As someone who’s written a book on how to stress less, I do firmly believe that breaking habitual stress-producing patterns is helpful to both your health and your happiness.
But if you’ve been procrastinating your whole life, and feeling bad about yourself because of it, perhaps the most effective way to reduce your stress around when you get things done is to accept that you are a last-minute kind of person. That way, you can stop judging yourself. And accept how you’re wired—and perhaps even forgive yourself.
Owning your tendencies will bring relief in and of itself, and maybe that’s as far as you need to go with it. But you may also find that once you change the internal dynamic around your procrastination tendencies, you’ll create an opportunity to start doing things differently. After all, procrastination is a habit, and you can’t change a habit you don’t know you have.
Mindfulness can help you make peace with your procrastinating tendencies. How? Mindfulness is all about paying attention, non-judgmentally, with the sole purpose of raising awareness. Meaning, it helps you become an impartial observer of thought patterns that you may not have been fully hip to before.
Do you go full ostrich and completely ignore whatever it is that needs doing, or do you work on it in tiny little bits when the stars align just perfectly? Is there any part of you that enjoys rebelling against what you “should” be doing—which is being diligent and working on something well before it’s due? Or are you simply overwhelmed?
If you can see how you procrastinate, you gain access to more options about how to work with it. If you’re an ignorer, perhaps you could ask a spouse, friend, or coach to check in with you every few days so that it can’t slip your mind. If you’re waiting for the perfect conditions to arise in order to get to work, you could make your goal to create those conditions instead of focusing on completing the work. If you’re doing it for the thrill of rebellion, you could get your ya-ya’s out by doing the work in some unconventional way—maybe by setting up camp in a fancy hotel lobby and partaking of their free tea service. And if you’re overwhelmed, you could focus on outsourcing some tasks so that you have the support you need to get everything done.
But maybe the only thing you need to change about your procrastinating ways is feeling bad about it. Then you can put it to work for you.
For example, my favorite way to work with my tendency to procrastinate is to use it as an excuse to clean or reorganize drawers or putter in the garden. Whatever I do, I make it my sole intention to savor whatever menial task I’ve chosen—which is, at its essence, a mind-body practice.
I do try to put a time limit on it: I will mess around until 10 a.m. But the really magical thing that happens in that “non-productive” time is that I get an idea or have an insight, or notice that I can’t stop thinking about a particular email I need to respond to. So that when I do sit down to get work done, I go straight to that thing that I’ve just done some good thinking about and take care of it first thing. Crossing something important off the list is so energizing that the less exciting things take less time.
Einstein pondered why he always seemed to do his best thinking while he was shaving. I’d argue that it’s because he was doing something that required his full attention that wasn’t “work.” So if you’re going to procrastinate, give it all you’ve got, and it will give back to you.
(And if you’re filing an extension, remember, you still need to file a form by April 15!)