I imagine you have read Douglas Adams’ quip before: “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” It’s funny because we can all identify with it. We all know the panic of approaching deadlines, the pain of watching them fly on by, the guilt of explaining why we missed again. We all know the problem of procrastination that leads to so many of those misses.
Procrastination is a tricky little problem that can take different and even opposite forms. Procrastination can come in the form of laziness or the form of busyness. We procrastinate lazily when we neglect productivity in favor of entertainment—getting lost in a novel instead of cleaning the house, or watching Netflix instead of writing that report. We procrastinate busily when we neglect the most urgent and important tasks in favor of ones that are less important but a whole lot easier—we answer emails instead of working on the sermon, or we sweep the house when we should be painting it. Procrastination can take a million different forms.
There was a time in my life where I was awfully good at procrastination. Or awfully bad, depending on your perspective. I still can be if I don’t watch it. But along the way I learned how to (mostly) beat it (most of the time). Today I am going to offer you 2 big-picture tips and follow them with 2 very practical ones. These are the very things that I have found so helpful in my own life.
First, I had to see this: Procrastination is a problem of spirituality before it is a problem of productivity. I came to understand that God has put me on this earth to bring glory to him by doing good for others. If that is the case, then procrastination hinders my ability to carry out my purpose. It is downright evil. Whether I am avoiding the most urgent tasks by being very busy or very lazy, procrastination stems from sin and leads to sin. I had to learn that of all the things I could do on a given day or in a given moment, I was responsible to focus on the one or the few that I should do. And the way to do this was to begin my day with prayer, to commit all of my tasks to the Lord, and to remind myself each day that the best and highest kind of productivity is to effectively steward my gifts, talents, time, energy, and enthusiasm for the good of others and the glory of God. I formally remind myself of this each and every day.
Second, I had to learn a very important lesson: Not all procrastination is bad. At least, not if we allow God to define it on his terms. In the Old Testament God set a pattern that we are wise to follow: a pattern of work and rest. God worked for 6 days and then rested for 1. And later he commanded his people to do the same, to work for 6 days and then to stop their labor for the 7th. While our relationship to the Law is not the same as it was for the theocracy of Israel, and while the Sabbath has been fulfilled in Christ, the pattern is ingrained and enduring. We are wise to deliberately put off all of our tasks for 1 day out of every 7, to deliberately leave them for another time. When I take 1 day out of every 7 to focus on worship, fellowship, and rest, I am far more capable and motivated in the 6 that remain. I suffer no drop in productivity when I carefully and deliberately take a 24-hour period of rest each week.
Now, let me give two practical tips that have been especially important for me.
The first is to do the hardest thing on your list first. As I said earlier, we can masquerade as efficient people by doing many things, but still neglect the most important things. At the end of the day, it is far more important that I prepare my sermon than complete those 11 other small tasks. But it is easier and can feel far more fulfilling to go after the list and start crossing them off. After all, there is a feeling of accomplishment that comes when I can say at 11 AM that I have already accomplished 11 out of 12 things. But what I have actually done is used my best, most focused, and most productive hours of the day to avoid the task that takes the most focus and creative energy. So I always try to force myself to do the hardest thing first. I need to use the best of my day to do the single most important thing. It is a hard discipline, but a very important one.
My second tip is to break big tasks into small ones. Sometimes I find myself procrastinating because the task before me is daunting in its sheer size. “Write a book” is an overwhelming task. “Write chapter 1” is far more attainable, and “Write 1,000 words” even more so. I can overcome task paralysis by making my tasks much more reasonable in their size. Sure, it’s all really a mind trick, but it is an effective one that can motivate action.
There is much more I could say on the subject, of course. I have read many books and many articles on procrastination, but do believe that these 4 tips are the ones that have most helped me in overcoming what was once a losing battle. I hope they prove valuable to you.
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