“Give me a word” and the Problem of Procrastination

In the sayings of the desert fathers, one of the most common starting points is the request of an ardent disciple to an illumined elder, “Give me a word” (Εἰπέ μοι ῥῆμα), which could even be translated as “Tell me a verb.” Tell me what to do, so that I might have that reminder in my heart guiding me to the safe haven of Christ’s love. Those who follow the incarnate Word (Λόγος) should have no doubts about the importance of logical words or reasonable verbs (λογικά ρήματα). Christians have indeed long known what twentieth century psychologists first began to quantify: words matter because they are powerful tools that can shape behavior and our relationships with those around us. Spoken words are also important in modifying or changing our own behavior, especially when we are doing the speaking. For instance, in the program of Alcoholics Anonymous, anyone who speaks during a meeting first says, “Hello, I’m John.  I’m an alcoholic.”  The words serve as identifiers, teaching the person speaking about the importance of honesty, reminding him of his circumstances, and directing his thoughts towards recovery.

Behavioral experts have found the same holds true in terms of the nettlesome issue of procrastination.  In this context, they define verbal statements as rules, some of which can effectively control behavior (Malott, 1984, 1989).  These rules specify the behavioral contingencies or the relationship between action and consequences. For example, “If I exercise (do x), then my weight will decrease (achieve y). Following the rule, rather than merely being aware of the consequences, is what directly controls the behavior. To follow a rule, requires the rule to be interiorized, which can be best accomplished by repetition, by literally talking to oneself. This is why learning the psalms can be so helpful in learning to emotionally fare the storms of life, it provides ready self-talk that shifts the focus from trials to our Redeemer who lives and is ready to restore us.

In terms of dealing with procrastination, self-talk may serve to guide behavior and control the tendencies toward putting off until tomorrow what needs to be done today.  Cassandra Ann Braam relates some very helpful examples of such rules in her dissertation entitled, “I’ll Do it Tomorrow.” A Radical Behavioral Analysis of ProcrastinationAs an illustration, she considers setting rules at bedtime concerning the next day’s activities.  An example may be something like this, “I need to be at work by 8:00 tomorrow, so I have to arise by 7:00 in order to eat breakfast and leave the house by 7:30 since it will take me 30 minutes to arrive at work on time.”  By stating such rules that need to be followed in order to achieve a particular result, the procrastinators begin to bring order and direction to their lives, acquire a sense of time, and can begin to become productive with the limited time at their disposal. In the example given above, the Christian would have to account for time for prayer as well as eating breakfast.  This could be done during the commute to work or the person may have to adjust his wake up time to account for time for prayer.  The old adage “we don’t plan to fail, we fail to plan” is certainly apropos.

In the initial stages of fighting procrastination, such a verbal repertoire will surely assist one to organize the day as well as serve as a reminder of what needs to be accomplished and the manner in which to go about getting it done.  In the absence of verbal rules, the procrastinator may become overwhelmed by the multiplicity of choices and once again fall into the temptation to procrastinate. The verbalization of desired outcomes as well as the steps necessary to make them happen are a necessary part of fighting the negative thoughts that tempt one to procrastinate.  In essence, verbalizing these simple plans of action make them concrete and capable of being followed.

Of course such verbal statements and rules govern our spiritual lives as well.  For instance, on Pascha night, Orthodox Christian’s hear “Christ is Risen” literally hundreds of times, which not only brings much joy, but also an awareness of the new reality in Christ, that changes who we are and who we can become. There is something blessed and transformative about this repetition that continues throughout the Paschal season with Orthodox Christians greeting each other with the words, “Christ is Risen!” and responding with the affirmation, “Truly, He is Risen!” This set dialogue establishes a bond between two or more people and their common Lord. It also can serve as a caution against using any untoward or vulgar language, safeguarding over our verbal behavior.  For if Christ is among us, who would think of speaking hatefully or uncharitably? Of course, this “verbal statement” is not a rule per se, but it is the premise upon which a number of powerful rules could be built. “Christ is risen! So I will forgive.” “Christ is risen! So I will not be afraid!” “Christ is risen! So I will turn to the Risen Lord.” And if I forgive, if I am not afraid, if I turn to my risen Lord, I will surely be at peace with Him.

The Christian life always involves movement, following the Lord, walking with Him, asking, seeking, knocking, and eventually finding. In those areas where we need to work, in those areas where we procrastinate and need to become active, in those areas where we try to do it on our own and need to rely on the grace of Christ, let’s tell our soul what we truly desire and how our Lord suggests that we acquire it. In doing so, we’ll find more than a remedy for procrastination, we’ll find that “pearl of great price,” “the kingdom prepared for us from the foundation of the world,” the merciful Savior of our souls.