Procrastination’s Payoff

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” President Theodore Roosevelt, Excerpt from the speech “Citizenship In a Republic” delivered at the Sorbonne, in Paris, France on 23 April, 1910.

Roosevelt, an activist two-term president, had felt the slings and arrows of biting criticism from those who preferred to sit on the sidelines and criticize. “The poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer,” he said. “A cynical habit of thought and speech, a readiness to criticize work which the critic himself never tries to perform, an intellectual aloofness which will not accept contact with life’s realities—all these are marks, not … of superiority but of weakness.”

While not addressing procrastination per se, the contrast Roosevelt makes between the courageous doer of deeds and the aloof inactive critic capture important aspects of the psychology of procrastination in terms of what the procrastinator seems to gain and what he in fact loses.  In earlier posts, I surveyed the magnitude of the problem of procrastination as well as examined what procrastination is not (strategic delay).  Here I would like to consider the so-called “benefits” of procrastination, none of which are laudable, as Roosevelt has already pointed out.

While the reasons for procrastination are complex and varied, one stands out as a powerful psychological motivating factor: the preservation of self-worth and the avoidance of criticism from others.  This is the subject of Roosevelt’s rhetoric as well as the subject of certain behaviorists. Ronda L. Fee and June P. Tangney point this out in their article, “Procrastination: A Means of Avoiding Shame or Guilt?”, “As Burka and Yuen (1983) noted, an individual’s self-worth is substantially based upon ability, as judged by performance on completed tasks. Thus, by delaying performance, one’s ability cannot be readily evaluated (by the self or by others), and self-worth is therefore not jeopardized.”

Those who suffer from low self-esteem or poor self-image tend to procrastinate at a higher rate and employ procrastination as a protective mechanism or cocoon to insulate themselves from evaluation or criticism by others or even themselves. The authors conclude, “procrastination does not appear to be simply due to the desire to delay or avoid mundane, unpleasant tasks such as chopping wood, cleaning the bathroom, and balancing the checkbook. Numerous studies link procrastination to evaluative concerns. Together, the findings indicate that procrastination often represents a defense mechanism motivated by efforts to both avoid and self-protect. In short, when people fear the possibility of negative evaluation–from the self or from others–they often procrastinate (cf. Ferrari, Johnson, & McCown, 1995).”

The popular quote from Roosevelt with which I opened this post demonstrates the prevalence of these psychological factors in procrastination.  No one enjoys criticism or negative evaluations of their performance. Roosevelt certainly didn’t. But he accepted the fact that failure and falling-short is part of human existence and road out to face challenge after challenge rather than dilly-dallying or procrastinating in order to keep his own self-esteem safely and theoretically enshrined on the pedestal of the heart.

In like manner, the Christian is called to ride out and do the work of God. The Christian life is from its very onset a call to battle, to face the evil within us, and drive it out by the light and power of Christ. The first Christians to be honored as Saints were literally in the arena not only with their face marred by dust and sweat and blood, but with their blood actively shed for the love of Christ. Their courage, their valor, their active taking up of the Cross did not allow for procrastination, for they knew full well that now is the appointed time for God to act.

Of course, many Christians procrastinate in order to avoid criticism and evaluation, but in that case their psychological problem is also a spiritual one. Apart from the passions of vainglory and pride, there is a problem of faith and trust. They are protecting themselves rather than placing themselves under God’s protection, because when they act, they are acting alone, rather than through “Christ who strengthens them” (Philippians 4:13). Throwing aside the overweening need for self-protection and moving forward with trust in God and with the help of God are what can enable the Christian to set aside procrastination and to move in fullness of life.

The place to start with respect to procrastination is simple honesty and a willingness to be vulnerable in the hands of a merciful God. Being sinner means being in the company of those for whom Christ shed His precious blood. Repenting of those sins places us in the company of those who follow Him. Honestly admitting our sins and honestly trying with His help to change is the attitude needed to progress in the spiritual life and to set aside procrastination.

On this subject matter, Archimandrite Zacharias Zacharou offers the following soul-benefiting counsel that touches on spiritual procrastination:

I think that the strength to bear shame is a gift from God. When I was a young and inexperienced spiritual father, Elder Sophrony told me to encourage the young people to confess precisely the things of which they are ashamed, for if they learn to do so, shame is transformed into strength against the passions, and they will overcome sin. This is precisely what occurred in the person of Zacchaeus. He bore shame voluntarily, and the Lord, Who was on His way to Jerusalem in order to suffer the Cross of shame, saw Zacchaeus bearing shame for His sake and recognized in him a kindred spirit. Zacchaeus had put himself prophetically in the way of the Christ, in the way of the Cross, and in a prophetic way the mystery of the Cross and Resurrection of Christ was activated in the heart of Zacchaeus. His heart was enlarged and he was able to enter into the power of faith. Christ has saved us through the Cross of shame, so when we suffer shame for His sake He considers this as gratitude, and in return He transmits to us His grace which regenerates our life.

This is exactly what happens in confession. Those who confess sincerely and take upon themselves the shame for their sins are regenerated. But those who shrug their shoulders and say, ‘Nothing special, the usual things…’ they do not bear any shame, their heart remains unmoved, and they hardly receive any benefit. But those who, with shame and a contrite heart, strip their souls naked before God and before another mortal, ‘of like passions’ (Acts 14:15) with them—that shame of theirs really finds the heart, humbles it and brings it to the surface. This then, opens the heart to receive the grace of regeneration, of consolation. We see this in the life of many that come to us: the greater the shame they bear with contrition, accusing themselves before God, the greater the grace they receive to amend their lives and make a new beginning.” (Remember thy First Love by Archimandrite Zacharias Zacharou, pp. 74-76)

Although the term shame is used here, in most contexts shame is a harmful dead end leading to disheartened stagnation. I think it might be more helpful to view this movement as a courageous letting go of the tendency to protect ourselves and to run away from parts of the self that we are not proud of, because of a deep trust in the goodness of God that far exceeds any wrongness in man. Emotionally, we feel our smallness and our brokenness. Cognitively, we describe precisely how we have gone astray. And we wait on God’s response. Like the prodigal son, we are honest with ourselves and before heavenly Father, and like the prodigal son we also feel his embrace and his warmth. Being honest with ourselves, about ourselves, and before our God indeed brings the grace of God to begin again. With Him at our side, there is no need to procrastinate. We can act and live.