Strategic Delay vs. Procrastination

Our earlier posts in this series concerning procrastination dealt with the magnitude of the problem. Under ordinary circumstances, I would first define the issue before tackling its scope. I chose to handle procrastination in reverse order since many people don’t consider procrastination to be a serious problem. They fail to recognize the long-term physical, social, emotional, and spiritual toll habitual procrastination can have on themselves, and in so doing they resemble people who, though sick, are unaware of the sickness, only to have to deal with the consequences of the sickness when it is too late.

Now however, it’s time to examine what procrastination is and what it is not. Procrastination is not simply delayed action. Sometimes hesitation or delay in acting or speaking is, in fact, a very good thing. The fathers advise us to follow the psalmist’s counsel: “Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth; keep the door of my lips” (Psalm 141:3), in order to avoid falling into the various sins of speech. In fact, Saint John Climacus refers to a knowing or intelligent silence (σιωπή ἐν γνώσει) as “the mother of prayer” and many other blessings (Ladder 11,3). From the witness of Scripture and the fathers we can see that a knowing hesitation or delay can be a sign and even a pathway to virtue. The key word is “knowing,” a quality that in the case of procrastination is only dimly present.

In contemporary research authors, such as Katrin Klingsieck, distinguish procrastination from strategic delay that behaviorally may look the same, but are in fact cognitively and emotionally quite different. In terms of thought processes, strategic delay involves prudential judgement about the known benefits and drawbacks to acting or speaking at a particular time and in a particular way. In contrast, procrastination is characterized by an uncomfortable irrationality that is both aware of the negative consequences of procrastination and at the same time disregards those consequences. Emotionally speaking, strategic delay is a calm pro-active response to a situation, whereas procrastination is an uneasy, agitated avoidance of a situation. Given that confusion can be considered “the chariot of the devil” (Saint Isaac the Syrian, Ascetical Homilies, 54) and Christ is the “Prince of peace” (Isaiah 9:6), this emotional distinction between calm, strategic delay and anxious procrastination has spiritual significance as well.

In differentiating between strategic delay and procrastination, consider procrastination in the spiritual life. I offer this example, because the presence and harm of spiritual procrastination may not be as readily evident as other examples from one’s family life or career, but in fact the quality of our spiritual life affects every aspect of life having an immediate impact on family, career, and everything that we hold dear. As Christians, we may find ourselves procrastinating in a variety of ways that may harm our relationship with God, with our loved ones, and ultimately with ourselves. For example, we may put off fasting, daily prayers, or confessing our sins without taking these tasks seriously, without considering the advantages and disadvantages of action. We just mindlessly accept excuses like “I’m too tired,” or “I’m too busy,” or “I’m not prepared to commit.” At times like this, it helps to quietly consider the advantages and disadvantages of the choice before us.

In terms of negative consequences, procrastinating with respect to fasting makes us less willing to submit to God in the smaller aspects of daily life. In procrastinating from confession of sin, our passions and bad habits acquired through careless living become rooted ever deeper in the heart. With the passage of time, these become more difficult to root out. The same can be said regarding prayer. The longer we put it off for another time or another day, the harder it becomes to take up prayer once again. Do I really want to be more capricious, more enslaved to the passions, and less reliant on God?

Considering the benefits of involvement in the spiritual life, we also know that when we fast a certain sanctified order enters our lives, taming our passions and directing our thoughts to God. We know that when we pray daily, we connect with the source of our lives and have a sense of peace. We know that when we confess our sins, we are freed from the shackles of guilt and able to go forth and do the Lord’s work. Am I really too tired or too busy to do what’s necessary for a sense of direction, peace, and freedom?

Perhaps, the real issue is that we lack that whole-hearted desire to follow Christ and belong to Him. Perhaps, my thoughts about the various aspects of the spiritual life are like those of Augustine in his early days, when he famously wrote, “Lord, grant me purity and continence, but not yet” (PL 32.757). But Augustine didn’t stay in that stage, he realized that he was suffering from “the fever of irresolution” (PL 32.758) and he sought God’s help and most importantly received His strength.

And so Christians suffering from the same fever of irresolution would do well to think on Saint Paul’s words, “it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed” (Romans 13:11), and ask God to help us to do what we are capable of doing today, not putting it off for tomorrow that is not in our hands. We need to be willing to push ourselves by exercising our free will. Saint John of Kronstadt, a pastor who no doubt dealt with the problem of procrastination among his flock wrote, “If you only pray when you are inclined to, you will completely cease praying; this is what the flesh desires. The kingdom of heaven suffers violence. You will not be able to work out your salvation without forcing yourself.”

Elder Ephraim offers some good practical advice about some first steps in dealing with spiritual procrastination: “Compel yourselves; say the prayer; stop idle talk; close your mouths to criticism; place doors and locks against unnecessary words. Time passes and does not come back, and woe to us if time goes by without spiritual profit.” In other words, start to control in the present what we can control: the use of our mouth. Just saying the prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me” changes our spiritual state when said from a humble heart. Just stopping ourselves from criticizing someone out of irritation can preserve our peace and perhaps that of others. Making a start in the moment, then opens the way to other actions, that once seemed like a mountain too arduous to climb, but now have been transformed into a sunlit valley providing green pasture, for through faith in the Lord that mountain has been cast into the sea (Matthew 17:20). May we make the steps we need to make at this very moment and let God in His love and mercy do the rest.