2. What Procrastination Is

Do a Web search on the word procrastination and you’re likely to come up with a lot of complex, fancy definitions.

Here’s how I define procrastination:

Procrastination is when you get bumped off the “path” you set for yourself for the day.

Meaning, you start the day with a plan, but somehow, by the time bedtime rolls around, you haven’t accomplished some, or any, of what you had intended. Graphically, here’s what procrastination looks like:

Figure 1. Procrastination means you get “bumped” off the path you intended to take . . .

I like my definition because it reflects the notion that, at every moment of the day, you’re making a choice that either keeps you on your path or bumps you off it.

Let’s say you are a grassroots activist who works a part-time job four days a week, with the remaining three days being devoted to your activism. You have a good plan for those three days: wake up at 7:00 a.m.; take two hours to shower, dress, eat, and feed the cat; and then start your work at 9:00 a.m. Then, put in four hours of activism before spending your lunch hour at the gym. Afterwards, eat a healthy, low-calorie lunch on the run between meetings, and then put in five more productive hours before ending the workday at 7:00 p.m. You have a leisurely dinner with your partner, and then at 9:00 p.m. put in a couple more hours of work, followed by an hour relaxing with a good book. Then, to bed at midnight.

A great schedule—well, not such a great schedule, since it’s a bit crowded. I’d like it better if you had allotted some more time to leisure, relationships or self-care, and maybe not eaten lunch on the run. Anyhow, let’s ignore those concerns for now. The immediate problem with the schedule is that, on the day in question, you didn’t follow it. Instead, you:

• Woke up late.

• Felt groggy, so you ran down to the corner store to pick up some coffee.

• Drank the coffee while reading a newspaper and checking out some blogs.

• Called your parents to see how they were doing.

• Started work at around 11:15 a.m.; returned some phone calls and did some miscellaneous small tasks.

• At 1:00 p.m., got an “emergency” call from another activist asking you to look over some documents he was planning to present at a meeting that evening. Even though this would interfere with your own work plans, it was an important meeting, so you agreed to help.

• Went out for lunch at 1:30 p.m.

• Didn’t exercise; ate a gigantic meal.

• Returned to your home-office at 2:45 p.m. Started looking at the other activist’s documents. Saw that they needed a lot of work. You were already feeling sluggish and unmotivated and angry with yourself for not having followed your schedule. Now you felt even angrier for having taken on a bigger task than you wanted. So the work went slowly. You stopped frequently to sip your coffee and check your e-mail and voicemail. You also did some online shopping.

• Received a personal call at 4:00 p.m. that you spent 40 minutes on.

• At 5:30 p.m., finally got the other activist’s project done.

• At 8:00 p.m., finally got some, though not all, of your own work done.

• At 9:00 p.m., ate a grumpy, late dinner with your partner.

• Spent the rest of the evening vegging out in front of the television.

Two things to notice about the above, all-too-typical scenario:

1. There are many things that can bump you off your path.

2. Some of these bumps may seem “good” or “worthwhile” (for example, helping another activist), while others may seem “bad” or “unworthy” (for example, Web surfing or a personal call). But they all interfere with your ability to stay on your path.

From the standpoint of procrastination, it doesn’t matter which reasons are good or bad. Procrastination is when you get knocked off your path for any reason except an emergency.

Which brings us to the question, “What is an ‘emergency?’ ”

What is an “Emergency”?

Good question—and not as easily answered as you might guess. Here are some guidelines:

If the answer to the question “Can this task be possibly handled later?” is “Yes,” then you’re not dealing with an emergency. This category of “things that can be handled later” is vast, and includes many even seemingly “urgent” telephone calls and other activities that mysteriously pop up right at the moment you’re supposed to be doing other work.

If the answer to the question “Does this work have to be done at all?” is “No,” then you’re not dealing with an emergency. Many even urgent-seeming projects and tasks turn out to be, in the end, unnecessary, and therefore not just a non-emergency, but a waste of time.

If the answer to the question, “Is there a serious penalty to me for not doing this task?” is “No,” then you’re probably not dealing with an emergency . . . for you. As discussed in Part II, we often spend time on tasks that are important to other people, but not to us. If that is the case with a particular task, then let the person to whom that task is important take responsibility for getting it done. As discussed in Part II, successful people learn to say “No.”

And, finally, if you do have an authentic emergency to deal with, then deal with it, and later ask yourself this question: “Could this emergency have been prevented by better planning or some preventative measures?” If the answer to that question is “Yes,” then, while you may have been dealing with an authentic emergency, it is one that you yourself are at least partly responsible for creating. This is beyond procrastination; it is self-sabotage. As you become better at not procrastinating, this kind of self-created emergency should happen less and less often.

What about personal, as opposed to activist or work, emergencies? The same rules apply. If the task can be postponed, it is not an emergency. If it doesn’t need to be done, it’s not an emergency. If it is important to others but not to you, it is not an emergency for you. If it could have been prevented by good planning or other measures, it is self-sabotage.

Obviously, life is complicated, and things can get tricky, especially when you’re dealing with loved ones. I’m not saying that you should ignore them, or stint them in any way. I’m also not saying you should ignore your civic duties, or needy strangers. What I am saying is that, if you hope to succeed at an ambitious goal such as activism, you need to make conscious decisions about how you spend your time, and not let others, or random circumstance, decide for you. Your schedule can probably accommodate some interruptions each week, but not too many.

Conversely, if a particular person or project does interrupt you frequently, and he or it is something you must attend to, then that reality should be acknowledged by incorporating that person or project into your Mission and Time Management.

To sum up: Whatever pulls you away from your path and is not an unpreventable emergency, is procrastination.

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