Overcoming Procrastination Part 1


On one extreme you have people who we call “driven.”  They simply can’t stop until the task is complete.

Regardless of whether the task is a report for the boss, or a book they are reading for fun, the results are the same.  It doesn’t matter to them that they don’t get to bed until 2:47 a.m and have to get up at 5:30.  They assure their spouse that they “had” to finish the project or book.  They would not have been able to really rest until the project was done.

On the other end of the spectrum are the individuals who seemingly can’t finish a project, whether it is something assigned by others or a task they choose to engage in.

There is a grab bag of different reasons for this behavior and I would like to explore some of those reasons because the “cure” for the problem differs wildly from situation to situation depending on the cause.

The stereotype when someone habitually procrastinates is that the person is simply lazy.  This may well be in some cases.

If you grew up in a family that consistently enabled you, doing half your work for you and protecting you from the consequences of your unproductiveness the rest of the time, then yes.  You probably have systemic laziness.

The fact that your parents caused it out of misguided “love” is neither here nor there.  You own the problem now and the most effective way I know to cure it is to plug into an organization that knows how to empower people through relentlessly imposing consequences for your inactivity.

If you are rich, there are some personal training centers which will drive you to excellence for a high fee.  The poor man’s cure for having been mollycoddled is called the Marine Corps.  They are specialists in curing this specific problem.

OK. We have now swiftly and effectively diagnosed and cured about 8% of the population of those who can’t complete stuff.  What about the rest of the people?  We will explore the less obvious causes in the next few articles.

Let’s start with a very significant distinction.  There are those who start projects and don’t finish, and those who don’t start.  They look at a task that needs to be done and know that there are dire consequences for not doing it, but are simply paralyzed.  Their guilt rises as the deadline gets closer, but no amount of guilt OR Marine Corps style consequences changes their lifestyle.

One common cause of paralysis in beginning is that the person in question is extremely right-brained.

How does this work?

If we can make a gross over simplification of the brain, the right brain sees the big picture and the finished product.  The left brain sees the bit by bit process of getting there.  The two functions work very nicely together in boringly average people.  Right brain sees the conclusion.  Left brain reverse engineers it.  Both hemispheres build it out.  Simple.

But for those gloriously creative, free spirits who are heavily right brain dominant, it is like  shopping at Ikea.  You know the product you want is there, but it is so pathologically confusing that you run a 5K race in the shape of a dysfunctional pretzel before you finally get from where you are to where the product is.

The simple switch from right brain thoughts to left brain thoughts which boring people do all the time, often eludes the creative geniuses in our midst.

So let’s walk out a simple scenario.  Our beloved Sally Jones from East Overshoe, Iowa, is expecting her mother-in-law for a three-day visit starting next Wednesday.

The deadline is clear and quite inflexible, because Mum is left brain, linear, dependable (and inflexible).

The tasks that need to be done are all clearly understood by Sally.  In fact she made a list.

Pick up the dry cleaning.

Take the dog to the kennel.

Wash the sheets in the guest bedroom.

Clean the hall bathroom extra well.

Get flowers for the guest bedroom and the living room.

Wash the front windows.

Get groceries.

Weed the flower bed out front.

Vacuum up the dog hair off all the furniture and the carpet.

There is not a single thing on that list that requires a learning curve for her.  There is nothing that is particularly emotionally distressing (well, leaving the dog at the kennel is a bit of a heart moment).  There is nothing that causes a financial burden.  It is all simple, ordinary housekeeping.  She has done it all before.

So why is it that by Monday evening when Fred comes home from work, she has done NOTHING on the list and is starting to wear that familiar look of suppressed stress?

He knows the routine.

If he asks her how things are going, she will get defensive.  If he asks if she needs help, she will snap at him.  If he weeds the flower bed without asking her, she will take it as a rebuke and they will have a pretty pointless, circular, tear-drenched discussion in bed that night.  And if he does nothing at all, things will be a mess on Wednesday, and by the time Mum leaves on Sunday, Sally will be an emotional mess to the third degree.

He will spend most of Sunday trying to reassure her that who she is inside is all that matters, even if the house was not spotless, and he loves her dearly. His well-meaning words will just bounce like a super ball because she has already crawled into her shell of shame.

So . . . he sits there at dinner, circling around the situation mentally, looking for some way forward other than the predictable scenarios.  It is eating away at his manhood.  For goodness sakes, he was the hero at work this week as he solved the complex problem of how to get the parts from their subsidiary in Egypt, to the factory in New Jersey, in time to fulfill their commitment for the big Dorplez contract.

How could he be THE go-to man for solving international logistical problems at work and at the same time be so utterly incapable of having his mother come for a visit without his wife ending up an emotional wreck over housekeeping?  This was nuttier than the federal budget.

The solution is actually quite simple and does not have to be demeaning to Sally.

Often the problem is just that the right brain person is so absorbed in the big picture, they can’t see where to start.  Sally can’t transition to the left brain to access that bit by bit software which IS there.  She knows it is there because she has used it many times, but like Ikea, it mocks her by being so close, yet so inaccessible.

Once someone on the outside gives her the first step or two, she can transition to the left brain and sort out the rest of the process.

I used to see this quite often in the marketplace when I was doing consulting.  I would find a highly creative, hard-working employee with high character and high loyalty who was on the verge of being fired because of inability to meet deadlines on special projects.

All I had to do was pair up the right brain person with a left brain person and the problem was solved. The left brainer could be a peer or a supervisor or even an underling.  It did not matter.  The right brainer merely had to have permission to ask the left brained person, “Where do you think I should start?”

When the left brain person would toss out a couple of steps (which they could do in five seconds) it helped the right brainer to shift to the other side and get going.

So in a dream scenario, Fred and Sally understand this dynamic and she has no shame at making the to do list and posting it on the ‘fridge. Fred glances at it and make a couple of suggestions as to a beginning place.

Interestingly, whether or not she follows his sequence, just having a starting place helps her switch over to the left brain and begin to do the bit by bit thinking that allows her to work through the project.  He does not have to sort out the entire process.  He just needs to get her functioning on the other side of her brain.

Is it that simple?  Yep, IF that is what the cause of the procrastination is.

You see it in kids and their homework.  They sit down at the table and stare at that algebra problem while paralysis segues into hopeless despair.  If you will help them take the first two or three steps in the first problem, that often gets them going and they can finish the rest.

Suppose you don’t have a husband or a parent to help you shift over into the left brain sequencing.  Call a friend.  Tell them about the project and then casually say, “What would you do first?”

And if you can’t even ask a friend to jump-start your left brain, check back for the next article in the series as we explore tools the right brain person can use to transition to their left brain, when needed.

Copyright February 2011, by Arthur Burk

From the Quarterdeck, in Anaheim

This entry was posted in Design, Spiritual Growth. Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to Overcoming Procrastination Part 1

  1. Hadassah says:

    I love this. The insight is amazing, as always. I had to go digging to find this part of the blog again – I feel so understood here. I even laughed as some of what you described happened to me today – but I’ve had projects to complete but was stressed out and paralyzed at starting. In non-creative settings, I’m usually not valued since the “quantity” of what I produce is lesser in numbers than what my employers want, yet the “quality” of my work has far exceeded expectations – even since a teen. After I finally turned in a major high school project (AFTER the school year ended, of course!) to a teacher that was not pleased with me all year (I never understood how to get around the procrastnation), I found later that after so many years, she still used that project as THE example to other students as the one to be inspired by.

    Ironically, though, I’m also driven and crazy-hard-working. I’ll make “work” out of everything (I’m supposed to be sleeping right now ;). I’ve wondered lately though, if that was more part of my fallen nature..? I’ve been fighting for freedom from this but it’s been a tough battle… I’ve also wondered if I procrastinate on a project (thinking like an artist) until I think I can do it perfectly. I thought it was maybe a bit of the fallen nature (rarely had much approval), but also a bit of the God-given nature to desire excellence in my creations.

    To get things done, I’ve had to allow myself to treat everything as a project. My artist mind seems so project-oriented. In this culture of constant time expectations it’s pretty hard though since I have to keep switching between “projects” to get daily tasks done. This is so hard for me. 😦

    Thank you, Arthur, for valuing the right brainer… Now… if only my employers understood this – that’d be great! 🙂

    Look forward to reading/understanding more and sharing this with loved ones…

    Thank you again for your insights – keep ’em comin’!

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  2. Darla says:

    Thank you Arthur for these posts!
    I was “procrastinating” on reading them, knowing very much that I needed to, until I had “enough time” – ha ha!
    I had not thought of myself as “right brained”, but really resonate w/ the “seeing the big picture, getting overwhelmed and not knowing where to start” thing. I often feel “I just need someone to tell me where to start and how to move forward”. This article has given me “permission” to ask for this help and not bumble around trying to manage it myself.
    This post brought to mind a time when I was 7 and had to learn to spell ALL the provinces of Canada (Saskatchewan is a big word!). I was overwhelmed and so upset thinking there was no way it was possible. My precious Dad sat me down and drew a big picture of a mountain with steps up and down. On each step he wrote one of the words and coached me through learning each one – essentially helping me conquer the mountain of fear and giving direction to the process.

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  3. Shirley Jones says:

    Thankyou very much for this insight into procrastination.
    I am not only left-handed but left-sided and function mostly out of my right brain and can’t function well if I don’t know the big picture.
    This article is so helpful and it’s a relief to know that I am not lazy …I just need that initial kick start from a left-brainer.
    Now I can actually change how I function and take some of the frustration out of my marriage as well!

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  4. 92hashim says:

    i am lucky to find this blog.

    i have several questions:
    1) can a complete family be right-minded?
    2) how come when i am cooking at home, i start the cooking process, from scratch, without taking help/advise/suggestion and serve the food but at work i notice ‘i am not into it’. it is not that i dont understand the task/project or realise the importance….it is as if there are invisible strings holding me back
    3) can i find a left-minded person in my circle, if yes, then how should i ?
    4) why is it that, when nearing the end of the to-do-list the speed reduces or the interest is lost?

    please guide

    thank u very much

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  5. Irina Rivera says:

    This is so timely. Because I really want to get the Writer’s Group going, I emailed Sandy Brennan (inspired by her newsletter). While I can’t afford to pay her right now, she graciously has offered to look at all the things I’m doing and see where I can cut back to make time for this very real passion. Just having her ask me some basic questions has helped me to see how I’ve gotten myself into a pretty big mess.
    But apart from a person’s help, your tasks that you mentioned make me realize why my tasks of dishes or laundry are things I like to do (not a big right-brained inspired way of life) but there is a beautiful balance I appreciate to the mundane, repetitive chores. Well, no more time to write, I’ve got some bits of closure to attend to!

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  6. Mimi Turner says:

    Oh, oh, oh ~ I think I’ve finally found my tribe! lol

    I’m a left-handed, right-brained, Redemptive Teacher.

    ‘Nuff said.

    Like

  7. Robert Hartzell says:

    I feel a mild frustration here. Knowing where to start definitely helps and I have utilized that. Yet, it hasn’t been a complete answer for me, nor has being left brained. I feel like most servants and rulers do quite well at getting things done.

    As a teacher I think I’m pretty left brained. I’ve pondered if my drive for accuracy has clouded the way forward and not having this accuracy drive is what helps servants and rulers?

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  8. Kate Mazur says:

    AAaAAhhhhh! This is so true. Thanks for putting into words what I’ve sensed but could not articulate. I’m gonna run with this as I know you’re right. Thanks for “helping” but writing this and for doing it for nothing. Bless you, Arthur. Keep up the good work.

    Exhorter Prophet Social Entrepreneur,
    ~Kate

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  9. gina says:

    Dear Arthur,
    Your blog was very timely. I am that left brained person, with an 8th grade, right brained, son. Last night was the exact scenario you describe. I took interest in his hour long alegbra homework, and saw him hunched-over, doodling, and generally lost in a daze. After taking a much needed drive around the block, I was able to sit down and help him “start.” Once started, his tenacity was amazing. This is something I’ve noticed over and over again, especially on those Sunday nights when everyone had gone to bed and he’s still doing his homework at midnight. I try not to pull my hair out, but alway ask myself “Why?” I really thought he was lazy. But Wow! He is a very normal, creative type of guy (just like his dad) who typically is a slow start on so many things, but once going, always does a beautiful job. Thank you for your thoughts.

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    • Irina Rivera says:

      Was it you and your son in the car driving around the block? I’m curious to hear how you ‘took an interest’. You sound very gentle and helpful.

      Like

  10. Mayela says:

    Thank you Arthur,
    My husband used to make fun of me because I had a big problem with procrastination and out of desperation; I bought a self help book on how to stop procrastinating but never got around to reading it. I love books and throughout the years have accumulated a library of books that can solve every problem in the world, but even if I did start reading one, I could not finish it. After many years of struggling with procrastination, I can start and finish a book if I am motivated by an immediate need. I often find myself in one extreme or the other, especially when it comes to paperwork. I have a business and I have no problems seeing the big picture, I know what it will take to make things work. Once I get started I enjoy the simple tasks that will accomplish my goals. One I am operating out of my right brain I do become obsessive about finishing my task, I just have a hard time getting there. Looking forward to Part 2.

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  11. Paula Kirwan says:

    Wow, so simple and useful! Cant wait for the rest in the series 🙂

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  12. Jana says:

    Enjoyed the article!!
    Looking forward to reading the articles, maybe there is somewhere a sentence that will resonate within me. I know I am not lazy or right-brained…

    Like

  13. Sonja Bennett says:

    Wow!! I GET it!! This article is so incredibly helpful! After many years of struggling with the shame of not knowing even where to start on something as simple as preparing for company, (or sending an email) I finally just accepted the lie that I must have some sort of handicap or deficiency in that area. Several years ago I learned that if I asked the Lord where I should start first or how, I often got an answer ( a very simple answer) and I was up and running. I use this method almost daily! But, I always believed I was severely lacking in processing and organization skills. Eventually, I made a truce with the shame and resigned myself to the lie that I would never get better. That is until you wrote this article. Now I can SO see what the problem has been. I definitely see the big picture of things and often feel overwhelmed and paralyzed by it, since I am unable to break it down into small steps. When I finally get started, it almost becomes a marathon to me. I often don’t know when to quit (or come in out of the hot sun). I will work until I literally drop. I think now it is because I am afraid that if I quit before it is finished, I will never get started again. Thanks Arthur, for giving my dignity back in this area!

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    • Yes, Sonja, the enemy works hard at shame. And to me the most evil action is when he convinces us that our design is wrong, just because it is different. Imagine a harpist looking at a Stradivarious and discarding it with contempt because it doesn’t have enough strings to do anything of significance. That is what the devil tries to do with our design. He compares it to something we respect, and then tells us we are defective.

      God on the other hand, delights in unpacking our design and showing us where in this amazingly complex world, our design was made to fit perfectly.

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  14. Tracy says:

    Arthur, thanks for this! I can’t help thinking you’ve been a fly on our wall…! I am so right-brained it even scares me sometimes. I have an excellent work ethic and am passionate about design and ideas (clothing designer) however, a looming re-organising session in our home and office has me paralysed. God, in His infinite wisdom, paired me up with a wonderfully compassionate and gentle left-brained husband (Mr Engineer). I can be horrid to live with when these situations arise so I let him provide the pointer / starting point and….voila, off I go! It works every time – he is careful, though, not to become too prescriptive…I rarely wait around long enough for instructions 2, 3 or 4 because I have such momentum once I get into left-brain gear. This works so well for us and has really enriched our relationship – we have learned to bring out the best in one another. Thanks, once again, for a great God-given insight.

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  15. Rose Boon says:

    Oh, Yes. I relate to this. I used to say, “I know where I am, I know where I’m going, but the middle is missing.” I can see the big picture and can sometimes make a list and if I connect the items relationally on the list I can keep going until it’s done. I do this by studying the list to naturally move from one to another, if I would stop and consider one thing at a time I wouldn’t get it done. I have to move through it, no stopping or I wouldn’t get done. I like to highlight what’s done rather than cross them out, rewarding myself I guess. There was a time when I would forget I had a list, or forget to refer to it but I’ve come through that. But if I can’t make the list to define the missing middle piece, I’m stalled. There is a book I sometimes refer to “How to Organize Everything” that will help with regular things, but most of the time my projects are not in the book and must be birthed either by leaving it until the list comes, just do it and find it’s all wrong and have to do it over, or not do it at all. I’m glad you chose this topic Arthur and I’m looking forward to the next part. Thank You Arthur.

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  16. ruthann777 says:

    Excellent article. I have trouble transitioning in. This idea of asking the question where to start I think is really going to help! Thanks Arthur.

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  17. Erin says:

    What a great message. Well written and yet so easy to understand from both vantage points. Thanks for taking the time to share this with us all. This was such a blessing to me and other people will be blessed because I am so going to implement this in my daily conversations with others. I am a lot more left brained than the norm and while this teaching series should help those righties, which it will, it can help us lefties cause less pain to others. Learning is usually about overcoming something or changing something but sometimes learning is simply all about mercy and love. Thank you.

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  18. Jan O'Connor says:

    It’s bedtime and I was pondering how much more I could have accomplished today if I weren’t such a procrastinator. This message is so very timely. I’m used to structure, but haven’t had it since leaving my job. I look forward to reading your future posts, but already feel better because I know I am not lazy. Your wisdom alleviated the shame that was trying to attach itself to me. Thank-you!

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  19. karen ford says:

    ARthur,

    Thank you so much for writing this… It was most helpful in understanding myself…

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  20. Katharine Fazzari says:

    Why is it Arthur makes everything so simple to understand AND so entertaining? I love it!

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