Don't Delay

Understanding procrastination and how to achieve our goals

Sometimes a Cigar is Just a Cigar

Don't be so hard on yourself!

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. This saying is attributed to Freud. I don't know if he really said it, but it doesn't matter. The message is valid in any case. My adaptation of this classic phrase is "Sometimes a delay is just a delay." Don't beat yourself up.

I cleaned off my desk today. It needed it. I didn't even know what was in those piles anymore, and there wasn't any place to work. Needless to say, given that I have lots of things to do (when don’t I?, that’s half the problem), this desk-cleaning task had overtones of procrastination.

Honestly, there probably was a little needless delay in my attention to some of the details, but it turned out well, and the tidy organization, not to mention just the cleanliness, gave me an important sense of structure and control.  But here’s the rub, as we’ve depicted in our Carpe Diem cartoon  below, a sense of structure and control can actually lead to procrastination!



In my case today, I didn’t linger over the cleaning or make tidying my only office task for the day. I got my grading done right after.

So, what's the difference? When is desk cleaning (or any of the other usual suspects like creating new podcast playlists, cleaning out my email inbox or updating my system software) truly procrastination as opposed to sagacious or at least necessary delay? Only the individual her- or himself can know for sure of course, but we may recognize the difference by the emotions we feel in relation to the task.

Feeling guilt during the cleaning is a pretty good sign that this isn't where you should be putting your
effort and time. Unfortunately, as I note with my Freudian reference, our culture can even make the lowly cigar a symbol of something else, something much more provocative with moral overtones.

It can be the same for all delay. It’s not just delay, it's procrastination - a deep moral failure of sorts. And, with these moral overtones, we can, quite unnecessarily, feel guilt and shame about our delay.

As I've said before, all procrastination IS delay, but not all delay is procrastination.

Lighten up. Don't be so hard on yourself. Delay . . . a break . . . time away from our tasks, even the most pressing, can be very important. However, be prepared to use a different label when it’s appropriate, like “incubation time” or maybe even structured procrastination  (as you head off to some less dreaded task).

The key thing is to acknowledge the difference in your own life, take ownership of your life, and avoid the self-deception  and guilt that is so common to chronic procrastination.

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Timothy A. Pychyl, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, where he specializes in the study of procrastination.

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