Don't Delay

Understanding procrastination and how to achieve our goals

I Don't Feel Like It, And That's OK

Why sometimes delay is the best idea.

Some tasks take much more time and energy than we ever expect. A break, some task delay, and dare I say it—even some old-fashioned procrastination—may be the best thing to do.

Life is an uncertain thing. I'm not speaking only of the fact that we don't know how much of life we'll get to enjoy or endure. I mean that day to day, we face a lot of uncertainty about what lies ahead, what we'll actually do, and how any of it will go. Even with experience, most of our tasks, projects and the general "doings" of our lives require probabilistic guesses at how much time we'll need and what we'll actually have to do to successfully reach our goals. My post is about a personal example of this process and what it might mean to our understanding of delay and procrastination.

I'm writing this post for two reasons, or at least two things prompted these reflections today. First, after a recent conference keynote presentation that I made, a colleague in the audience asked if there was any gray area between necessary delay and that needless, self-defeating delay we know as procrastination. Second, I just crawled out from under our dishwasher for the hundredth time hoping that this time I got the repair done correctly. Let me explain how these two temporally separated events relate to each other.

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At the conference, when I was asked about the gray area between delay and procrastination, the questioner was picking up on a distinction that I always make: "all procrastination is delay, but not all delay is procrastination." I seem to keep these two things distinct from each other. Are they, really? My response was that only the actor or agent can know for sure. For example, I said, "If you delay but feel some sense of guilt or remorse, I think it's more likely procrastination." Even though I acknowledged it as a subjective process, I still maintained a distinction between necessary and needless delay. Recent lived experience has made me question this simple answer.

Dishwasher hose repair
My dishwasher developed a leak. There is a small drainage hose close to the ground that mice like to chew on if they find their way into our house in the winter (common for our country home). A mouse has been at it again this winter.

I have repaired this hose before as pictured here, because the first repair allowed for a simple substitution of material (the copper pipe in place of the original rubber tubing). This past winter, when holes were made in the elbows themselves, I attempted further repairs, because the hose is no longer available as a part for repair (it is an odd hose with different diameter ends on each of the terminal elbows). 

These sorts of jobs are quite deceiving. At first glance and given my previous successful repair, I thought that this might take 30 minutes. A flooded basement from an unsuccessful attempt taught me otherwise. I had to re-group and re-think how to do this correctly. In a sense, delay was necessary to think. It wasn't "needless" per se, but I did find some short-term mood repair in being able to walk away from that frustrating job (the space under the dishwasher is punishingly small, and tools, while necessary for the job, are difficult to use).

I left the tools on the counter. Days went by. Yes, days. First, I tried to find the part online. As I noted above, the search resulted in the depressing news: "No longer available." Then, I searched local hardware stores for novel, creative solutions with odd pieces of rubber hose and connectors. That search was in vain. Throughout all of this, the tools on the counter served as a constant reminder of the job undone. I think we live with these unfinished tasks throughout our lives, and this one was beginning to get on my nerves.

So, today, fed up with the tools next to the sink, I decided to work on my original repair again. I felt a renewed commitment to the task, even renewed faith in my approach, if not even a little more energy. Something more than "thinking" had gone on with the delay, that much was clear. But what?

I don't have empirical evidence to present to you, unless you're willing to take my introspective case study as such. I'm certainly not arguing it's evidence of this sort, but I do think there is something important in the experience, or I wouldn't bother writing here.

I think I was living in the gray area which my colleague at the conference might have been thinking about. I was frustrated when my second repair attempt was a complete wash out (pardon the pun with the flood that resulted, please). However, it wasn't just the frustration that prompted my delay. I really did need to think about other options. I was hoping that I could find a new hose. I didn't waste time on that. I went online and then to a few stores as soon as I could. When I learned that this wasn't an option, then I think I started to walk along the edge of, if not right into, the gray area between delay and procrastination. The whole thing was making me nuts. The hose was no longer available as a part for order, and without it, I couldn't run my dishwasher. The uncertainty and the aversiveness of the task was moving me further from delay and more deeply into procrastination. I really wanted to avoid the task. I was frustrated and feeling somewhat incompetent (my kids think that "daddy can fix anything").

We rarely use the dishwasher for more than an extra drying rack for dishes we wash by hand, so a sense of urgency to get the machine working again wasn't my motivator. The job undone and those darn tools on the counter were bugging me, and so was the assault on my feelings of competence.

This morning, I just thought, "Ok, let's put the tools away," but with that came an "eureka" moment where I thought of a different approach to repair my existing (albeit previously-repaired) hose. So, the delay may have paid off with the incubation of new ideas, and the procrastination may have given me some mood repair. On top of all that, as I said, I even felt a renewed engagement and willingness to get back on the floor, arms stuck up under the machine and struggling to get my fingers to make the required movements.

Delay...procrastination. Perhaps there is an uneasy gray area in between. Definitions on paper are easy and allow us to draw "bright lines" of distinction, but psychologically perhaps the distinction is not so clear.

Perhaps I needed two kinds of delay. One was the conscious choice to delay in order to seek out alternative solutions. The other form of delay was a more unconscious process of task avoidance. I didn't feel like working on that task further (particularly because I didn't know how to proceed). So, I procrastinated in order to repair my defeated sense of self (or at least repair my mood) and to renew my stores of willpower to face the task again.

In any case, the delay was not chronic, the repair was not that urgent or important, and the job is done. Isn't that the story ending that makes it all OK? 

 

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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