Science and Sensibility

A psychological potpourri

The Devil Made Me Do It

Procrastinate, and you’ve made a devil’s pact with yourself.

If you went back in time, would you procrastinate or would you seek a deeper purpose? In many legends and stories that question goes unanswered, especially when shadowy forms of procrastination mockingly turn promises into ashes.

Let’s look at two famous literary examples of how procrastination is deceiving and how to create a happier conclusion.

The Grasshopper and the Ant

In Aesop’s (20-564 BCE) fable of The Grasshopper and Ant, a grasshopper fiddled the summer away and later went to a colony of busy ants to ask for its winter food. When an ant asked why it had not collected its own food, the grasshopper said, “I was so busy singing, I hadn’t the time.”  This fable is an example of primary procrastination: you do something pleasurable in place of working.

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Secondary procrastination is like a shadow following you. It’s a byproduct of a critical problem, such as social anxietydepression, or another troublesome emotional condition. You have a dread of saying something stupid in public and embarrassing yourself. If invited to a party, you feign illness or say you are too busy so that you can avoid what you fear. Rather than address the dread, you use social networking as a distraction. Here the problematic condition and procrastination feed off one another. This complex procrastination continues until you unravel the relationship and break the cycle. Otherwise, you can reinforce a belief that you are helpless to act.

 The Faustian Pact

Using a familiar story from his era, the German writer Johann von Goethe (1749-1832) created a poem about Faust, a scholar, and the devil Mephistopheles. It shows a form of secondary procrastination.

Faust feared social embarrassment and rejection and hid behind his books and procrastinated on going after the pleasures and relationships that he wanted. To compensate, he “mounted learned stilts,” but this artificially elevated and sheltered existence overshadowed the life he wished to live. His thoughts are similar to A Subscription (Dante Rossetti 1828-1882): “Look in my face; my name is Might-have-been.”

Before he knew it, the sand in his hourglass waned.  In a despondent frame of mind, Faust complained that the philosophy, medicine, law, and theology he learned, held little personal value. He lamented, “Poor fool with all this sweated lore, I stand no wiser than I was before.”

Faust marginalized the competencies he used to insulate himself from his anxieties and fears. He complained that reason wasn’t working.  He debased patience. However, it was his misuse of these competencies, that was a procrastination distraction.  By keeping himself busy with academia, he avoided taking corrective actions to combat his social anxieties and fears, A frustrated Faust was ripe for the picking.

An alert Mephistopheles promised he’d grant Faust’s wishes. There was a hitch. Faust would later belong to him.  Nevertheless, Faust rationalized that the day of reckoning would never come.

Faust’s newly found malignant confederate separated him from his former existence and created conditions for him to seduce a beautiful and innocent maiden. In the end, the devil had the final word:  hither to me.

When secondary procrastination goes incognito, awareness is a gift. Even when you see secondary procrastination for what it is, you still need to take action to combat both the unwanted condition and procrastination.

Disregarding the Future

It’s in human nature to go for quick gains.  If you have nothing to lose by grabbing something immediate—like picking up a dollar from the ground—this is a non-issue. However, it’s shortsighted to fritter your time on distractions, or mortgage your future for a quick fix.  Perhaps you blew your saving on a weekend in Vegas and have no money for a program you need for job advancement.

Nineteenth century snake oil peddlers had a colorful pitch for a quick fix. The message is, “Buy this elixir. Your ailments and troubles will vanish, and you will become happy quickly and easily.” Beyond a possible placebo effect, this is not a long-term fix. Contemporary advertisers exploit a similar shortsighted fallacy. Drug company advertisements show happy people prospering with a "happy pill" prescription medication that can have harmful side effects.  Early antidepressant SSRI advertisements are an example of a con job. They report the side effects but cloak them with visual images of happy neurons.

The shortsighted fallacy surfaces in different ways. A blank-eyed gambler plays a slot machine and this distraction temporarily disrupts her depression. Some problem drinkers act as if they could forever stretch out the short-term effects of alcohol without consequences. In each case, a secondary procrastination distraction substitutes for corrective actions.

A bread crumb versus whole loaf exercise puts shortsighted fallacies into perspective. You drink to smother tension. That’s the crumb. The big long-term reward is the whole loaf of bread. You get this by abstaining. You then have the energy to plan, put effort into your relationships, spend quality time with your children, increase your efficacy at work, etc. If you are in this or a similar crumb versus loaf situation, try this: When you’re tempted to mortgage your future for a quick fix, decide what the crumb is and what the loaf is. Keep a picture of the loaf in your mind, or even on your desk or at home. Resist going for the crumb.

You won’t hear many extolling the virtues of living with a secondary procrastination shadow on their tail. You may believe that there will not be a day of reckoning. That's your devil's pact. Alternatively, follow through on starting. Persist and you can break a secondary procrastination cycle. However, like the Phoenix, expect to see procrastination rise again. Overcoming procrastination takes work.

Combatting Procrastination is a free 8-part multimedia program. Part 3: 7 Principles for Change;  Part 1: Take Charge of Your Life ;  Part 2: A no blame approach to get things done. Use End Procrastination Now!  for being more productive. See The Procrastination Workbook to handle complex forms of procrastination. 

Dr. Bill Knaus with the SMART Recovery volunteer Combatting Procrastination team: Suzy Whalen, Don Sheeley, and Dolores Cloward

Bill Knaus, Ed.D., is the author of more than 20 books; one, "Overcoming Procrastination", was co-authored with Albert Ellis.

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