Existential and Mythological Perspectives on Procrastination: A Response to Dr. Pychyl's Post

Secrets to conquering procrastination.

Posted Aug 25, 2008


I appreciate Dr. Pychyl's recent posting on existential psychiatrist Dr. Viktor Frankl's approach to procrastination. Here are a few more reflections of my own I would like to add to his.

Dr. Frankl, one of the creators of existential psychotherapy, is someone who accomplished a great deal in his long life, and could not have done so had he given in too frequently to procrastination. Though, as professor Pychyl points out, Frankl admits that, at times, just like all of us, he did. And when procrastination won out, Frankl felt angry with himself, as do we all at some level. Chronic procrastination causes what Jean-Paul Sartre called mauvaise foi: bad faith with oneself, lack of integrity, a feeling of existential guilt.

Frankl recognized that, existentially-speaking, we cannot allow ourselves the luxury of procrastination. A future is not guaranteed to anyone. This is one of what I call the unpleasant existential facts of life. Death is an ever present possibility, an eventual inevitability. In a sense, to procrastinate is to unconsciously deny the existential fact of death. Procrastination is a pervasive expression of what Ernest Becker called "the denial of death." One need not be a concentration camp survivor to recognize this reality: The evidence of death and mortality, the tenuous nature of existence, and the fact of finitude in life is readily apparent everyday if we choose to see rather than deny it. But deny it we do.

Another existential aspect of procrastination is what I call the Sisyphus syndrome. As punishment by the gods, Sisyphus, if you recall your Greek mythology, was fated to eternally roll a huge rock up a hill each day, only to have it roll back down just as he neared the top. We all share a similar existential fate. We are each required to roll our metaphorical rock--whatever that may be--uphill every day, only to do it all over again tomorrow. It is arduous, difficult, tedious and laborious work. This tedious aspect of life is something many people try to avoid via procrastination. We refuse to accept the difficult, dirty, tedious tasks in life, distracting ourselves instead with more amusing activities so as to avoid them. We avoid shouldering the boulder. But it should be remembered that for existential philosopher Albert Camus, Sisyphus found meaning and even contentment in accepting his fate. As must we all. As Friedrich Nietzsche put it: amor fati. Love your fate.

A similar mythological metaphor for procrastination can be found in one of the Twelve Labors of the Greek hero Hercules. Hercules was assigned the seemingly impossible task of cleaning the Augean stables--where the droppings of hundreds of massive oxen had accumulated over forty years--in just one day. The nasty task had been avoided for decades. Procrastination, when unchecked, creates one's own personal Augean stable. Perhaps you know the feeling. Hercules, using both brain and brawn, diverts two rivers to get the daunting job done. What secrets can we learn from mighty Hercules about conquering procrastination? One secret has to do with the conscious focusing of life force into the immediate task at hand. We'll return to this matter momentarily. 

Often, procrastination stems from a conflict between our responsible "adult self," who knows what needs to be done, and our irresponsible "inner child." Without adequate supervision and guidance, the "inner child," like any playful young boy or girl, will naturally resist tedium, preferring fun, pleasurable activities instead. This is in keeping with Freud's concept of the pleasure principle: We instinctively avoid pain and seek pleasure. Children must be disciplined to do tedious chores like cleaning their rooms, brushing their teeth, doing their homework, etc. This is a fundamental part of good parenting. It is the same for grown ups. If there is not a well-developed adult component of the personality to oversee the inner child and discipline him or her, difficult or boring chores will be avoided as long as humanly possible.

Finally, I want to mention the power of presence in overcoming procrastination. Procrastination is a refusal to be present to what life demands of us right now, in this moment. It is an avoidance of presence. A denial of reality. It is an escape from mindfulness into mindlessness. In existential psychology, we say that to say "yes" unequivocally in any given moment to something always implies saying "no" to something else. This is what psychotherapist Otto Rank referred to as an "act of will," an existential choice. When we exercise our will, consciously choosing the tedious, the banal, the mundane, the disagreeable, distasteful and unpalatable over the enjoyable, pleasurable, delectable and delightful, we commit ourselves to what Rank called "the willing affirmation of the must." Some suffering, tedium and banality is intrinsic to life, and, ultimately, unavoidable. Like Hercules, we heroically choose the inevitable rather than putting it off. We courageously engage it fully, passionately, creatively and mindfully, resolutely saying "yes" to the mundane task in this present moment, and "no" to any and all other activities until the task is accomplished--at least for today. And, in so doing, we too attain the happiness of Sisyphus.

This article is based on several chapters from my forthcoming book Essential Secrets of Psychotherapy. For additional secrets, see my recent series of postings here