How to Defeat Procrastination - A Lesson from the Stoics
Modern life is overwhelming. With so much powerful technology at our fingertips comes endless choice, so much to do, so much to decide. So often the result is a kind of paralysis. Rather than making the hard choice, we scroll through the latest social media feed, or click on that YouTube video just to get a bit of relief before we get to what needs to be done. Procrastination sets in, often for hours. Then we realize the damage that has been done.
Even when we do get down to work, how often do we pick off the low hanging fruit on our “to do” list as a means of appearing to be busy when really this is also a form of procrastination. The hard work, the real work isn´t being done.
Thousands of years ago things were different, right? People lived simpler, happier lives and the problem of procrastination didn´t exist. Well, you are wrong! Look at this quote from Roman emperor and Stoic, Marcus Aurelius:
“Think of your many years of procrastination; how the gods have repeatedly granted you further periods of grace, of which you have taken no advantage. It is time now to realize the nature of the universe to which you belong, and of that controlling Power whose offspring you are and to understand that your time has a limit set to it. Use it, then, to advance your enlightenment; or it will be gone, and never in your power again.”
So, in ancient times humans behaved much as they do today. Sure, the choices they had were different, but people are people, and we haven´t changed much over thousands of years.
This is why the Stoic philosophy is so fascinating. The problems we face today were exactly the same as those our forefathers/mothers faced centuries ago and the Stoics provided a set of practical solutions to solve them.
Firstly, the question is why do we procrastinate in the first place? It isn´t as if we don´t know what needs to be done, it is just easier to be distracted or do something less onerous, like washing the dishes.
It isn´t a question of time either. We have plenty of time but just let it slip away. Here is Seneca´s view on that:
“It is not we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it.”
The problem is an emotional one. When we don´t get down to what needs to be done it is because we are fearful. We are afraid of failing. We are afraid we aren´t good enough to succeed. We are afraid that whatever we produce won´t be good enough and, de fact, we aren´t good enough.
Here the Stoic philosophers say we need to get moving and suggest multiple approaches to stand mentally strong and lead the life we want to lead. Here are three principles to follow:
1) The obstacle is the way
What is the big thing on our list we keep putting off? What is it that we postpone, waiting for the right time when conditions are favorable? What is that we feel we should be starting, but leaves us with an uncomfortable feeling in our stomach? These signs are telling us that whatever this is, it is what should be top of our list to start right now.
My favorite book by the brilliant author and modern-day Stoic, Ryan Holiday is “The Obstacle is the Way”. The title says it all. What we see as blocking our path is where we really need to go, where we need to travel, where we need to put in the effort. His title comes from Marcus Aurelius:
“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”
Both ideas are basically saying the same thing, the big things in your path are what, deep down, you know you need to do. So why delay? Get started on them now.
“Yes, you can — if you do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life, and stop being aimless, stop letting your emotions override what your mind tells you, stop being hypocritical, self-centered, irritable."
2) Less is more
These days we all face overwhelm. So much to do and so little time to do it in. Agendas packed with meetings, multiple inboxes packed with mails that arrive endlessly, social media feeds, the need to be up to date with the latest news….
But how much of this is really necessary? Here is Marcus Aurelius again:
“It is essential for you to remember that the attention you give to any action should be in due proportion to its worth, for then you won’t tire and give up, if you aren’t busying yourself with lesser things beyond what should be allowed. Since the vast majority of our words and actions are unnecessary, corralling them will create an abundance of leisure and tranquility. As a result, we shouldn’t forget at each moment to ask, is this one of the unnecessary things?”
Here Marcus is encouraging us to sift the wheat from the chaff, to be really clear on what we want to focus our time and energy on.
The Stoics were really big on time-management, but here Marcus is also applying the concept of energy management, something that is covered in detail in Jim Loehr and Tony Swartz´s masterpiece “The Power of Full Engagement”.
It is obvious that we have limited time but filling it with unnecessary tasks creates a serious problem. Spending time on these things reduces the energy we have for the important tasks we should be tackling. We cannot always run at full speed and the choice of what we do and when we do it has a big part to play in how effective we will be.
“The richest, happiest and most productive lives are characterized by the ability to fully engage in the challenge at hand, but also to disengage periodically and seek renewal. Instead, many of us live our lives as if we are running in an endless marathon, pushing ourselves far beyond healthy levels of exertion.”
Loehr & Swartz
We need to maintain optimal energy levels to be able to attack the tasks that really need doing and not slip into working on unimportant tasks, itself a form of procrastination. This requires discipline in itself, to avoid being in the trap of hardly working instead of working hard. To do this we need to be fully energized and in an optimal state of mind.
Again, Marcus Aurelius sums it up:
“If you seek tranquility, do less.”
3) Manage your habits
The Stoics were really big on habits and routines. They understood that all people fall into habits easily without realizing it and that these habits end up dictating a great deal of how we live our lives. However, habits are a double-edged sword, as we know. Bad habits can lead to disorganized, unproductive and unhappy lives and leave us feeling like we are constantly rowing upstream against the current.
“In many circumstances, we do not deal with our affairs in accordance with correct assumptions, but rather we follow thoughtless habit.”
The Stoics recommended reviewing our days constantly and designing an optimal routine for those tasks we want to get done regularly and efficiently, whilst eliminating any habits that do not help us.
“Life without design is erratic”
Seneca realized that to optimize our time and to stave off procrastination, we need to design our day to get many of the important, recurrent things done automatically.
Roy F Baumeister, the social psychologist has studied what he terms “decision fatigue” in humans. He found that the more decisions people make in a day, the less energy they have to make future decisions and perform challenging tasks. This explains why it is so important to set up a routine where important daily tasks are completed on autopilot as habits, so as to leave energy to tackle the important things that need doing. This very process directly reduces procrastination which is often a result of decision fatigue.
There is a whole science around how to set good habits and break bad ones, masterfully explained in James Clear´s recommended bestseller, “Atomic Habits”. The first task, however, is to examine in detail what you are doing with your days, something that the Stoics did through the use of daily journaling and a thorough review of how each day had gone. Seneca did this at night, just before sleeping.
“When the light has been taken away and my wife has fallen silent, aware as she is of my habit, I examine my entire day, going through what I have done and said.”
This way, the good habits are made to stick whilst the bad habits can be identified and extinguished. Procrastination itself is an important bad habit to look out for on a daily basis.
All of this requires us to take control of our lives, actively living how we want to rather than drifting along on default mode, where it is all too easy to fall into the procrastination trap.
In conclusion, the Stoics knew that procrastination was a problem that stops you from living fully. In their toolkit for action, they offer many ways to respond and to avoid frittering life away, some of which we have seen here.
“Putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy.”
So now you’ve read this, think what is the “obstacle in your way” and get to it…now!
What are you waiting for?