Tag Archives: procrastination

Fretting and Procrastination – What They Have In Common

anxiety disorders

I’m an accomplished procrastinator, and yesterday I did a fair bit of fretting as well, and I’ve come to an important realisation about what these two traits of mine have in common, with some big implications for how to deal with them: both procrastination and fretting ultimately involve wasting time being anxious about a problem rather than dealing with a problem.

Firstly, some definitions:

  • Procrastination is when you know you’re supposed to be doing something, but it just seems too much like hard work, so you put it off and waste time doing something less important that you’d rather be doing instead.
  • Fretting is when you’re anxiously thinking about a situation and all the ways in which it might go wrong and all the problems that might arise and what about this and what about that and… agh, make it stop!

I’ve written before that the root of so much of my procrastination is uncertainty – for example why I never seem to be able to bring myself to wash up my parents’ teapot when I go to visit:

“The reason I always left the teapot is that I never quite knew what to do with it – it clearly needed some kind of cleaning action applied to it and yet it was so grimy and dirty inside and I didn’t really want my future cups of tea to taste of washing up liquid and I don’t really know what I’m supposed to do with it and – Agh! Uncertainty. My brain gets scared and shuts down and prefers to leave it rather than figure it out and deal with it.”

For me, procrastination is a fear of what would actually be involved in solving the problem I’m avoiding. It’s running scared instead of embracing the problem and getting on with it.

And I’ve realised that fretting is exactly the same. When facing a potentially stressful situation, there are two possibilities:

  1. The situation is entirely outside of my control, and no amount of fretting is going to prevent the situation going wrong. In this situation I just need to pray and entrust it to God, knowing that he is good and that he loves me and that if things go wrong it’s only because he permitted it.
  2. Or maybe there is something I could do to address the situation, maybe being prepared for some of the ways it could go wrong, maybe asking some sensible questions of the people who know the situation better than I do, anything at all to actually get on with addressing the source of the anxiety. In this situation, I should probably just get on and deal with things.

But in neither situation is anything achieved by sitting there and fretting! Just like procrastination, fretting is running scared instead of embracing the problem and getting on with it.

Being anxious isn’t just a personality quirk – I firmly believe that it is an expression of my sinfulness. It’s a failure to trust God for the future, and to get on and do what I can to serve him in the present. Realising this fact has been a helpful step towards growing less anxious, by his grace – even if there is still an awful long way to go!

How To Spend Every Day

Clock

I’ve been revisiting recently the excellent essay by Jonathan Edwards, “The Sin and Folly of Depending on Future Time“. In his characteristic style, Edwards diagnoses and dissects the problem of living in the future instead of being content to get on with making the most of the present moment that God has given us. This may sound over-the-top, but I’m gradually coming to realise that this is probably the biggest battle I struggle with in my life, the prior cause from which many of my other battles originate.

The Symptoms of Depending on Future Time

Let me illustrate with a couple of examples. God willing, I’m getting married in 172 days’ time, and I find it all too easy to just wish away the days and resent the fact that it’s so far away in the future. As at many other times in my life, I’ve fallen for that lie, that what I need is a change of circumstances – if only this were the case or if that were different, then I’d be able to get my life sorted out. Maybe it’s a change of jobs, maybe it’s living in a new place, maybe it’s graduating from university. Whatever it is, you look at your present situation and see all of the difficulties and downsides, a kind of “informed pessimism”, whereas you look at the grass on the other side and all you can see is potential and exciting opportunity – the optimism of ignorance. Instead of getting on with growing and serving in the situation God has currently put me in, I look to the future and imagine that I could serve him much more contentedly once I arrive at the next place. If prior experience is anything to go by, that’s absolute nonsense! Why should the next situation be any different from the current one, or the one before that? What possible grounds do I have for imagining that I’ll be any more content, until I learn to cease living in the future?

The other example I could give is in the daily battle to work productively, on whatever project it is that I’m currently struggling with. A piece of work that I need to tackle comes up, and instead of just getting on with it, I worry about how hard it might turn out to be. Or even sillier than that, I worry that I might actually finish it, and then what on earth would I do with myself? Anxiety about what the future might hold makes me shy away from fulfilling my responsibility in the present. It’s similar to the battle for patience regarding my wedding day: the thought of continuing to fight for another 172 days just seems too overwhelming – how can I possibly stay now-focussed for such a length of time?? And so it seems hardly worth even trying to battle in the present, and I give in.

An Alternative Way of Living

Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:25-34 seem very pertinent: “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on… which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? … But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”

Do not be anxious about tomorrow – sufficient for the day is its own trouble. In other words, leave the future for God to worry about. Your job is just to make the most of today, to fight sin today, to figure out how to love God and love your neighbour today. Now is the only moment of time God has actually entrusted to you to use – all the rest belongs to him.

A Personal Response

So what am I going to do in response to all these swirling thoughts?

Firstly, I’m going to try and take the issue more seriously and put some proper prayer into it each day.

Secondly, I think I’m going to try and start a journal. Try and write something each day, maybe one thing to be thankful for from the day that’s just passed, something that’s encouraged me from God’s word, maybe jot down a few thoughts about what the day ahead will hold and how I hope to make the most of it. Something, anything, to try and keep me rooted in the moment and encourage me to enjoy it and make the most of it rather than wishing I was somewhere else.

Thirdly, and I don’t really know how this one will work out, I’m going to try and slow down and enjoy life a little more, rather than always rushing from one thing to the next. Maybe make myself a cup of tea in the morning with my breakfast. Have a decent quiet time. Put a little music on when I get home from work. Enjoy doing my laundry and hanging out my socks to dry, rather than just resenting it. Hang out with Christian brothers and sisters after church chatting about the sermon. Basically, prayerfully seek to make the most of the situation God has put me in at that moment, rather than killing time until I’m somewhere else.

Sovereignty and Procrastination

Why Jesus is My Hero #17 of 52

In his classic book Desiring God, John Piper includes this quote from Jonathan Edwards: “Absolute sovereignty is what I love to ascribe to God.” It’s a sentiment I couldn’t agree with more – it’s what gets me out of bed in the mornings, knowing that no matter what’s going on, even when the world is crashing down around my ears, God is in control and he is working all things for the good of those who love him.

The idea of sovereignty at one level means that God is always able to bring his will to pass – nothing can stop him accomplishing what he has purposed. If he’s said he’ll work all things for good, then he will – he cannot be thwarted in bringing his will to realisation. Isaiah 46 says this:

“Remember this and stand firm,

recall it to mind, you transgressors,

remember the former things of old;

for I am God, and there is no other;

I am God, and there is none like me,

declaring the end from the beginning

and from ancient times things not yet done,

saying, ‘My counsel shall stand,

and I will accomplish all my purpose,’

calling a bird of prey from the east,

the man of my counsel from a far country.

I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass;

I have purposed, and I will do it.”

It’s an awesome vision of the mighty God. I love it.

But it’s been really brought home to me this week how transcendently different from me this is. I am decidedly not God. Sadly, for me, the mere act of willing something to be cannot bring it to pass. Even the simple desire of wanting to put my all into one final talk for my last preaching practice opportunity at college proved beyond my powers to enact. I had a real motivational crisis – not doubt partly because of being a bit ill.

But it taught me a valuable lesson: I’m utterly dependent on God. I cannot and must not take pride in the things I do and achieve – because it’s only by God’s grace that any of it happens. He is the sovereign God whose will always comes to pass. I’m just a puny human whose will sometimes comes to pass, at least to some extent, not always precisely to the full degree of how I’d hoped it to work out.

All of this got me thinking about that moment in the garden of Gethsemane where Jesus said to his Father: “not my will, but yours”. Isn’t that an incredible moment? I can’t even quite get my head around what that means. As God, Jesus is pretty proficient at getting his will enacted. All he has to do is rebuke the storm and it calms itself in an instant. All he has to do is say the word, and the dead man Lazarus rises from his tomb. And yet here he choses to forgo his own will and submit it to the Father’s. Once again, the Father’s will comes to pass – he is proved Sovereign once more. And yet I see something truly beautiful in that act of submission by the Son.

That’s why Jesus is my hero.

On Teapots and Procrastination

I’ve learnt a lot about myself lately by thinking about teapots. You know, those kind of round things with a handle on one side and a spout on the other; you put teabags in them and then fill them up with hot water to make a brew – I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. I’ve got a whole lot of insight from teapots.

It all began in Southampton. Over the past few years I’ve developed links with a little church plant there now known as Christ Church, and I’ve had the privilege of preaching there from time to time. On the first few occasions I went down there it always seemed to come at a bad time and I ended up getting a bit behind on my sermon prep, and had a bit of a last minute stress getting them written on time. The next few trips after that I’d been asked to speak on particularly tough passages that I really struggled to make much headway on, meaning it was a bit hit or miss whether I’d have a sermon ready to preach come the Sunday morning. Then the next time I was distracted thinking about some relationship issues and, as shameful as it sounds, writing a sermon wasn’t at the forefront of my mind. There always seemed to be some excuse for why this time I was a little behind on my preparation – next time would always be better, it seemed.

Then 18 months ago my excuses came crashing down around my head. I began studying at the PT Cornhill training course, the highlight of which is being made to regularly prepare and deliver short talks and then getting feedback from your peers. Now I was having to try and write a sermon every fortnight or so, and it quickly became apparent that my difficulty in finishing sermons in good time for my visits to Southampton had nothing to do with the particular circumstances of that specific week – I just sucked at writing sermons. When you only do something occasionally it’s easy to think that your experience is just a one-off, but being made to do it regularly made it abundantly clear that it had nothing to do with that particular sermon and everything to do with me.

My life is utterly crippled by debilitating procrastination. I wrote that about myself in my school self-assessment aged 7, though perhaps not in those specific words – I’ve always known how bad I am at getting stuff done. Trying to write a sermon, staring at a blank piece of paper, knowing I’ve got to catch a train in four hours time in order to stand before the expectant congregation of Christ Church, and yet somehow being utterly unable go bring myself to do anything. It’s not even as if I’m able to enjoy my procrastination by using the time to watch DVDs or play video games – I just sit there feeling guilty about not working and wishing I were one of those people who can crank out a novel in a week.

But then I remembered the teapots.

Whenever I visit my parents I try to do the washing up after dinner, model son that I am. And I began to notice a pattern: I’d always end up leaving the teapot for my Dad to deal with once I’d finished with everything else. I’d have loaded the dishwasher and washed all the glasses and scrubbed all the pans and wiped down all the work surfaces – but there would be that teapot, sitting there, untouched, waiting to be emptied out by my poor old Father.

I often think about those teapots. It’s almost as if I were blind to them. Except I wasn’t – the nagging sense of guilt about leaving it for my Dad demonstrated that. So why would I never complete the job and clean out that teapot?

The answer is the same as why I find sermons so hard to write, and it boils down to one word: uncertainty. Uncertainty. The reason I always left the teapot is that I never quite knew what to do with it – it clearly needed some kind of cleaning action applied to it and yet it was so grimy and dirty inside and I didn’t really want my future cups of tea to taste of washing up liquid and I don’t really know what I’m supposed to do with it and – Agh! Uncertainty. My brain gets scared and shuts down and prefers to leave it rather than figure it out and deal with it.

It’s the same with a sermon – what exactly am I trying to say? How can I express that clearly? Every time I finish a sentence I’m having to make a decision all over again – what sentence shall I write next? Where shall I go from here? Agh!

99% of my procrastination boils down to uncertainty – not understanding the problem clearly and not knowing what I’m trying to achieve. Realising that fact has made an enormous difference to my ability to get stuff done. Now when I recognise the brain freeze I try and stop and acknowledge where the uncertainty is – sometimes I even write down the implicit question that’s hanging in the air. Usually the solution is embarrassingly simple as soon as you’ve realised what the problem is and then you can move on. For my sermon writing, I’ve tried to reduce the feeling of constant decision making by writing a bullet point outline of what the logical flow is before turning it into prose. In my programming I’ve started to write out a clear description of what problem I’m trying to solve at any given moment.

It’s still a constant battle. Working hard takes hard work. There are no quick fixes on the road to productivity. Buy I thank God for those teapots and the small contribution they’ve made to my ability to get stuff done.

Jonathan Edwards on Procrastination

A Summary of “The Sin and Folly of Depending on Future Time” by Jonathan Edwards

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately on the theme of procrastination and how hard it is not to waste the precious time we’ve been given. A friend of mine put me on to a very helpful essay by Jonathan Edwards, the latter day Puritan who lived during the 18th Century. The essay is absolute gold dust and well worth a read first-hand, but for many of us accomplished procrastinators, it’s simply too long! It’s also in somewhat antiquated English which doesn’t make it all that easy to read if you’re not used to the style. So I thought it would be helpful to write a little summary of the essay in simple English – I hope fans of Edwards won’t find this too offensive!

Though it’s of value to all people, whether religious or not, the essay is essentially a sermon on Proverbs 27:1:

“Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring.”

Even if you’re not normally a fan of the Bible, I think there’s some real wisdom in here that bears a moment of consideration – so do keep reading.

Three quick words of explanation:

  • The verse starts with basic principle: “Don’t boast about tomorrow” – don’t rely upon there being a tomorrow; don’t act as though you own the future, as though you’re sure it exists and that you have control over what you can do with it
  • It ends with a reason: “You don’t know what it will bring” – anything could happen: you might die, you might get sick, the London Underground might be shut down by a snow storm, rendering your plans moot.
  • Edwards offers a caveat: in saying “don’t rely upon there being a tomorrow”, he doesn’t mean “rely upon there not being a tomorrow” – if you knew that today was your last day on Earth for certain, you’d neglect lots of responsibilities that are really important to take seriously (like paying off your mortgage), and perhaps do some things that aren’t the highest priority (like choosing the hymns for your funeral)

What It Means to Follow the Principle

To put this into practice (“Don’t boast about tomorrow”) will involve two things:

  1. Don’t rely upon certain things happening tomorrow, and put things off until they do – “I’ll finish off this essay during that free slot tomorrow”, “I’ll wait until my student loan comes through and then do X Y Z…”, “I’ll survive until the Christmas holidays and then get my morning Bible reading back on track” – who knows if the situation will really be as you expect by that time, and if you’ll still be inclined to do those things when that time comes around
  2. Don’t rely upon having a tomorrow at all – life is a mist, and who knows if you’ll still be here?

Some Examples

Here are some examples of what it would look like to rely upon future time:

  1. You might be obsessed with ‘things’ as though your happiness depended upon them – if only I have that relationship, that gadget, that job, then I’d be fulfilled. Of course we’re to enjoy stuff where possible, but we must hold them lightly as fleeting gifts from a good God, who himself is the only lasting source of fulfilment and happiness. Those other things might be gone by tomorrow, and can never bring lasting joy.
  2. You might be proud of your circumstances, your possessions or your good looks – but you ain’t gonna be able to keep them!
  3. You might envy other people for how easy life seems for them or how much people admire and respect them – but their situation might be changed by tomorrow, so isn’t worth craving.
  4. You might merrily continue a way of life that you need to be rescued from – presumably because you imagine you can be rescued another time?
  5. You might fail to do something that must be done before you die – this is the classic “I’ll repent on my deathbed” fallacy
  6. You might do stuff today which is going to need undoing – perhaps you’re busy defrauding someone on the hope that you can make restitution later?

Why We Shouldn’t Rely on Future Time

The reason why it’s daft to rely on future time is simple: we have absolutely no grounds whatsoever for relying on that future time existing. God hasn’t promised that we’ll live to see tomorrow, and nor can we rely on it. As much as modern medicine may have lulled us into a false sense of security, people still get sick and die suddenly, even at a young age. Accidents happen. There’s simply no reason to presume that we’ll still be here tomorrow.

Some Tests

Edwards offers the following tests for whether we might be relying on tomorrow:

  1. Do you set your heart on ‘things’ more than you would if you knew this was your last day?
  2. Wouldn’t you stick your nose in other people’s business less if you knew that you were going to have to give an account of your own affairs tonight? Wouldn’t you be a little more concerned about how things are going in your own life?
  3. Wouldn’t you be less obsessed with rivalries between the various clans you support and oppose? What does it matter whether iOS is better than Android or Arsenal is better than Chelsea if there might be no tomorrow? Even the most fierce rivalries will be ended by death: dead men are entirely at peace as they lie side by side in the cemetary
  4. Do you ever do things, coming up with arguments to convince yourself that there’s nothing wrong with them, that you’d never dare to do if you knew you were facing judgement tonight?
  5. Do you do stuff on the assumption that you’ll repent afterwards?
  6. Do you fail to make the most of today as though it might be your very last opportunity?
  7. Do you base your security for eternity on less-than-certain foundations? Have you ever really looked into Jesus’ claims firsthand before deciding there’s no hell? If God were to ask you “Why should I let you into heaven?”, is the answer you’d give certainly going to be enough to get you in?

If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these things, it’s probably a sign that you’re relying upon there being a tomorrow.

How to Spend Every Day

So how should we live our lives? Well, the massive advantage of not being told exactly how long we’ve got left is that it enables us to live every day as though it could be our last – that we should be ready for the end to come. You could be dead by this time tomorrow – you’ve no reason at all to rely upon it being otherwise. As you’re about to open that Facebook tab or check your email one last time, remember that it might be the last thing that you ever do.

Here are two motivations to stop relying on future time:

  1. If you really lived as though today might be your last, imagine how much more peace and security you would feel (and genuinely possess), both about your life and your death. No more feelings of guilt about the things you haven’t done, no more danger of meeting God unprepared.
  2. How much unnecessary stress is caused by our procrastination, and how many souls are needlessly condemned to eternal judgement because people keep putting off the inevitable and relying upon future time. Consider the five foolish virgins in Jesus’ parable: when the bridegroom showed up they were surprised, and found unprepared, having no oil in their lamps. And while they were at the shops to buy more, the five who were ready went in with him to the marriage; and the door was shut against them, and they came afterwards crying in vain, “Lord, Lord, open to us.”