Passive vs Proactive Procrastination – and How to Tell the Difference

Feb 7, 2024 | Coaching, Facilitation, General, Leadership

It’s so ironic that I have been procrastinating on writing a piece about procrastinating! But I’m taking a deep breath and diving in.

The motivation for writing this came from my new favorite book (I’d call it my book of the year but that feels a little presumptuous when it’s not even fully February!), 4,000 Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman. The main argument he gives for procrastination, revolves around the disappointment we know we will feel when something moves out of the realm of our imagination into the real world with all it’s boring constraints (you know, gravity, the limitations of my actual skills, needing the buy in of other humans etc. etc. etc. )

He writes ‘it’s easy for me  to fantasize about, say, a life spent achieving stellar professional success , while also excelling as a parent and partner, while also dedicating myself to training for marathons or lengthy meditation retreats or volunteering in my community – because so long as I’m only fantasizing, I get to imagine all of them unfolding simultaneously and flawlessly. As soon as I start trying to live any of those lives, though, I’ll be forced to make trade-offs ….’

As I understood his argument, a primary reason for procrastination is the fear of reducing choices and facing the fact that I can never actualize something in reality as perfectly as it looks in my imagination. This rings really true for me. It shows up for me everywhere including writing. I procrastinate on writing because I’m aware that the article in my head never looks quite as perfect when I have got it down into real life words. I rationalize that I will wait until the moment when I feel ‘just the right energy’ to write but actually that rarely shows up. On a different note,  I also often don’t reach out to talk with dear friends because in my mind each conversation is long and leisurely and if there isn’t enough time then I don’t pick up the phone. Which means I run the risk of never actually connecting.

However, as I have continued to mull this topic over,  I think that for me at least there are a few other reasons for procrastinating. And my truth around this is the same as for many other things – if I can understand the reason underlying something (in this case procrastination), it doesn’t solve it (insight does NOT automatically equal action) but it puts me on a pathway to figuring out the right tool to solve it.

So in no order of importance here are my other reasons for procrastination – and (as always) I’d love to hear from others why you procrastinate (if, of course you do!!!)

My first two kind of map together:

  1. Feelings of insecurity. Whenever I start to look outwards, I see there are others doing whatever I am doing better. Which prompts my inner voice to ask, why does the world need another XXX – and those XXXs can be filled by almost anything that I am thinking about doing.

 2. Concern about what others will think. If I do this and it’s not ‘good enough’ will others judge me and think me too XXX (again fill in the blank) and ridiculous for having even tried.

There are all sorts of reasons to be oriented outwards and paying attention to what others think and also what the world needs. The balance is in realizing that if I over index to either of these two reasons then it would be possible to literally not do anything. My own personal strategy is to acknowledge both those truths  – YES there is someone out there in the world who can do whatever I am doing better than me AND there will be likely someone who is going to judge me critically – and then, if it is something I do want to do to get on and do it anyway.

The next two reasons relate to my inner world.  

  1. Depression – I have cycles of feeling lethargy, sometimes connected to seasons or workload, sometimes hormonal and sometimes completely unexplainable. Whether or not these are when I am officially depressed, at times like this it is MUCH harder to get going on things, even when I rule out all the other factors. I don’t have a solution to this one if others do, I’d love to hear. But recognizing that this is real for me, and also acknowledging that for me this state of mind will shift at some point, is a way to grant myself a bit more grace in the midst of it all.
  1. There are in fact other things that are more appealing or important – it’s interesting that procrastination is often seen as a negative. And when we are actively intentionally choosing to procrastinate then we call it prioritization and applaud ourselves for it. Maybe the skill is in being able to distinguish which one we are actually doing? And then in a lone category of its own there is simply the
  1. I don’t want to do it and so I am putting it off. That may be because it is something that someone else has tasked me with doing. Or because I have a dread of what I may uncover if I do it. Or because I know it will be complex and messy and unlikely to be resolved. It’s important for me to realize when things fall into this bucket because it invites me into questioning: is this something I actually need to do? Could I NOT do it, or punt it down the line and see if it remains important – proactive procrastination? Could I delegate it or simply ask someone to take it on – maybe this would be their dream task?!

I want to actually end though with another quote from Burkeman which is actually one of hope, ‘Since every real-world choice about how to live entails the loss of countless alternative ways of living, there’s no reason to procrastinate, or to resist making commitments, in the anxious hope that you might somehow be able to avoid those losses. Loss is a given. That ship has sailed – and what a relief.”

Note: Picture is from a wooden piece of art we bought in Tanah Toraja many years ago. I love the swirls and designs. So glad this artist did not put off doing what they were called to bring into existence!