37: The penalty of postponement.

- July 30, 2017 -

I like the way that Paulo Coelho, the internationally bestselling author of The Alchemist, describes procrastination.

(It’s worth noting that, although The Alchemist is his best-known work, he’s also published 29 other books — which, if you ask me, makes him something of an authority on the subject of getting things done.)

When Tim Ferriss asked Coelho about his morning routine in a 2016 interview, this is what he had to say:

“I sit down … and I start procrastinating. In the morning, I check my emails, I check news, I check everything that I could check just to postpone, for the moment, sitting and facing myself. For 3 hours, I’m trying to tell myself, ‘No, no, no. Later, later, later,’ and then, one moment, I say — just not to lose face in front of myself — ‘I’m going to sit, and I’m going to write for half an hour.’ And I do.”

Most of us, I think, will procrastinate largely because we know that we can. We know that we can put off getting to work on this project or that one because we know that, even if we subtract a few hours of work here and there, we’ll still be able to get everything done. Sure, the final product will likely be a bit less polished than it otherwise would have been, and, yes, we’ll likely be a bit more stressed while we’re working on it, but we will eventually finish whatever it is that we were supposed to do. And so, knowing this, we don’t worry too much about the consequences of waiting a little longer to get started.

In other words, we choose to focus on what we’ve gained rather than what we’ve lost. The fact that we’re losing X number of working hours doesn’t really bother us that much because, in that moment, we’re more focused on the temporarily positive outcome of what we’ve just gained by procrastinating: a free afternoon to catch up on errands, for instance, or an evening out with friends.

What I like so much about Coelho’s perspective is that he doesn’t view this struggle of procrastination-versus-work in the usual way. According to him, it’s not an external process, but an internal one: something which takes place on an inner level, or, to use his words, something which is only concerned with whether or not we’re ready to ‘face ourselves.’

Have another look at how he describes it: “I check my emails, I check news, I check everything that I could check just to postpone, for the moment, sitting and facing myself.” The key phrase here is “for the moment,” because we all know that we will eventually have to face ourselves. Yes, we can put off working on that project for a few hours — or, in some cases, even a few days or weeks — but, in the end, it will need to be done.

Perhaps what we should be asking ourselves, then, is not only when we want to face ourselves, but also how we want to face ourselves. Do we want to face ourselves early, when we’re still free from the added stress of an impending deadline? Or do we want to wait until the last possible moment to face ourselves, when we simply have to make do with whatever that last-minute version of ourselves is able to come up with?


Peering inward,
– J


This piece comes from Jana Marie’s newsletter, The Sunday Letters. You can sign up to receive future editions below.