I had planned to write my next blog post on the subject of overwhelm, but inspiration took me in a different direction. Recently I was chatting with my wonderful friend and fellow coach Mackie Schaars about how “procrastinating” and “waiting for the right time” have different energies. “What a great topic for a blog post,” she said. Well, here it is. (There will be plenty more on the subject of overwhelm in coming weeks.)
In our “Just Do It” culture, it took me a while to really get that “not doing it” does not necessarily equal “procrastinating.” There was a time in my life when I firmly believed that if I wasn’t taking action on something, I was procrastinating. Then I would really beat myself up, which inevitably, eventually, led to further, worse procrastinating.
I like to refer to this type of extreme procrastination, triggered by extreme rebellion, as rebellinating. Way back in my teens and up through my early twenties, when I was a dieter (and my inner perfectionist had a deep preference for starvation diets), rebellinating would show up as bingeing on lasagna for six and an entire box of Twinkies after a week of carrots and sugar-free Popsicles. Rebellinating is a good tip-off that something bigger, something deeper, is probably going on.
Because here’s the deal: Sometimes, when I’m not taking action on something, it truly is procrastination. I’ll give you an example: I am long overdue for a visit to the dentist. We’re not talking months here, my friends. How do I know I am procrastinating on seeing the dentist? Because it feels really simple: I want to take care of my teeth, but I’m not doing it. There’s not going to be a “better time” to take care of my teeth. There’s nothing complicated going on. I know it’s a need I want to meet, and I’m not meeting it.
Sometimes, though, a situation feels a little more complex. I might tell myself I’m “procrastinating,” but that might be a lie. I need to look a little more closely. I need to ask questions.
Many years ago, I was having a rough time and I moved back in with my parents. I didn’t have a job, and my attempts to find one were few and far between. I felt lousier and lousier and started hating myself for procrastinating. I made some half-hearted attempts to job hunt, but my energy seemed to be repelling work. When I did get work through a temp agency, I left in the middle of an assignment, in the middle of the day.
The temp agency called and left an angry message. How dare I leave an assignment in the middle of the day? Yes, I thought — how dare I? What is wrong with me? I am ruining my life!
I called my therapist for an emergency session. What became clear as I spewed my stuff to her was that I was really, really tired. It was October, and back in April my immune system had shut down. I’d been sick with fevers for weeks, then months, and had finally ended up in the hospital for a few days when I could no longer eat or drink. Little by little, I’d gotten better physically, but my inability to work when I’d been sick had created quite a bit of debt, and that’s how I’d ended up back in Mom and Dad’s house.
My therapist pointed out that I hadn’t really rested that entire year. “Are you kidding me?” I said. “I’ve spent half the year lying in bed.” “No,” she said with a smile. “You’ve spent half the year fighting an illness.”
She instructed me to go home and dedicate myself to at least two full weeks of true relaxation. No job hunting, no beating myself up for procrastinating. I laughed at her; it was one of those laughs that came out like a snort. Yeah, right. I’d never known how to truly relax. My inner perfectionist enjoyed it when I ran myself into the ground (which, I was beginning to realize, was a big part of the reason I’d gotten so sick in the first place).
But I felt strangely light and free after the therapy session. I did the best I could to put job hunting out of my mind for a full two weeks. Maybe it was three.
What happened over those weeks of not thinking about looking for a job was that I realized I’d been desperate. I hadn’t even had much idea of what kind of job I wanted. I was just throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what would stick. The desperation was still alive in me, but I managed not to act on it. Since my therapist had given me permission (and sometimes I truly need permission from someone I view as very wise to allow myself what I most need), I spent a lot of time curled up in bed and a lot of time taking very long walks.
During that time, I got clear. I got clear on the fact that I was tired, my body still wasn’t at its best, and I needed to respect that. I got clear on what kind of job I wanted. I got clear on why I wanted it. I found some job listings for a couple of jobs that sounded very much like what I wanted. Applying for them didn’t feel heavy or desperate. It felt kind of right.
Within a month of that eye-opening therapy session, I was offered both jobs. Apparently, I was no longer repelling work.
When our energy is aligned, there is movement toward what is right for us. If you think you are procrastinating, it could be that you are not aligned with what you most deeply want. Maybe you don’t know what you most deeply want.
Before you beat yourself up for procrastinating (and I suggest never beating yourself up for any reason if you can possibly avoid it), get clear. You’ll know what your truth is because when you’re in it, no matter what it is, you’ll feel free. If I tell myself I’m procrastinating and my deepest self says, “Yep, that’s right,” I know it’s true. I can then start taking small steps toward whatever it is I want.
But if I tell myself I’m procrastinating and it feels heavy, icky, and like I’m trapped in very tiny box, it just might be a lie. That’s when I need to investigate, to gently ask myself, “Hey, what’s really going on here? Let’s take a look.” It’s always worth it to take that look.