Procrastination is such a maddening trait that literary scribes have bestowed upon it an abundance of witty attention. William Shakespeare weighed in more than once, as in Henry VI, “Defer no time; delays have dangerous ends.” Here’s a list of 180 procrastination quotes, but reading them might be, well, to dawdle.
Procrastination produces both emotional anguish and self-damaging inaction. Interestingly, the main culprit in procrastination is largely unrecognized. Depth psychology, however, can penetrate our psyche to expose this culprit.
Before identifying the problem, here’s some background. We harbor in our psyche what psychoanalysis calls the unconscious ego. As the term obviously indicates, this part of our ego is unconscious. We also have a conscious ego that is plenty troublesome. This conscious ego is a pale shadow of our authentic self, and it tends to be thin-skinned and ridiculously petty. But our unconscious ego is even more of a nuisance. Its main effect is to render us passive, so that in certain situations we can quickly feel overwhelmed, helpless, confused, indecisive, and apathetic. Procrastination arises as a behavioral consequence of these negative emotions.
Our challenge is to become more conscious of this part of our psyche. We can start by giving it a name: inner passivity. In our psyche, the primary conflict is between inner aggression (as represented by our inner critic or superego) and inner passivity (as represented by our unconscious ego). These two conflicting aspects of our psyche are always butting heads, frequently producing inner voices or feelings that we repeat in our mind as if the words or feelings are our own.
For example, inner passivity might generate a thought or feeling to this effect: “Why worry about doing that task today. Let it wait. Go out and relax in the sun.” The procrastinator becomes the mouthpiece of this inner impulse, saying to himself or herself: “I’m not going to worry about that. I think I’ll go out and get some sun.” (Our conscious ego hates to see our unwitting compliance to such unconscious dynamics.)
I’ve written a book on inner passivity (The Phantom of the Psyche: Freeing Ourself from Inner Passivity), so there’s a lot to say on the subject. Insight helps us the most in dealing with inner passivity, and one way to get insight is to feel or recognize its presence when we are under its influence. We want to see inner passivity objectively (even, in a sense, clinically) so that we can eliminate the disagreeable feeling that it is intrinsic to our essence.
What does procrastination feel like? I was so mired in that feeling back in the mid-1980s that I almost didn’t get my master’s degree in psychology. I couldn’t get untracked to do the course work. Whenever I thought about proceeding with the required writing, reading, and studying, a powerful inertia settled upon me, a kind of existential paralysis in which my will was zapped by excuses, self-doubt, lethargic laziness, and listless indifference.
These negative feelings arise when we’re caught in the clutches of inner passivity. The feelings can be fleeting, moderate, or painfully acute. People who have the biggest problem with both inner passivity and procrastination typically have an inner critic that is consistently mean and disrespectful. However, some people can have significant deposits of inner passivity in their psyche without necessarily being procrastinators. Sometimes people are, psychologically speaking, at the other extreme. They can be workaholics who drive themselves remorselessly because inwardly they are (passive) slaves to their demanding inner critic.
What complicates matters considerably is the fact that we can quite attached emotionally to our inner passivity. Unconsciously, we can be driven to recreate and recycle the feeling. We’re not sure who we’ll be without that feeling, as if it somehow uncovers the very essence of our being. For procrastinators, this means the passive feeling can be alluring, an emotional attachment they’re tempted to indulge in. Their passivity feels like their default position, a means by which they know themselves.
Inner passivity leads us along the path of least resistance, down the back alleys of life where we become victims of fate instead of creators of our destiny.
Procrastinators often deny or cover up their inner passivity with a psychological defense called “pleading guilty to the lesser crime.” This unconscious defense says, “I’m not indulging in the feeling of inner passivity. The problem is that I’m lazy.” These individuals are now convinced that laziness is their problem, and likely will feel bad or guilty for the alleged laziness. But laziness in this context is a symptom of the deeper issue, which is the emotional attachment to inner passivity.
Inner passivity (the phantom of the psyche) is one of the deepest, darkest mysteries of our inner life. Most psychological experts don’t see or acknowledge it. Not surprisingly, they can’t agree about the cause of procrastination. Some of them believe that procrastination is a mechanism to cope with the anxiety associated with starting or completing a task. But that raises two questions: 1) Why is the coping mechanism so self-defeating? 2) Why does anxiety arise instead of, say, enthusiasm or pleasure? The answers lie deep in our psyche.