April 18 – Procrastinating or Just Waiting?

Monday. Isabella had to prepare a presentation on procrastination for a speech at the local ICF chapter but she had been putting it off for a while. “Ironic”, she thought, that a coach such as her should find herself as guilty as anyone else to procrastinating things – putting them off until the last minute, finding that she was running out of time and after finishing the presentation not having enough time to actually rehearse. Then perhaps excusing herself by saying that she had too little time to prepare. How common and how sad!

Yesterday in 1912 her newspaper Dagens Nyheter wrote about Titanic. Today Isabella was not facing icebergs but molehills of unsorted thoughts and letters trying to sink her. But she was not willing to drown so she kept swimming. The presentation just had to be ready today. Luckily she had no booked clients today and David was off to school. The chapter meeting was on Thursday for once. Usually they were on Wednesdays, a day which Swedes sometimes refer to as “Little Saturday”. A perfect day for many to go out for a drink or a dinner in the middle of the week. Isabella would have time during Wednesday to rehearse as her Tuesday was totally choked.

Isabella contemplated procrastination while doing research and jotting down what she found worthwhile to say at the meeting. She imagined many coaches who would attend the meeting were also prone to procrastination or had many clients that were. She had herself only been to one such meeting before even though she had told herself to go on more occasions than one. She had always found other things that she “had to” do or sometimes “forgotten” to actually go. When on that meeting she noticed that many of the coaches had been late or had not prepared much either.

Isabella realized that she had to say something about why people procrastinate, how it might be different from prioritizing or just waiting for the right moment. She was close to falling into the “It has to be perfect” trap. She remembered her ex Marcus before a deadline in his architectural office re-sketching, remodeling and re-everything until it was almost too late to actually hand something in at all. Later he always said “It would have been perfect if I only had a little more time”. But he never had. And Isabella had seen Marcus doing other things when he should have been designing on that project. A clear case of procrastination. And perhaps the inner demand to be absolutely perfect paralyzed him into doing nothing at first only to be stressed out of his wits during the last days before deadline making him work around the clock to avoid the pain and embarrassment of not handing in the project at all.

Maybe pain was one of the key factors to procrastination? And Isabella also thought that a person’s background was playing an important role in this combination of comedy and tragedy. Isabella had not really found that out for herself but actually read about it in a book. She believed what she had read though. The line she remembered was “the things you fear the most have already happened” and was attributed to the psychologist Donald Winnicott. Isabella smiled and jotted down the name knowing that a little “name-dropping” usually impressed coaches, even though they sometimes maintained that their coaching would come from within themselves and that they should be as empty vessels for their clients. Isabella knew that was bullshit for putting off reading the necessary material and doing the necessary research. Procrastination was again showing its ugly face.
“Yes – pain!” Not experiencing enough pain when not doing what you are supposed to or not feeling that it actually matters enough to be high enough on your list to actually be done in time.

But there was the background issue too. Winnicott said that previous relationships set patterns that you have a hard time breaking later on in life. If you expect to fail you might make just that happen. But Isabella felt that she should also put in a note or two about how life today is much more complex than ever before. We have thousands of things to choose from all seemingly just as important, fun or worrying. How can we pick the things that really are most important to do? Isabella of course had one thing she knew she would always choose first. The welfare of her son David. She even surprised herself after his birth feeling that she honestly would sacrifice even her own life to save his. When she was young she had never imagined that would happen.

She came to think of her client Harry. The cop. He had a hard time combining being both a professional policeman, a colleague, a manager, a husband and a father.

“We have too many things going on at the same time and no time to rest and to reflect on what to do next”. Isabella remembered that even during her last vacation she had both her mobile and her laptop constantly on alert. The curse of running a business perhaps, but she had talked about it with her friend Rebecca and she told her that the situation was similar for the employed. It is like the “Buridan’s ass” story – A donkey being placed between a pile of hay and a pail of water would die of both hunger and thirst because it would have no reason to choose one over the other. Today we are just like that donkey but there are thousands of haystacks and a million oceans of water.

But what should coaches do to bring a procrastinator out of the bewildering woods? Well coaches are taught to be encouraging and to see their client as able to solve matters and to take action if given the proper insights. Isabella knew only too well that this approach only worked for those who were not procrastinators. The procrastinators apparently did not take encouragement from the coach in the intended way. They smiled and said “yes, I will”, but nothing much would happen. They would not change their behavior. Isabella had been frustrated over this on many occasions, but had realized that her frustration did not help her, and of course not her clients.

Isabella nowadays usually takes on procrastination in several steps. First it is about defining if her client is procrastinating, what things the client is procrastinating and similar things. Then the task of trying to break that pattern can begin. The process of change is usually a long one and sometimes it fails. Sometimes a coach needs to face the music that coaching cannot cure everything. The client may have serious issues that only therapy can help, or perhaps not even therapy. The client has also be prepared to train hard on stop procrastinating. It is not different from going to the gym to lose ten pounds of weight. You get nothing for free. You have to keep on working hard. That truth is valid both for the client and for the client’s coach. If a coach is not ready to take on the hard work she or he should not be coaching a procrastinating client. A professional coach must also be prepared to fail with grace and advice the client to a good therapist. Perhaps CBT or even psychodynamic therapy might work. Isabella only had to structure her notes now to be ready for rehearsal. Fine. The right moment for that will be on Wednesday as planned. Having a structured plan and being able to stick to it was key qualities to avoid procrastination.

Waiting for the right moment is crucial. Even for murder. Today was not it. But a rehearsal learning to handle the ropes was in the cards. No gambling matter.