Procrastination is one of those seemingly inescapable pitfalls in the human condition. We all do it, in both trivial and grand ways, even though it doesn’t serve any outward purpose. It’s not quite the same as hesitation, which is fear-based, nor is it exactly rooted in laziness. We simply believe that we’ll do our particular task later. In light of this, I have a different idea of why we procrastinate. Fundamentally, procrastination is built upon the delusion that we will always have time available to us. It relies upon our ignorance of how reality functions. If you want to learn how to stop procrastinating, you’ll have to see through the concept of time itself.
What is Time?
This is an awfully heavy question for an article about how to stop procrastinating, but hear me out. Time is the “fuel” that allows our procrastination to keep running. When we procrastinate, we’re not denying that something needs to be done, we’re just waiting for a less boring, more inspired moment to do that thing. And the abundance of time is what allows us to feel safe and satisfied with that choice.
But at its core, what is time? Most physicists can tell you that time is a strange thing. We perceive time at a certain rate because of the nature of our brains and sensory organs. We “receive” objects at the speed of light, for example, which is why we’re able to see the past states of planets, stars, and so forth when we gaze up into the night sky. We’re not seeing those objects as they are now, but as they were. And the reason for this is the speed of information for an observer. “Time” would have to advance extremely rapidly for you to see how those celestial objects look in that very moment, from the same distance.
This is also the reason we can travel “into the future,” but not into the past. Simply put, there is no past. There is no future, either, but we can “travel there” by accelerating to absurdly high speeds, or by simply living. Every moment, we are theoretically “entering the future.” Once again, this is because the observer (you) will be moving to a different location in spacetime.
So time is not a resource, but an explanation of an absurdly complex phenomenon of perception. We cannot bottle up time or pay for things using it. It does not exist independently of us, the observers, because it relies on our perception to function in the way we know it.
As you can tell by now, I’m a huge nerd for this stuff. If you’re interested in learning more about the vast strangeness of time, here’s a great Wired interview with Sean Carroll.
For now, however, let’s boil it down to a simple truth: perception is the irreducible factor in our perception of time. We cannot exist independently of time, it is woven into us. Because of that, there is no past and no future—they are both contained within us in the present. When we think of some future deed, it is done in the present. When we reflect on the past, we do it through memories in the present.
The truth is, we are always here, always now.
Stopping Procrastination in the Present
When we see through the veil of time as a “river” that pulls us from the past to the future, allowing us ample time to perform our tasks, we are filled with renewed vigor to get things done. This is because we have a paradigm shift, one that allows us to stop procrastinating naturally.
There is no future task waiting to be done, there is only the universe waiting for us to do what we must or should do, now.
There is always something you could be doing, in this very moment of “now,” that serves the ideal life you wish to create. When we sit around eating chips instead of writing our thesis, it is now. When we get up and go to the desk to work, it is now. When we finish our thesis, it is now.
No matter what we do, it is always the present moment. There will never be any future state in which you perform an action—everything fundamentally is done now. Even if you’re planning what to do in the future, it will be done (you guessed it) now.
This is not to say, of course, that all actions occur in the literal same moment. We can conceptualize the past and future for the sake of planning in conventional reality. We wouldn’t go to the store and buy diapers for a child who hasn’t been born yet, for example. But everything in our lives, from our birth to our death, occurs in the cradle of the present moment. And everything between those two posts, including moving jobs, having children, and becoming a billionaire, is contingent upon our ability to recognize what must be done in the present moment, and then doing that thing.
Each and every moment is a gateway into the next iteration of “now.” If we choose to procrastinate on studying, we waste the precious gift of nowness that could’ve been spent on sharpening our knowledge and getting a better test grade. And that test grade, depending on where and when it’s received, could mean the difference between a dream career and settling for less. This is just one concrete example, but it proves the point: the choices we make now will ripple forward and affect our course in life, no matter what we choose.
So the answer to the question of how to stop procrastinating is both simple and demanding. If we want to stop procrastinating, we must be constantly aware of the shape and form of the present moment. We must keep our senses open, each and every instant, to clearly perceive what must be done.
There is nobody else controlling the “arrow of time” except for ourselves. We are both the archer and the arrow. In this moment, right now, ask yourself what you could be doing to guide your arrow toward the life you envision. Did something come to mind? Good. Now all you have to do is repeat this every moment, over and over, until the pattern fuels itself.
By consistently returning to the immediacy of the present moment and redirecting our energy toward valuable tasks, we retrain the way our minds conceive of action. We no longer choose to procrastinate out of a desire for sensory pleasure, because we see the frail, impermanent nature of it. We choose to do what must be done because of our innate wisdom.
I’ll leave it to one of my favorite teachers, Seung Sahn, to put it plainly:
“Only go straight.“