There are some things in life we just don’t want to do. Some jobs we wish would simply disappear. Whether it’s answering that awkward email, attempting the annual tax-return or tackling something even more substantial, most of us know what it’s like to distract ourselves with the trivial so we can avoid the important. It’s a standing joke in my home that the loft gets tidied if there’s a major writing deadline ahead…
For some, however, this tendency is more than an occasional quirk – it’s a way of life, a dominating trend that leaves people stuck and frustrates those around them. Maybe you know someone who lives in that place? Maybe you’re meeting 1 to 1 with someone like that this week? Hopefully you long to share words of hope with them. But how can we encourage such people to progress rather than procrastinate, day-by-day?
Maybe the place to start is to remind ourselves what procrastination isn’t. This is not laziness at play. Someone facing this struggle isn’t doing nothing, they’re doing anything they can to avoid a task that seems too big, too hard, too terrifying to tackle. All too often they will have been berated for just “not getting on with things” – which has most likely compounded their fear rather than promoted change. Nor is it lack of organisation. People are well aware of what needs to be done. There’s a drive inside them that’s holding them back from a chore that’s weighing heavily on their mind. Forgetfulness hasn’t pushed the task away.
After reminding ourselves of procrastination’s big picture, it’s important to step into the personal and listen to the specific experience of our friend or counsellee. Ask them what’s going on in their hearts as they dodge the to-do list and put their attention elsewhere. For many it is fear of failure that grips their mind. “If I start, I’ll mess up and I don’t want to face the reality of failure again”. An inner sense of inadequacy or impending doom can nudge even the most competent individual towards a lifestyle of avoiding the call to act. Often the fears are rooted in experience. Maybe there was a formative moment in the past where they were ridiculed or harangued for some mistake (real or perceived). There’s a reason they don’t want to go there again – it hurt, deeply, and that is something for which people need comfort and love (God has that in ample supply). For others, it’s fear of success – “if I do this well, I may get more responsibility, I may be seen in a different light and I won’t be able to keep up”. Fear of man comes in many shapes and sizes. For a few there is the idol of convenience at play: “why should I do something I don’t want to do? I should be able to live a life of ease”.
As well as comfort, some words of challenge may lie ahead. Procrastination is an indicator that someone may not quite be grasping the glorious truths that Christ has bought for his precious children. It shouts “you’re not able”, in stark contrast to Paul’s contention that God prepares good works in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2) and Jesus’ own words of confidence that the Holy Spirit is active in our lives enabling us to follow his call (John 14). It belies the wonder of grace which covers all sins – past, present and future – and ignores the assertion that there is no condemnation for those in Christ (Romans 8). It forgets the Philippians 2 call to sacrifice our comfort for the sake of living Christ-like lives. It sidelines the imagery of our good Shepherd (Psalm 23) and instead assumes we are navigating this fallen world alone.
But what is being pushed aside can effectively be brought back to centre ground. As well as applying the passages listed above, we can winsomely remind those who struggle of the God who will bring good out of our messes (Joseph), lead us wisely into the unknown (Moses, Ruth) and continue to use us to his glory even when we are fallible (David, Noah, Abraham and more!). After all, weakness is not a barrier to the effective Christian life – it is the context in which God’s power is made perfect (2 Corinthians 12).
By humbly and gently reminding people that, as they face that unappealing task, they are not alone, not unequipped, not at risk of being tossed aside but are rather safe, led, loved and able, the path ahead begins to clear. But we don’t have to stop there…
As we share our own stories of struggles, we can remind them that we are in this broken world together. We are all battling in different ways. And, with appropriate accountability (text me when you start, I’ll keep praying until you finish), and breaking tasks down into bite-sized chunks, we can encourage people to take steps towards not just starting but achieving that which they have promised to do. We can help people set deadlines and choose to honour God by keeping their commitments. And, as the Spirit works, we will have the privilege of seeing real beauty flowering in those people’s lives.