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You may have seen it, or you may be saving it to read later. The New York Times recently published an article about procrastination and I keep thinking about it and I keep hearing other people talking about it.

Charlotte Lieberman, in her article “Why You Procrastinate (It Has Nothing to Do with Self-Control),” argues that procrastination is not a failure of time management skills. Instead, procrastination is an expression of emotional management: we delay the tasks that make us feel incompetent, worthless, or foolish. Lieberman’s article goes on to say that our human psyche is built to avoid pain and unpleasantness, whenever possible. So if a task is before us, like, say, writing a blog post, and we know that we are not the best writer, that we struggle to create prose that is both understandable and succinct instead of clunky and pedantic, and we know that the comments will reflect our poor ideas, poor writing, or possibly the meanness of others, we will put off writing that blog post. This is also why most of us procrastinate when we are tired, overworked or under high stress. The emotional energy required to complete a difficult task in the best circumstances seems impossible under difficult circumstances.

This view of procrastination makes a lot of sense to me, but is a very different way of looking at the issue. Particularly as an educator, most of us view procrastination at best, as a flaw, and at worst, as a deliberate display of laziness designed to irritate us. The deep irony is that educators procrastinate too.

For me, I procrastinate the most when it comes to grading my students’ work.  According the Lieberman’s article, I do this deliberately to avoid emotional (and intellectual) pain. This is absolutely true. I know that I will have one or two great essays in the electronic stack. But I also know that I will be confronted with the majority of essays that do not fit the expectations I have communicated. The truth is that grading forces me to confront my inadequacies as a teacher. This is difficult, disappointing, and draining. Did I communicate this material adequately? Or clearly? Did the students not understand or not ask for clarification? Sometimes I question how well I communicated the material. Sometimes I question how I communicated the methods and techniques necessary for the assignment. Or maybe the student could write a brilliant essay, but chose not to because he/she just didn’t care. That means I did not even manage to convey my enthusiasm and passion for the material and its relevance.  That is the most discouraging of all.

As I read the Lieberman’s article, I couldn’t help but wonder about other ways that we procrastinate in our spiritual lives. It is, definitively, difficult to apologize and ask for forgiveness. It is emotionally and even intellectually demoralizing to fully recognize we were wrong or made a mistake and then to go admit our mistake, and humbly ask for forgiveness.

As a student of history, I sometimes wonder if all of human history is a series of creative ways to rationalize poor behavior. Or, in Lieberman’s vernacular, manage our emotions. For most of us, it is far easier to make an excuse for our sinful behaviors than to fully address our sin, ask God for forgiveness, and humbly ask for our brother or sister for forgiveness and work on repentance and a change of behavior.

As if I needed a scientific reason to explain why I avoid repentance.

Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.

3 Comments

  • Chris says:

    Brilliant, challenging, and helpful

  • Tom says:

    Ha. “O LORD, have mercy, but put it off for awhile, because mercy disturbs me.”

  • RLG says:

    I bet Superman doesn’t procrastinate. Because of his super strengths, intellect, and insightfulness, he always seems to be Johnny on the spot. Maybe in the next life we’ll all be super heroes. Until then, we all have tomorrow. Thanks, Rebecca.

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