This month, I was late in turning in my Menorah article. After the volume of writing and thinking I was engaged in to prepare for the High Holidays, I just kept putting it off. I’ve even procrastinated on adding procrastination to the list of qualities I must address in myself this new year.
In their studies of procrastination, psychologists Dr. Jane Burka and Dr. Lenora Yuen found that one of the major reasons people procrastinate is fear of failure. When we feel that so much is riding on what we accomplish that we can’t finish or even start a project, we literally become paralyzed. This is even worse for perfectionists because they set sometimes impossibly high standards for themselves. We all know someone who wanted to write a book, but didn’t get past the first few pages because they thought their writing stunk. We all know someone who went to a yoga or exercise class, but never went back when they discovered they weren’t an instant yogi. I know many people who yearn to learn Hebrew or know more about being Jewish but don’t come back to Temple because they feel they will never understand as much as those who have been coming longer.
A second reason people procrastinate ironically comes from fear of success. People fear being criticized for being ambitious or are afraid to compete for a promotion because if they win, someone else loses or people won’t like them. A friend of mine lamented to me recently that she’s been staying in an abusive work environment, because she doesn’t want to abandon her co-workers who are depending on her.
Some use procrastination like a weapon. They procrastinate on tasks that others expect or require of them to prove to themselves that others can’t control them. In other words, if one’s self-worth comes from one’s sense of autonomy or independence, then he procrastinates in order to resist letting someone else have control.
No matter why we procrastinate, we all suffer similar consequences. We miss deadlines, antagonize coworkers, partners or family members who were counting on us. We carry anxiety and dread knowing we are falling behind in our responsibilities and commitments. We feel lousy about ourselves because of the things we leave to the last minute or leave undone forever. But the worst crime we commit by procrastinating, a colleague of mine preached this Rosh Hashanah, is that we waste time. And one of the greatest gifts Judaism gave to the world was the concept that time itself is sacred. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, “Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time… There are no two hours alike. Every hour is unique … exclusive and endlessly precious.” May we sanctify the hours we have in the coming year by letting go of our fear of who we may not be, by fulfilling our responsibilities and becoming who we really can be. And in so doing, may we discover new, sacred, life-affirming ways to fill the hours we gain.