How you can overcome procrastination

John 2:13-25 (3rd Sunday of Lent, year B)

It prevents us from doing our income tax. It keeps us busy with small distractions, stopping us from getting to work on a challenging project. It makes us put off a difficult conversation. It is a barrier blocking us from breaking sinful habits. Procrastination: the tendency to delay unpleasant but important tasks. When we procrastinate, we fool ourselves into thinking the hard work will get done on its own. Procrastination doesn’t make sense because nothing gets done one its own. It holds us back from becoming a better person. Why, then, do we do it? Why do we put tasks that we know are important on the backburner?

We procrastinate because doing difficult things requires us to expend a large amount of energy for an extended period of time. Since this is exhausting and even painful, we avoid expending our willpower for as long as we can. The psychologist Roy Baumeister proved how exhausting the use of willpower is in an interesting experiment. He formed two groups of students. He placed the first group in front of an oven in which delicious smelling cookies were baking. On top of the stove he put a bowl filled with radishes. He told the students that they could eat as many radishes as they wanted. The cookies, however, were strictly off limits. Then the students were left alone for thirty minutes. The students in the second group, on the other hand, were allowed to eat as many cookies as they wanted for thirty minutes. After the time period was up, the students from both groups had to try solving a difficult math problem. The students who were forbidden from eating the cookies gave up on the problem twice as fast as the students who pigged out on the cookies. Exercising self control had drained their energy! Doing difficult, necessary things is unpleasant because it takes so much energy. For this reason we put them off.

Though we cannot eliminate our tendency to procrastinate, it is something that we must work against so that it doesn't have an adverse effect on our life. Jesus’ behaviour in the memorable story of the cleansing of the Temple teaches us important lessons in how to overcome procrastination.

First, we need to clearly identify the problem and decide to do something about it. Jesus recognizes that the way people are using the Temple is unacceptable. The Temple was meant to be the place where people could encounter the Living God and worship Him. It was the most holy place in all of Israel. By Jesus’ time, however, the Temple’s purpose had become corrupted. It became a place to make money. Many others recognized the problem. Cleansing the Temple in order to restore it’s proper dignity and purpose was an incredibly intimidating and unpleasant task. It would upset many powerful people. While everyone else procrastinated and put off doing the right thing, Jesus alone both identified the problem and took the necessary action.

St. Paul tells us that each one of us is a temple (1 Cor 6:19). We are meant to serve, worship and glorify God. Like the Temple in Jerusalem, however, we have departed from this purpose by allowing sin, anger, unforgiveness and bad habits to invade our temple. We are in need of cleansing. Take a moment and try to think of one particular problem area in your life that you have the power to change. A bad habit. A relationship you need to pay more attention to. A lack of prayer. The first step in overcoming procrastination is clearly identifying the challenge you would like to overcome.

Overcoming this problem - cleansing our temple - requires us to take strong, deliberate action. During my summers in High School, I worked at a fishing resort located in the interior of British Columbia, far away from the Internet and electricity. I did many different jobs. What I did the most was wash dishes. The baking pans were the hardest to get clean. I dreaded doing them. I would try to make the job easier by letting the pans soak in water or by trying to use some fancy cleaning agent. In the end there was no easy way to do the work. If I wanted to clean the pans I had to roll up my sleeves, get out the steel wool and start scrubbing. Overcoming sin, bad habits and other problem areas in our life is very similar to this. We put off doing the hard work. We procrastinate. We fool ourselves into thinking things will get better on their own. We think that if we say the right prayers God will make us better in our sleep. God will help us improve, but not without our cooperation. In order to fight our tendency to procrastinate, we need to take bold, deliberate, strong action. Jesus does just this when He cleanses the Temple. His behaviour can seem shocking. He is angry, aggressive, unweilding, and determined. If we want to cleanse our own temple, we must follow His example. The saints did this, sometimes to dramatic effect. St. Benedict, for example, famously threw himself into a thorn bush to fight a lustful temptation! Overcoming evil in the way we act and think requires strong willpower, perseverance and at times some anger and aggression.

In order to successfully resist procrastinating and complete a difficult task, a deadline can be extremely helpful. Why do we eventually file our taxes, finish our homework, or complete a project at work? Often it is because of a deadline. During His ministry, Jesus was working against a deadline. He knew the authorities would turn on Him. Jesus zealously worked to accomplish His Father’s mission in a short period. Lent is the perfect time to do some unpleasant but necessary task because it gives us a definite deadline. Bring to mind again that problem area in your life. What is one concrete way you can cleanse your temple? What is the challenge you want to overcome with God’s help? Whatever your personal project is, set the end of lent as your deadline. Follow the example of Jesus and take some bold, deliberate steps to change. If we do this, when Easter comes we can truly rejoice.