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Breaking the Procrastination Cycle

Breaking the Procrastination Cycle

This Rosh Hashanah, choose life and move beyond the four zones of procrastination.


Aaron needed more income. His accounting job paid enough when there were a few small children in the family. But now, with six children and all the expenses that came with them, he had to explore some new options. But the time never seemed right. He had to upgrade his skills, rewrite his resume, do some networking – but when? And even if he could find a few minutes in his jam-packed day, he was too frazzled to take on the task. He didn’t even know if he had what it took to succeed. So every month when he sat down with his wife to pay the bills, the conversation ended with him saying, “This is it. I’ve got to get started on finding a better job!” Even he was beginning to doubt that he really meant it.

Aaron is engaged in the classic battle of the procrastinator. He knows what he needs to do, he wants to do it and yet, he can’t seem to get started. This seemingly paradoxical state of affairs is really part of a cycle that fulfills certain needs and presents certain choices. By recognizing the “zones” that comprise this cycle, we can choose to break out of it.

The Four Zones

1. The “No” Zone: In the “no” zone, a person thinks and speaks about his goal in terms of why it cannot be done. Typical observations are that he has no time, no energy, no money, no confidence, no will power, no support or he simply does not know how to do what needs to be done. With this type of thinking, the person convinces himself that his situation is unchangeable, his efforts toward his goal would be futile, and therefore, he is smarter to just live with the status quo. The simple name for these thoughts is “excuses.”

What purpose do excuses serve? They relieve us of the stress of taking on a challenge. When a person hears himself making excuses, he can believe them and continue to stagnate, or recognize them for what they are, catch himself in his no-oriented thinking and reject the thoughts. He can say to himself, “I’m tired of hearing myself think this way,” and take a step forward.

2. The “Should” Zone: It is the rare person who skips straight from rejecting the “no” thoughts to achieving his goal. Usually, dismissing the “no” perspective brings a person to the “should” zone. It’s a step up, in which a person at least recognizes an obligation to make changes. Someone in the “should zone” might say: “I really should exercise,” “I should make that phone call,” “I should look for a better job,” “I should spend more time with my kids.

What purpose does the “should” zone serve? It makes a person feel that he is on the right track and puts pressure on him to do what he has admitted to himself that he “should” do. He can react to that pressure in a negative way, becoming even more resistant to the change. On the other hand, he can react positively, using the pressure to spur him to action.

3. The Guilt Zone: Once a person admits that he “should” but persists in procrastinating, he begins to feel the guilt of not doing what he should do. The more he procrastinates, the stronger this guilt becomes.

4. The Anger/Frustration Zone: Sometimes, when a person is unable to bear the guilt of his own failure to act, he turns it outward toward others and enters the “anger/frustration” stage. When that happens it is important to reflect and deal with the underlying cause of the anger. Realizing that tremendous energy goes into lashing out at others, we need to ask ourselves, “Am I ready to change my negative energy into positive energy – to use it to construct rather than destroy? How would I go about doing that?”

Guilt is an uncomfortable feeling that can only be relieved in one of two ways. One way is for the person to give up his goal, accept his situation as unchangeable and decide that he no longer needs to feel guilty about it. The other way is to make significant moves toward fixing what’s wrong. Obviously, only one of these choices leads to growth and progress in life.

Now that we understand the zones of the procrastination cycle, let’s see how they manifest in real life:

Roberta has put on 30 pounds over the years. She knows her health and energy are suffering, but she looks around at other women her age and sees that she’s not alone. Everyone knows it’s too hard to diet. Roberta is in the “no” zone, telling herself, “I have no will-power,” “I can’t give up my sweets,” and so forth. As her weight continues to creep upward, she enters the “should” zone. “I should get myself on a diet,” she tells herself. “I should at least exercise.” When her “shoulds” fail to rouse her to action, she begins to feel guilty. “Where’s my self-control?” she asks herself. “I’ve completely let myself go!” That disquieting thought drains her energy and self-esteem. She seeks comfort in ice cream and chocolate bars, and so the cycle continues.

Finally, Roberta reaches for her largest size skirt one morning and finds it difficult to zip. Did it shrink in the wash? She knows that’s not the case. “I’m fatter than I’ve ever been in my whole life!” an inner voice screams out disgustedly. “I can’t stand living like this anymore!”

And now comes the choice. Roberta can channel that anger into a powerful spur to get her health and weight under control, or she can let it defeat her.

The Power of Choice

In each of the zones we have a choice. We can choose to continue the procrastination cycle or to break free. Usually, the choice is between experiencing short term pleasure that leads to long term pain, or short term pain that results in long term pleasure. Roberta can have the immediate comfort of her chocolate bars, but her health will suffer. Or she can deprive herself for now in order to have the long-term benefit of a successful diet. The procrastinator tends to say, “I’ll start my diet tomorrow.”

Rosh Hashanah: A Gift for the Procrastinator

God knows how difficult it is to stop procrastinating and do teshuva, to change. In his infinite wisdom he created Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year – a holiday that commemorates crowning God as our King of the universe. We blow the shofar to wake up and attain clarity about what is truly important in life. It is a time for assessing the year gone by, making changes and starting fresh. So what should our new year’s resolution be?

Here’s an idea: Think of one area of procrastination in your life – something that you know you could do if you’d only get started. Ask yourself, “Why do I want it? What will I gain if I do it?” And then resolve to break all resistance and just do it – one baby step at a time. When you develop a strong enough reason “why” to do something then you will find a way to make it happen. Don’t wait until you’re in the anger/frustration zone consumed with guilt and regret to finally recognize enough leverage to create change. Ethics of the Fathers teaches us: “If not now, when?” As a life coach I would like to empower you with a similar idea: “Why push off till tomorrow something that can make you feel good about yourself today – and tomorrow, too?”

August 24, 2013

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Visitor Comments: 9

(8) Lorna, August 27, 2013 8:24 PM

fantastic article!

Thanks for sharing your insight on procrastination, really helpful!!

(7) Anonymous, August 27, 2013 7:35 PM


Thank you for this, I grinned reading some parts of the article, it reminded me of myself ! The stages explained in the article helps to know how to recognize it when it is creeping up on you, and how to nip it in the bud before paralysis takes over. Procrastination is a kind of insidious pessimism , I realize now.

(6) Anonymous, August 27, 2013 4:17 PM

explain the aspects of jewish holidays and religious event so non jews know what the event signifies and the reason behind it.

I never found out my grandparents were of jewish descent until my aunt told me when I was in my mid 60s. jewish jokes were common with my grandparents and uncles and aunts, but, that was the extent of it. judiasm was concealed by claiming to be pennslyvania dutch. I can surmise that was to conceal being jewish in early America. ancestors were german jews that immigrated to America in late 1600s. surname altman, aultman. thank you

(5) bob, August 27, 2013 4:09 PM

Easy steps still encounter hard steps, moving on requires determination

A good, timely piece. However, while baby steps are a good way to start for many people. Others may want to just jump right into solving the problem with a big first step. Also, even taking baby steps one encounters harder steps which can't necessarily be broken down. This is when we need determination, motivation and a clear focus on the goal which can keep us moving.

(4) Anonymous, August 27, 2013 2:37 PM

As a young child I had a very sophisticated vocabuly:procrastination, stop procrastinating! With that kind of encouragement, it's a miracle I finished high school, came to Israel and have outstanding children and grandchildren.
Still, I'd love to finish my degree and get my drivers licence.
Considering my history, I make an effort to be encouraging and empowering to the people around me...BH my children are great acheivers and I'm proud when people compliment less credit goes to loving hubby. Each day is a challenge, not to blame others for my failings; to take responsibility for my life and actions. Even just to complete some small thing I've begun! Lets daven this year will be one of fulfilling challenges! Thank you so much for heighting my awareness!!

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