"Give up on yourself. Begin taking action now, while being neurotic or imperfect, or a procrastinator or unhealthy or lazy or any other label by which you inaccurately describe yourself. Go ahead and be the best imperfect person you can be and get started on those things you want to accomplish before you die." – Shoma Morita, M.D.
When I was 22 years old I moved into a freshly painted one bedroom apartment in Alexandria, Virginia. It was my first "solo" experience — no roommates, no dog, no parents, no siblings. I could leave my dirty socks on the dining room table and stay up late playing my guitar. I reveled in the freedom of my solitude. About three weeks later, I was making myself dinner when I realized that I was completely out of dishes — all the plates and bowls were piled in the sink and had been waiting patiently, for quite some time, to be washed. So I did what any self-respecting young bachelor would do and raced over to the convenience store to buy paper plates.
Why those dishes hadn't been washed is a bit mysterious given the well-functioning dishwasher that occupied a small space under the counter not far from the sink. I never did figure out how to get the dishwasher to reach over, grab the dishes, turn itself on and stack the plates neatly in the overhead cabinet. My role in the process, while essential, was limited. It didn't require great strength or intelligence. The task was not particularly complex. The time required was minimal. So what kept me from taking action — from doing what needed to be done?
Ten years later I discovered the work of a Japanese psychiatrist that provided more than just insight into my struggles with procrastination. His work offered me a set of practical strategies for moving forward and taking action even when I didn't feel like it.
Shoma Morita, M.D. (1874-1938) developed a model of psychology now known as Morita Therapy, which addresses the root causes of procrastination. Rooted in Zen and borrowing from an Eastern world view it is a stark contrast to the European-based mental health models we have become familiar with — approaches developed by Freud, Jung or Carl Rogers.
Patient: "I can't seem to get myself to wash my dirty dishes."
Therapist: "So what I hear you saying is that you have a lot of dirty dishes sitting in the sink."
Patient: "Uhh… that's right."
Therapist (looking pensive): "I see. How does that make you feel?"
One of the main tenets of Morita Therapy is that our internal experience (feelings and thoughts) is basically uncontrollable by our will. If we feel anxious about going for a job interview we can't necessarily make ourselves feel relaxed and confident. If we experience doing our income taxes as frustrating and tedious, we can't just snap our fingers and suddenly find the task satisfying and exciting. Most of the reasons for procrastination have to do with "internal barriers", like fear, anxiety, indecision, perfectionism, etc. I call these barriers the Demons of Inaction. Traditional therapies generally suggest that you must conquer such demons through various strategies such as insight, self-talk, motivation, or increased self-esteem. But Morita Therapy offers a set of tools that is less about conquering and more about co-existing with. Rather than vanquishing your anxiety about the job interview, you simply take your anxiety along for the ride. Western therapy suggests that we must exorcise these demons before we can take action. Morita therapy recommends that we accept their presence, as unpleasant as that may be, and move forward anyway. If you can learn to do this, the demons lose much of their power and many of the causes of our inaction naturally dissolve into constructive effort.
Are you ready to take action?
If you're ready to end your habit of procrastination, here are the next four steps:
1. Is there an important project or task about which you have been procrastinating?
2. What's the next step (just identify the next step, even if it's just a small task like making a phone call)?
3. When are you going to do it? (Identify a specific day and time — this is an appointment). Just make a 15 minute appointment — No More — just 15 minutes.
AND NOW THE EXCITING PART!
4. Accompanied by trepidation, fear, doubts, indecision, shyness, anxiety or any other demon who happens to show up — DO IT.
Taking action isn't always pleasant. But actually the action is often much less painful than the anticipation of the action. And look at the payoff — over the course of a lifetime — a lot more accomplished and a lot less suffering. As Joan Baez said, "Action is the antidote to despair."
Gregg Krech is a leading authority on Japanese Psychology and Director of the ToDo Institute in Middlebury, Vermont. He is the author of several books including the award-winning Naikan: Gratitude, Grace and the Japanese Art of Self-Reflection (Stone Bridge Press, 2002) and A Natural Approach to Mental Wellness (ToDo Institute, 2000).