I’m plagued by procrastination, the ailment in today’s spotlight. For me it always comes down to FEAR, the worst type being fear of success, crazily enough. Not failure. Success! As I fought fear to attend a half day meditation seminar, “Working with Fear,” and heard several Oh, yeses, So trues and loud sighs of relief when I offered up this example, I know many struggle with it. If you’re another “There’s always tomorrow” procrastinator, read on for an excellent cure. Not later. Now.
AILMENT: PROCRASTINATION CURE: The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
“Why do today what can be left undone until tomorrow? Because every day that you leave a task undone it grows bigger and the motivation for doing it gets smaller.
Procrastination, or the art of avoidance, has nothing whatsoever to do with laziness, or even busyness. Its causes are emotional. Quite simply (and, one could argue, quite sensibly), the procrastinator avoids those tasks which, consciously or subconsciously, he or she associates with uncomfortable emotions, such as boredom (see: Boredom), anxiety (see: Anxiety), or fear of failure. The problem with allowing an uncomfortable emotion to stand in your way is that, once avoided, tasks that were probably quite achievable to begin with grow larger both in our imaginations–and, often, in actuality–until they loom over us in such an oppressive way that they become worth procrastinating about. And while we’re busy procrastinating and avoiding those uncomfortable emotions, untold opportunities for happiness and success–whole lives, in fact–pass by. It is this sense of a life half lived, and the intense regret that follows, that we should be trying to avoid–not just a few unpleasant emotions that will in any case quickly pass. What procrastinators need, therefore, is a lesson on the catastrophic consequences of running away whenever an unpleasant emotion threatens to ruffle our ponds. And who better to provide us with this than the very English, buttoned-up butler of Darlington Hall in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day.
Mr. Stevens is an arch avoider of emotions–all emotions. As such, he has the perfect job. Because he believes that what separates a great butler from a merely competent butler is the ability to repress one’s real self and inhabit a purely professional front at all times–holding up as an example the butler who ‘failed to panic’ on discovering a tiger under the dining table (see: Stiff upper lip, having a). His repression thus justified and protected, he spends his life focusing only on being the best butler he can be, even when it is clear that his boss, Lord Darlington, is a Nazi sympathizer, and even when his own father is dying. So it is that when his father wants to say his final good-bye, all Mr. Stevens can think of is hurrying back upstairs to serve the port. And when Miss Kenton, the housekeeper, tries to show her interest in him, he rebuffs her with coolness and distance from behind the fortress of his butler self.
It takes him twenty years to realize what he has missed. By failing to act on those ‘turning points’ in his relationship to Miss Kenton as they presented themselves–those precious moments in which, had he been brave enough to make himself vulnerable, he might have let down a drawbridge into his fortress and allowed himself to feel his feelings–he has lost the chance of a happy married life, for both of them. Instead he has lived as if he had before him ‘a never-ending number of days, months, years in which to sort out the vagaries of [his] relationship with Miss Kenton.’ Now, of course, it’s too late. He is left with the poor scraps of what remains of his day. Even someone with a lip as stiff as Mr. Stevens has a heart that can break when he realizes this.
Procrastinator: you do not have a never-ending number of days in which to accomplish the tasks you are so intent on avoiding. By procrastinating, you are allowing your negative emotions to become obstacles to an otherwise productive and forward-flowing life. Whether it’s anxiety or fear that accompanies the contemplation of the task at hand, put out that hand and greet your emotions one by one. Invite them to come in and sit down, and make themselves comfortable. Then begin your task in their company. Once you begin, you’ll find they don’t hang around very long; in fact, they’ll probably get up and leave immediately. And when you’re close to finishing, you’ll look up and discover far more pleasant emotional companions sitting in their place, waiting to celebrate with you when you’re done.”
See Also: Indecision; Seize the day, failure to; Starting, fear of (297-298)