The Danger of Procrastination

“Know the true value of time; snatch, seize, and enjoy every moment of it. No idleness; no laziness; no procrastination; never put off till tomorrow what you can do today.”

Lord Chesterfield

A “cliffhanger” is a common literary device that entails the practice of leaving a hero or heroine in a seemingly impossible situation. Akin to hanging off the edge of a dangerous ledge, cliffhangers make a narrative so thought provoking that the audience is unable to consider anything else.

Apart from its usual illusory employ, this prosaic tactic has recently been used to describe America’s $6 trillion looming fiscal debt. Like a skillful author intent on capturing the audience’s full attention, the national media has balefully outlined several cliff-hanging scenarios in an attempt to electrify the inevitable skirmish between Congressional debt-cutting champions!

The “fiscal cliff” is shorthand for the conundrum that the U.S. government will face at the end of 2012 when the terms of the Budget Control Act of 2011 are scheduled to go into effect. Among the regulations set to change at midnight on December 31, are pre-arranged spending cuts that are part of the previous year’s debt ceiling deal. According to legitimate financial sources, over 1,000 government programs, including the defense budget and Medicare, are in line for automatic cuts.

Lawmakers have several options for heroically averting the harmful results of the impending fiscal cliffhanger. They could choose to impose tax increases and spending cuts that would cut the deficit in half.  Many argue, however, that such interventions may, in fact, decrease growth and possibly drive the economy back into a recession. While congress could opt to address the budget issues in a more modest fashion, legislatures could alternatively choose to do nothing.  By intentionally choosing to procrastinate, however, the United States increases the odds that it could possibly go over the cliff and face a crisis similar to Europe.

How did America’s once robust economy find itself hanging from the current fiscal ledge? What could politician have done to avert such a dangerous cliffhanging circumstance? Although congressional leaders have had three years to address the issue, they have, unfortunately, opted to do nothing – to procrastinate. Blaming their inaction on political gridlock, lawmakers have chosen to put off the search for a solution to this politically charged situation for another day.

As a result, entrepreneurial ventures and current investments now hang from America’s fiscal cliff eager for a thoughtful yet decisive eleventh-hour resolve! While some are guardedly optimistic, others rightly fear that when the December deadline finally arrives the most likely outcome will be yet another set of benign stopgap measures!

Procrastination is a most dangerous strategy. The cost of real-life indecision, of delaying important obligations in favor of advancing decisions that are safer, more enjoyable, or comfortable, have enormous consequences on a leader’s success and credibility. While most individuals have likely fallen victim to the lure of occasional procrastination, the chronically affected have undoubtedly experienced how lackadaisical strategies can disrupt careers, derail effectiveness, and nullify organizational potential.

According to the prominent author and psychologist Clarry Lay, procrastination is the “temporal gap between intended and enacted behavior.” Designer of the General Procrastination Scale (GPS), Lay believes that extreme procrastinators are often “neurotically disorganized in their thinking.” As a result, they think and act in terms of “wishes and dreams.” On the other hand, individuals who avoid procrastination base their propensity for activity on “oughts and obligations.”

Research suggests three common types of procrastination that negatively influence the effectiveness of leadership: (a) behavioral, (b) decisional, and (c) emotional. While behavioral procrastination is a strategy of self-sabotage that allows leaders to shift the blame for failure and inaction on other people and circumstances, decisional procrastinators delay judgment because of the difficulties associated with dealing with multiple or conflicting choices.

Unlike the former, emotional procrastinators suffer from the dysfunction of low self-esteem and doubt.  Convinced that their self-worth is measured in terms of their education, talent, and capacity, such leaders worry how other people judge their professional abilities. By avoiding the conclusion of any and all difficult tasks, however, this type of prolonged procrastination deflates a healthy self-image by engaging a downward cycle of arrogant self-defeating behavior. Terrified of making mistakes, such neurotic perfectionists are left paralyzed by numerous options and alternatives. As a result, they tragically persist headlong towards the precarious edge of self-created cliffs!

Apart from personal dysfunction, political gridlock, and the nation’s current fiscal dilemma, a fourth type of procrastination may be discerned. Spiritual procrastination may be rightly identified as a root cause of many current cliffhanging societal problems. The serious impact of neglecting the comprehensive management of these societal issues demand that robust engagement replace tactics of deferment. Rather than delay involvement by kicking proverbial societal tin cans down the road, religious leaders must begin to courageously take intelligible faith-based stands on various moral, financial and pastoral issues. Only in this way can religious communities and institutions affirm their intrinsic spiritual value, and thereby, re-earn a healthy level of the public’s esteem, strained by an ever-growing laundry list of egregious peccadilloes.

By definition, a cliffhanger requires the heroic intervention of a selfless leader who, for the sake of a cause greater than themselves, is not afraid to challenge the status quo, or place him/herself at the forefront of peril and criticism. By neglecting, or at worst, refusing to define and defend difficult positions in the past, many religious entities have, in fact, resolved to capitulate to popular yet misguided viewpoints. As the decision to make no decision is in fact a decision – local constituents and communities have consequently wandered aimlessly void of theologically principled and statistically sturdy strategic visions.

When will the frequency of data presented by the likes of Gallup, Pew, Berkley, Barna, and ARIS be seriously considered when developing pastoral strategic plans? How many times have issues of ethnicity, diversity, politics, economy, and religious relevancy been brought to the forefront by faith-based research without adequate resolution? When will religious leaders require their respective parish and community leaders to more thoughtfully prepare and address the vital issues of the day?

Why do so many religious institutions choose to skirt rather than cheerfully invite open debate concerning the relationship of faith, science, and modernity?  In particular, why are so many religious leaders hesitant to heed the critique of our nation’s youth and avoid an overly sympathetic relationship with political and corporate-minded personalities? When will America’s religious entities stop procrastinating and more boldly provide contemporary society a more distinctive seasoning – a re-evangelization of spiritual salt and light?

The recent initiative of Pope Benedict XVI and the Synod of Catholic Bishops for a “New Evangelization” of and by the Catholic Church is a most promising response to the aforementioned malaise. The project coincides with the celebration of the “Year of Faith,” which began on the 11th of October, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council and the 20th anniversary of the publication of The Catechism of the Catholic Church.  Intent on responding to the urgent need for a “re-proposing” of the Christian message within current cultural “sectors,” both proposals invite local Catholic parishes to develop innovative methods and creative forms of expression for deepening faith in order to more effectively serve the needs of society. In a special way, the “New Evangelization” and the “Year of Faith” both focus on those who have experienced a crisis of faith, and, as such, call all Catholics to be evangelized, and, in return, go forth to evangelize others.

Holy Scripture is replete with examples of individuals who, unlike the recent Assembly of Catholic Bishops, failed to act when they should have. The consummate, however, are distinctly typified as spirit-led personages of immediacy who did not defer until tomorrow what they believed God was challenging them to do today (Acts 10: 33, 16: 33). The New Testament account of Jesus’ call of His original disciples wonderfully illustrates the importance of a potential leader’s need for swift response. One can only imagine the tragic historic consequence had the two sets of anglers procrastinated and delayed their departure from the safe routine of mending the nets of fortune, family, and friends!

Alternatively, an incident from the American Revolution vividly illustrates the tragedy of procrastination. It is reported that Colonel Rahl, commander of the British troops in New Jersey, was playing cards when a courier brought an urgent message stating that General George Washington was crossing the Delaware River. Instead of reviewing the important communiqué, Rahl put the letter in his pocket until the game was finished. Then, realizing the seriousness of the situation, he hurriedly tried to rally his men to meet the coming attack. His procrastination, however, was the colonel’s undoing as many of his men were killed and the rest of the regiment was captured. The lesson of the aforementioned illustrations is clear – when opportunities are missed due to procrastination, lives are ruined, and souls are lost.

Contemporary society yearns for attentive, spirit-led leaders who are willing to step forward and courageously respond to the current register of cliffhanging scenarios. While valid and noble excuses do exist that support methodical and thoughtful rejoinder to difficult issues and situations, history nonetheless does not characterize prodigious leaders as procrastinators. On the contrary, while genuine reasons due exist for postponing important fiscal, entrepreneurial and spiritual decisions, declarations, and engagements, simply re-evaluating circumstances in hopes of obtaining the deal of a more favorable and sympathetic hand of cards is both dangerous and dishonest. To do so would be akin to gambling with the valuable resource of time at the very brink of destiny’s cliff!

Dr. Frank Marangos is CEO and Founder of OINOS Educational Consulting. He received a Doctors Degree in Adult Education (Ed.D.) from NOVA Southeastern University (Ft. Lauderdale, FL) and a Doctorate in Ministry and Childhood Education (D.Min.) from Southern Methodist University (Dallas, TX). He is also a Certified Charitable Estate Planner (FCEP).

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