Overcoming Procrastination - Cate Nelson (Podcast Episode 9)

You know that time is running out to do that thing you’re supposed to do. You should have started it yesterday. You should start it now! But you just can’t bring yourself to do it. Guest Cate Nelson shares how relationship with God helped in her struggle with procrastination.

Scripture References

2 Timothy 1:7
For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.

Matthew 11:28-30
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

1 John 1:9
If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

Additional Resources Referenced

The Four Tendencies, by Gretchen Rubin

Still Procrastinating: the No Regrets Guide to Getting Things Done, by Joseph Ferrari

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Leah Archibald: Making It Work is brought to you by The Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary and the Theology of Work Project.

Mark Roberts: Welcome to Making it Work

LA: Through conversation, scripture and stories, we invite God into work’s biggest challenges... so that you can live out your purpose in the workplace.

MR: I’m Mark Roberts

LA: And I’m Leah Archibald. And this is Making It Work.

Procrastination. You know that time is running out to do that thing you’re supposed to do. You should have started it yesterday. You should start it now! But you just can’t bring yourself to do it. We invited guest Cate Nelson to talk about procrastination.

Cate works at the intersection of community, spiritual formation, and co-design. She creates spaces for people to connect in creative, unexpected ways with self, others, God, ideas, imagination, and communities. Cate’s background is in consulting, facilitating teams and organizations in the work of design and innovation. She’ll share how her relationship with God has impacted her struggles with procrastination.

Cate, thank you so much for joining us on the podcast today.

Cate Nelson: It is a treat to be with you all. Thank you for having me.

LA: Well, you're a treat for us. Cate can you tell us what procrastination at work has looked like for you?

CN: When I think of procrastination in work that has been very live and continues to be live in my life and I also wanna say from the start that it has existed well before work in a formal sense of being at work, has been in my life too, so when I think back to myself, as a child and a pre-teen when my work was school. Procrastination was so alive, even back then. And I wanna note that just to say that it's been this thing that has been with me and that I've been experiencing and trying to figure out for a long time.

LA: So what did that look like for you when you were a kid?

CN: Yeah, I have early memories and this must have been middle school, if not even earlier, but of just weeping in absolute tears the night before a big assignment was due, that I had not yet started, and again, I couldn't have been older than 11 or 12 at the time. But remembering my parents trying to comfort me and to talk me down and to figure out how they could just help me get started. But these projects that probably needed a few days, if not longer, preparation, and I had totally put off even as a young child, and then was in hysterics over and this continued into high school too. I have memories of pulling all-nighters as a 15-16 year-old. 'cause again something would be due, that I hadn't started, and after getting over that emotional explosion of fear and anger at myself, finally settling down to get work done on whether a paper or a project. So those are early moments of procrastination.

LA: And did that continue into the... When you go through college and into the working world.

CN: Yes, college I became a little bit better about trying not to do these all-nighters but still, so many moments of being disappointed and what I had turned in, because, Oh, if only I had started sooner, being grateful that only my professor was gonna read my work, 'cause it was not something that I was proud of 'cause I had raced to get it done, and then when I entered the working world with hope that a new environment outside of school might invite me to engage differently with my work that was still not the case either. Early in my work life had an experience where I was doing a combination of research and consulting work for a professor and in this project, I loved the consulting part of it but the research part, I had to capture a lot of notes. And I just hated having to do this note taking work. So I would always put it off, and it got to a point where my boss wouldn't let me do the part of the work that I like to do, whether it was being on calls with clients, or running meetings, until I got these notes done and this was utterly humiliating to me, because it was being called out on my procrastination and in some ways being punished, and it was one thing, when my procrastination was seen in the private space of my own shame and angst towards myself, maybe my parents or a college roommate seeing me upset but utterly embarrassing and utterly humiliating to have my boss tell me.
LA: Wow, So the procrastination behavior has it evolved over the course of your career, or how have you gotten help with it or it helps yourself with it?

CN: Following that working space, I ended up in a working environment with a very, very tight-knit team. And what was a real gift about this particular work experience was that our work wasn't connected just at the end when it came together, but it was connected all along the way, so we would very quickly iterate on different parts of the work and then show each other these messy early drafts and give each other feedback and figure out how our different pieces of the work fit in together.

And at first, this was terrifying because so much of my tendency towards procrastination was also connected to some perfectionist tendencies, so the idea of showing something to someone that was incomplete and messy was really scary and yet in time because of this way of working. I became better at about starting something and being okay with how it was messy, and incomplete at the beginning and then to take feedback and make it maybe messier and still incomplete, but then go back to my team again and do this over and over again.

MR: Cate, I just so appreciate your willingness to talk about this because I think a lot of folk who struggle with procrastination, feel ashamed and don't talk about it and when you don't talk about stuff you can't really look at it squarely and can't deal with it. So first of all, thanks for your openness. Second thing I wanna say is, I'm seriously, I think my heart rate is way up listening to you because I'm like you. And I remembering all these experiences, and it's just Uh. I so get that feeling. And the weird thing is, in my experience anyway, not everybody's gonna understand this. So my wife has a great deal of empathy, so if she would listen to this someday, I hope she will, she will feel empathy for us but she does not do this, she does not procrastinate and the fact that I do, it's just so interesting to me that there are internal things, and you mentioned one of them. Perfectionism I'm sure we'll talk more, but there are some of us, I know listening to this podcast who are just sweating now, because we get you we're with you and we're very eager to learn from you some things that you have learned about how not to let the inner tendency to procrastinate really become both a course of shame, but also kind of a demon in our life, that keeps us from flourishing.

CN: Yes. This is also something that I have come to realize with time to how this is something in which I am not alone, and I have found friends and companions along the way who relate and then also realizing there are some people in some people in my life who don't get this and never will, and that's become a very interesting point of trying to figure this out for myself and with others in my life, too. I would love to share about a particular point of relationship that has allowed me to move from isolation and shame and fear into being able to name my procrastination for what it is and also to move in different ways.

MR: Awesome.

LA: What's that relationship?

CN: I have a very dear friend named Rob, and Rob and I met in college and we are both huge procrastinators. So, in Rob I found this kind of kinship and through my early working years and into the space that I am now Rob has become this deep and necessary part of my life as I deal with my work, and then particularly, procrastination around how I engage with it.

I'll take a step back, to say that I discovered this book a couple years ago by a woman Gretchen Rubin, and the book is called The Four Tendencies and I won't get into, in too much detail, but she talks about these four tendencies of how people engage with work and external spaces and then internal spaces as well. So all four types are engaging with external and internal expectations in different ways, but this one particular type is very, very quick to satisfy external expectations and more resistant to satisfy internal ones. And when I read this, I thought, "Oh my gosh, this is totally me. And in a way that was very clarifying and very helpful, she says, Of all four of these types, this particular mashup of being quick to meet external expectations and more resistant towards internal ones. These of all the types, are where you're likely to find... Where people are likely to procrastinate.

LA: And why is that, Cate? 'cause I would think if you wanna meet external expectations you'll be getting things done sooner for other people.

CN: In some ways, yes, but the idea is that you get things done for others, but you're less likely to get things done for yourself. And a lot of these big projects that we need to get done, even if there's a deadline, it requires a lot of this internal management as we go. And because folks who tend to procrastinate might not be able to figure out how to get things started and how to get things going, they actually need a lot of accountability and a lot of external expectations along the way, not just at the end. And that was the big moment of realization for me that yes, I will get something done by the time that I have said to get it done. 99 out of a 100 times in my life like that moment with my boss of not turning in my notes. That was an anomaly. I'm always gonna turn something in, but it's gonna be at 11-59 the night that it's due at midnight. And it's again, it's not that I don't have internal motivation, it's just that I'm more likely to get something done for someone else than I am for myself, and that there is a high need for accountability all along the way. And so what I've found in my friendship with Rob is that we both figured out that we need these high levels of accountability that we don't always get in our work and so we've been able to provide that for each other along the way. So Rob and I text or talk on the phone pretty frequently. We both have had a lot of things going on this week, so we've been talking everyday and we will make plans with each other down to 20-minute chunks of how we're gonna work on the things that we need to get done. And I'll send him a text of saying, "Okay these are my next three hours, this is what I need to get done. I'm gonna text you every 30 minutes to say that I've made progress on this first thing.

And then the second thing, and then this third thing and this sounds so, I don't know, like... It sounds like a normal person wouldn't need to have to do this, but actually this is how I get working done in my life, by making these plans, and then saying them out loud to my friend who understands. And then putting this accountability system in place for myself to actually move through my work.

And what's been so beautiful about this friendship in this way that we have figured out how we need to get our work done, by saying it out loud and then checking in with each other to make sure it that we're making progress, is that it has allowed me this place where all of the shame and the fear and the anxiety about ways that I've put things off and ways that I procrastinated and ways that I haven't gotten started that all of that has a place to land too. It's not just inside of me.

I can also call him or text him and say, "Rob I told myself I was gonna get started on this project two days ago, and I have read every article on the New York Times and caught up on [laughter] everyone's Instagram stories." And that's where I am. And instead of letting that shame of not having gotten started continued to dwell and fester, within me. I've said the thing out loud and he offers me grace and he'll say that I'm forgiven and I get to start again, and I get to get started on the work in the small, tiny little micro-20-minute thing that I tell him that I'm gonna do.

LA: And this is not only a relational matter. I love your accounting this story because this is really a spiritual work that you're doing at the same time. Confession and forgiveness are ancient Christian practices, and they go back to the Bible, 1 John 1:9 says "If we confess our sins, He who is faithful and just, will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. So there's a, if then relationship between confessing sins getting forgiveness and getting cleansed and being able to move forward.

CN: It is really incredible because that's also... I don't know when Rob, and I started doing that, but we did start practicing extending forgiveness to each other and also asking for forgiveness. When we realized we needed it, and this is again where not... Everyone gets it. I once try to get one of my friends who never procrastinates. And is very, very good at managing their internal expectations and doing the thing that they plan to do and getting it done. I went and said, had kind of fallen off the thing that I had needed to do, and I said, "Oh can you just forgive me for having done that? They were like, "Why... Why would... You don't need to be forgiven, you're fine." And then I call Rob and Rob is like, "Oh yeah, you got totally forgiven you got it." So, it's also, again, an interesting thing of who kind of understands why that level of forgiveness is needed, because it is, it's these... These deeper spiritual and emotional and human realities that aren't just about... Oh, I haven't gotten my work started. But the fear and the shame that's attached to it, and I do think that having these spiritual practices of grace and forgiveness are a really necessary way to move past those deeper and more insidious spaces.

MR: So great. And as you said, in the context of intentional community, so you're not just there by yourself, trying to forgive yourself, trying to believe that God is there for you and forgives you. You've got somebody else who not only hold you accountable not only be the person that hears the confession, but also be the person who conveys the forgiveness and is a vehicle of grace that's such a... I love that story.

You know Cate you mentioned earlier that one of the things that sort of behind procrastination is a perfectionism that wanting to get things to be really, really great before you turn them in or get done with them. And are you aware of other things going on that keep you from sometimes doing the thing you ought to be doing? Are you aware of other motivations?

CN: Procrastination for me. So often is a signal of avoidance and it is interesting to pay attention to what am I avoiding in any given moment? So I do think sometimes it is this tendency towards perfectionism, whether it's a paper that I'm writing or an event that I'm pulling together there can be that perfectionist tendency that is so strong of wanting it to be so great and so meaningful that the getting started can be so hard because how do you go from nothing to something beautiful? How do I actually get started? And sometimes it's easier to avoid the getting started.

There's something about creative work that requires a certain level of exposure and accessing the raw and the deep places, within. So I think there are times when the work is a creative bringing forth that being willing to go to that place that requires the getting started, which often is this deeper place that there, there can be so many reasons that I don't wanna have to go there and they might not even be related to the work itself, but there's so much I have to get through to get to that place that's quiet enough to be open to what's inside of me and what's inside of the work, and how that's all gonna to come out. it requires this willingness to go to these deeper and more vulnerable places. So I think that's a little bit of a part of it, for me, in that kind of particular creative work.

MR: Yeah, and so really a lot of what you're doing so partly you have a partner to work with you through this, but it's obvious, you're also really paying attention to what's going on inside of you and not just trying to force yourself to do better but you're attending to what's going on in your inner life, which is another spiritual discipline, a classic discipline of paying attention. It's similar to the examen of Ignatius. Or I think it's really letting the Lord help you see what's inside and then taking that seriously.

LA: And it's backed up... It's backed up by science too Mark. We talked with Joe Ferrari, who's a leading researcher on procrastination and he said one of the biggest things that helps folks is trying to identify the cause of the avoidance of certain tasks that when you can even name the cause like you said, Cate, identifying as perfectionism or the fear of vulnerability for a creative task, just identifying the cause, goes a long way.

CN: Yes, and I've been watching that play out even in the last week in my life, I have had a few projects that I've been less excited to get started on, and it's been interesting to note that in different projects, the underlying cause of my avoidance is different. And so, in some ways, in some instances there is a perfectionistic quality at play, and then there are others where I'm really afraid of something. And I'm afraid of how other people are gonna receive it. There are other projects where they're boring and I would again rather do something that's more exciting, so there can be that reason that I'm putting something off.

So I think the more that I have paid attention to procrastination in my life, the better I am about being able to see what's below the surface where I could say, "Okay what's really going on, and how am I gonna engage in starting or re-orienting to what's under the surface for me. And sometimes I'm able to figure that out on my own and sometimes I need to be in conversation with a friend or a colleague or someone who can help me make sense of that along side me.

MR: You're giving us really such a helpful catalog or if you will of different kinds of motivation. So as you're talking, I'm thinking about... So I have an email, I should have sent last night and I didn't. I should have sent it this morning. I haven't yet, so I'm like your... A case study, and so I'm thinking what is it...

LA: You're confessing to us Mark. That's the first step.

MR: Well I am. I am.

CN: And Mark you are totally forgiven for not having sent it last night or this morning.

MR: Well, thank you, that really does does matter. But I think what's going on was you were saying, I know what's going on. I'm afraid that in sending an email either someone will be upset with me or disapproving of me. So even in this conversation, it helps me to be able to say, "Alright this is what I'm afraid of... " So at least I know that I know what's going on, I can actually do things like... Well, I shared it with you, that's gonna help, I can pray about that fear. So the prayer isn't just God help me to do this thing, I gotta do. God, this relationship matters to me. And again, there's like... Through the awareness there... There's access to God's strength, God's provision, human community and support as well as just more self-knowledge.

CN: Yes, and again these things can feel so small that they, in some ways, feel funny to say out loud, but Mark I think what you're naming is so beautiful, 'cause there is this place where you were able to name something out loud to someone else and to say, "Oh it's not just the email but it's this fear of how someone will respond, and how deeply I dislike disappointing people, and then to engage that conversation with God, and then to... I don't know, maybe tell someone when you're going to write the email saying, "I'm giving myself the 30 minutes that I need to write it and then I'm gonna let you know after I've sent it."

And that becomes another place of relational connection, where you or anyone else doesn't have to be alone in doing the thing that you're so not looking forward to having to do and then maybe you come back to the conversation with God, in that space of waiting for the answer to come in and... Or the response to come back and continuing to hold in prayer, what's alive in some of the anxiety, in the unknown of how the response will come back. So I'm totally with you...

MR: That's very helpful.

CN: I have had so many moments like that.

LA: Cate, is there a piece of encouragement that you could give from your own experience of God, helping you through this.

CN: So there are spiritual practices that have been meaningful for me which I can share about. So I was at a Compline service last night at a little episcopal monastery and Compline is this service at the end of the night, and so many liturgical masses or prayer moments often begin with this moment of confession and I love the prayer at the beginning which last night the prayer was, "Almighty God, we have sinned against you, through our own fault and thought and word indeed and in what we have left undone."

But there's something about saying these words at the end of the night that I just find so so releasing and it's so powerful. So, God, I'm just telling you right here, that there are ways that I have sinned against you and some of it's been through my fault and some of it's been through my word and some of it been what I have left undone. And just acknowledging that there will be undone spaces in my day and in my work, and sometimes I can rest in that undone and sometimes I can be really hard on myself in that undone but there is this invitation to say it out loud and to let it go and to let God be the one who holds that. So I loved that, and I was grateful to have encountered that reminder again, last night.

MR: Thank you for sharing that.

CN: Yeah, yeah, yeah, that one's been really powerful. I'm also someone who, again, along the way, when I'm in a moment of procrastination sometimes just giving myself a moment to take a deep breath and, again, practice a little bit of forgiveness and grace toward myself and maybe it's as simple as going for a walk around the block to reset and then coming back and allowing movement and grace to move through me in a way that isn't true if I just try to stick it out. So that's been alive for me as well. And in terms of scripture, there are two New Testament passages that I've been grateful for along the way.

One comes from 2nd Timothy, where Paul saying that, "Oh, but God hasn't given you a spirit of fear, but has given unto you, and unto all of us a spirit of power, and love, and a sound mind." And all the ways that procrastination for me does have these fears, attached to a fear of getting started, a fear of something not being good enough, a fear of something deep and emotional that I'm wanting to avoid. This reminder that the spirit is at work, not in a place of fear, but in this place of power and love and soundness of my inner self. So that's been something that's been helpful for me to come back to.

LA: I love the passage is that, you've not been given a spirit of fear, the fear is not from God. It's from somewhere else. 'Cause some of us think, "Oh, if I feel shame about what I've left undone that's from God, that's God making me feel that shame." Which is not a very helpful way of overcoming that procrastination. So like the spirit of fear and shame, it's really hampering to getting past the procrastination and getting better results in the future. And I think that's what that passage from Timothy is also saying that the spirit of fear is not from God, what God is giving us is power to overcome and to get to the next step. That's my interpretation. Mark, you tell me what your interpretation is.

MR: No, I think you've nailed it. And I think that's a great passage to bring encouragement to all kinds of things, but especially to this particular struggle. Cate, I think you said you had two? Is there another one?

CN: The other one that's come to mind. I love this yoke exchange that Jesus talks about in the Gospel of Matthew in Matthew 11, and where Jesus is speaking and saying that we're welcome to come to Him, He says, "Come to Me. All you who weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I'll give you a rest." And then this beautiful invitation that He says, "Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me because I'm gentle and lowly in heart and you'll find rest for your souls."

And there's so many moments where the sense of taking Jesus' yoke and releasing my own, which in so many moments piles up with all of these ways that I haven't met my own expectations and haven't done the thing that I said that I would do, and haven't figured the thing out fast enough, that all of that is that piles up, that I sometimes feel this whisper of God within the sense of movement of spirit within, remind me that there's always this invitation to be trading and exchanging yokes. And I haven't sat down long enough to wonder what Jesus' yoke around procrastination would look like, but I do trust that it is much lighter and kinder than mine is, and that as I'm able to recognize when this moment is alive for me, knowing that there's this invitation to hand over what I'm caring and perhaps carry Jesus' understanding of it in a new and different way.

LA: I would love to hear Cate, if you have specific advice. You already mentioned a lot of things, but is there a specific advice you would give to people who are struggling with procrastination in their work today?

CN: My biggest and most enthusiastic advice and encouragement would be to find friendship and companionship, with someone else or a set of other people who can be friends and provide listening and forgiveness and accountability along the way. Find friends and colleagues who also might be realizing they need more external accountability than the work setting provides and start to practice that with each other. That would be the biggest thing.

I would also say that there has been this practice of learning to get started and to be with things that are messy and incomplete, that have been very helpful for me as well. So when I think back to my child and teenage self, falling apart because I hadn't started a school assignment, any more than the night before that it was due. I'm very proud of my adult self that often will start something and draft something and sit with it for a few days and then come back to it. And again, the part of my procrastination that is likely tied to perfectionism, often felt that, I put it off 'cause I'm scared to start, but once I start it has to be perfect and I have to get it right on the first time and the more and more that I'm okay with having a messy draft that I can show someone and get some feedback on and then go back to and do that again and again until I'm working toward something that I'll actually be able to produce and put out in the world in some way. That continues to be a very helpful practice.

LA: Mark, how about you, as a fellow procrastinator, what advice would you give to someone trying to get over procrastination in their work?

MR: Hey, just do it. No, I'm kidding.


CN: The best advice of all.

LA: Oh God.

MR: That works for some and for others, it's just, it doesn't work. So as we were talking about scripture a little bit ago, I was thinking of a verse that I don't think I have ever applied to this particular issue in my life, though I have applied it to so many others. And it's this passage in Hebrews, it talks about Jesus as our great high priest, who's pastor of the heavens and it says, "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tested as we are yet without sin." And who knows whether Jesus himself struggled with procrastination. But the promise of this is, he really sympathizes, whether he gets it. There's a understanding at a deep place. So even as Cate has Rob, well we've got Jesus, who gets it on the inside and that's part of that, that's just a huge encouragement, 'cause it means we don't have to hide or pretend. The rest of that passage goes on and says, "Let us approach the throne of grace with boldness so that we may receive mercy and find grace." So the sense is, because Jesus already knows all that's in us and all of our weaknesses. We don't have to hold back, we can just say it as it is.

And I'm just thinking, for me, I'm actually gonna experiment with letting this govern my reflection in my prayer, when there are times and I'm having a hard time getting things done. That may be helpful to others, if it is, that's great, and if it isn't, I apologize for giving advice that really is untested, it's just beginning.

CN: I think that's so beautiful Mark. What's so beautiful about it for me is, that there is this, again, this deep empathy and I think in listening to you I realize, "Oh, that's actually what's so powerful about my friendship with Rob in the way that, over the years of practicing this together of listening to each other and providing accountability and forgiving each other, I do think that I have seen something of the nature of God, of this ability to be forgiven in some of the places that are most embarrassing and shameful for me. And that gives me a sense of what it's like to have this person, Jesus, who is also sympathetic and is able to sympathize with me in these places that are so alive and ongoing, and I love the idea that Jesus can reveal something to us about how we might love one another, and then the love that we receive from others can also reveal something of how we might tap into this sympathetic high priest who is willing to extend this kind of love and empathy and understanding over and over again.

LA: Well, I have to say Cate, thank you so much for sharing your experience because when you do, those of us who are not procrastinators can also start to feel this love and empathy towards the people in our lives who we don't understand because they're not getting things done in our timeframe. Hearing you speak about, speak really honestly, and vulnerable about your journey with God through procrastination. I feel such love and love towards you and towards you Mark. Obviously, you're both lovely people and I love you, but I get the sense of, "Oh, this is what it's like." And, yes, God is empathetic to that as well, just as God is empathetic to my struggles which are different. So, just thank you so much for sharing that. For the people who struggle with procrastination, your advice is so helpful. For the people who don't struggle with procrastination, thank you for giving us a window into experiencing the love of God for you that God has so graciously given to you.

MR: Yeah, thanks so much Cate. Really appreciate it.

CN: Thank you all for having me.