Orthodoxy Today
The Spiritual Roots of Procrastination

"Procrastination is the thief of time" wrote an English poet almost three hundred years ago. Procrastination bedevils nearly everyone although some struggle more with it than others. Modern clinical psychology has compiled useful research concerning this all too common malady that lends important insight into its nature and causes and provides some useful tools in overcoming it. At the same time, much of what modern scientific psychology has learned is not all that new. You could say that these clinicians rediscovered what many of the Church Fathers taught centuries ago. As discussed in previous essays (Morelli, 2006cd), the findings of scientific psychology can be used to help practice the teachings of Christ as understood by the Fathers.

Why do we assert that the findings of scientific psychology and the writings of the Fathers ought to be considered in tandem? The answer lies in the congruence between the data compiled by scientific clinicians and the knowledge possessed by the Fathers. Put another way, the conclusions that clinicians have drawn about human behavior are often the same as what the Fathers taught about it. If they were correct about what we can see, maybe we should examine what they said about those things we can't see.

The Fathers more readily enter the areas of human experience that the scientific method cannot penetrate (the content and meaning of the spiritual life, the grace of God that enlivens us, etc.). Although free of the philosophical and cultural dependencies practiced by those who espouse moral relativism, unscientific psychology (psychoanalysis and psychodynamics), and political correctness (feminism, gay marriage, etc.), the Fathers did not operate in a vacuum. Their starting point was the teaching of Christ passed on to His Apostles and canonized as the Holy Scripture by the Church, as well as the consistent prayer, worship, and daily practices of the Church.

Their starting point was the spoken teaching of Christ to His Apostles and disciples. Christ's teaching was passed on to the Church initially by "word of mouth and letter" (2 Thessalonians 2: 13-15) and subsequent written teachings selected and canonized as the Holy Scriptures known today by the Church (Pelikan, 2005). The written canonized teaching were never meant to be separated from the oral teachings taught and passed down by the successors of the Apostles as witnessed in the prayer, worship, architecture, icons and daily practices of the Church held fast by generations of bishops, priests and holy fathers (1 Corinthians 11:2; 2:19, 30).

In this essay I will first examine the contributions of psychological science to understanding the definition and process of procrastination. Following that is an overview of the contributions of the Orthodox Church Fathers on the same subject. We will discover that when the modern psychological insights are incorporated into the teachings of the Fathers, the nature of procrastination emerges with more clarity and the interventions employed in overcoming the affliction can be more fruitfully applied.

Realistic versus Unrealistic Procrastination

From the outset, two types of procrastination have to be distingished: realistic versus unrealistic procrastination. Contemporary scientific psychological research and clinical investigations have helped understand this distinction more accurately.

Realistic procrastination occurs when a person may not have the physical or mental ability to accomplish a task or is prevented from performing a task by an appropriate authority. In a strict sense these situations are not appropriately labeled procrastination. Some people don't accurately assess their abilities or lack of control and thus mislabel themselves as procrastinators. For example a color blind person may delay redecorating a room because he cannot see all colors clearly. Appropriate intervention would be to aid such individuals to accurately and realistically appraise their abilities and control.

On the other hand, unrealistic procrastination stems from anxiety or depression that has no basis in reality. Procrastination is not a psychiatric diagnosis however, thus the behavior elements of procrastination (putting things off, delaying behaviors, missing deadlines, etc.) are categorized under other diagnoses such as Organic and Substance Disorders, Psychotic Disorders, Mood Disorders, Anxiety Disorders and Personality Disorders (American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Text Revision [DSM-IV-TR], 2000).

Irrespective of the official diagnostic disorders, people do report problems initiating and completing tasks. The consequences of such unrealistic delay are social and occupational dysfunction. For example, the procrastinator may not return phone calls from friends and acquaintances to the detriment of their social life. They may fail to initiate important tasks or delay their completion on the job thereby undermining vocational stability. In case such as these, psychological interventions targeting procrastination can be employed independently of a psychiatric diagnosis or also incorporated into treatment procedures for the diagnosable disorders listed above.

A Psychological Model of Procrastination

Most people are confused about the precise meaning of procrastination. Often they include the delaying of one task because they were occupied by others. This is not procrastination in the psychological definition of the term but the confusion nevertheless creates problems of its own. Instead of focusing on the specific task that needs completion, the person labels himself (or others) as lazy; a term filled with surplus psychological meaning that in many cases is meant as a description of his being or essence that shuts off a meaningful plan to overcome the delay. It can also mask other underlying problems.

To help forge a workable definition of procrastination, a psychological model (Beck, 1995; Burns, 1989; Knaus, 1979, Morelli, 2006c) was developed that drew from scientific clinical research. It uncovered some of the cognitive elements that trigger the emotional factors that contribute to procrastination. These elements include:

  • Emotional reasoning: An individual may tell themselves something like, "I can only do something if I like it or if I am in the mood" or "Tasks should be easy."

  • Magnification: A person may erroneously tell themselves that a task is more difficult and complicated that it really is.

  • Perfectionism: A person may set goals that are set unrealistically high and demand they attain them.

  • Mind reading: A person may think others will label them as "failures" if a task is not done according to a certain (many times unrealistic) standard. They may also label themselves as "failures." If a task is delayed or not done however, the failure label will not apply.

  • Comfortable discomfort: A person may be unhappy that a task is not completed but the discomfort that he feels is more comfortable than the fear and apprehension of taking on something new.

  • Devaluation or minimization: A person may minimize the importance of a task they think about starting and thus de-motivate themselves to take the first step.

  • Should statements: A person tells themselves they "should, must, or ought" to do a task and respond with guilt when they observe their inaction (see: Morelli, 2006a).

  • Coercion reaction: A person may not want others to tell him what he should be doing and feels resentful when they do. Even in situations in which the person wants the same outcome, he will react in oppositional ways in order to maintain the feeling that he controls his life.

  • Aversion perception: A person may simply dislike doing certain tasks. He may find them distasteful and thus experience them as punishing.
Psychological Procrastination Intervention

The psychological intervention for procrastination employs a three pronged approach. The first is to challenge the dysfunctional ideas that maintain the delay and inaction (Beck, 1995; Burns, 1989); Ellis, 1962; Knaus, 1979; Morelli, 2006c). The second is the adoption of an action technique called the General Problem Solver (GPS). (Newell and Simon, 1972). The third is the application of behavioral management techniques (Martin and Pear, 1992; Morelli, 2006b, Skinner, 1938).

Therapeutic Rationale

Before any patient begins treatment, he must understand why the treatment was chosen and what he might accomplish by applying it. This fosters motivation, commitment to the program, and cooperation with the procedures. Approaching the patient in this manner has been shown to be effective in encouraging patient compliance in medical (Perri and Richards, 1977) and psychological settings (Beck, 2001, Marcinko, 2003).

Judith Beck (1995) discusses the problem and need for providing patients a therapeutic rationale. "Problems invariably arise (in a therapeutic setting) ... (and) a common difficulty ... is to socialize the patient adequately ... Therefore, the therapist must often repeatedly describe, a rationale ... Patients are more likely to comply with ... . assignments if they understand the reason for doing them."

Much of the success of scientific psychotherapeutic procedures depends on the work the patient does outside of the consultation sessions. Beck writes that when a good therapeutic rationale is provided, the chances of the patient performing this outside work increases. "Patients are less likely to do homework when the therapist ... fails to provide a good rationale."

Of course other factors are involved such as the difficulty of the task, ignoring previous efforts, or the lack of specific instructions. Nevertheless, when the purpose of assignments is clear and evidence is offered that the techniques actually work, faster outcomes usually occur. Further, other cognitive therapy techniques such as bibliotherapy (reading books and articles that facilitate cognitive-behavior change) are more likely to be performed when patients are given meaningful rationales (Burns, 1980; Ellis, 1962; Knaus, 1979).

Responding to Dyfunctional Cognitions in Procrastination.

In previous articles Morelli (2006c) has delineated the challenging questions for dealing with dysfunctional cognitions:

  • Is there any other way of looking at it ("Are there alternative explanations?")?

  • Is it as bad as it seems ("What is the worst and best that could happen?" "Could I live with the results?" "What is a realistic outcome of my efforts?")?

  • What is the effect of holding onto my distorted thoughts ("What would happen if I changed my thinking?")?

These questions be applied to the dysfunctional cognitive elements mentioned above in the following ways:

  • Emotional reasoning: The patient can ask: "Where is the evidence that I have to be in the mood to before I do something? Are there other ways to view my reluctance to perform a task? Yes. Emergency responders and military personnel would never respond if they waited until they felt like it. Very often fear and anxiety (and other emotions) go along with action."

  • Magnification: "The task looks big, but I can choose to look at it differently. Suppose I look only at the first step. The first step is much more manageable than the whole task."

  • Perfectionism: "I have set this self standard that I have to do it perfect the first time. In fact most accomplishments occur in small steps after many mistakes. Let me do the best I can now and correct it later if needed.”

  • Mind reading: "Where is the evidence that I will fail? Even if I do fail what proof do I have others will see me as a failure? They might even give me credit for trying."

  • Comfortable discomfort: "I have never performed a task like the one I am faced with. Maybe if I approach it one step at a time it might not be as hard or as bad as I think it is."

  • Devaluation or minimization: "There may be some value or importance in doing this task. Maybe I should rethink whether I should do it. Maybe it will count for something."

  • Should statements: "There is nothing I 'have to do' but there may be a task that would benefit me if I did it. It can be my decision. Let me see if there are any advantages."

  • Coercion reaction: "Why should I cut off my nose in spite my face? Just because someone wants me to do something does not mean I should not do it. The decision is mine after all. I control my life, not others. If something is right for me I am free to do it no matter what others say."

  • Aversion perception: "If I dislike a task and there is no benefit in doing it, then I can choose not to do it." (This cognitive dysfunction is related to realistic procrastination. If there is no reason for the individual to perform a task, then they are imposing an unnecessary set of rules on themselves.)

Decision Making and Behavior: The General Problem Solver

The General Problem Solver (GPS) was created by Newell & Simon in 1972. It started as a computer program written to simulate human problem solving techniques (Ericsson & Simon, 1984). Newell and Simon defined a problem as not knowing the immediate steps to achieve a concrete goal. GPS works well for procrastination problems where the goals are specific and well defined and do not involve conflicting choices.

Problem solving (overcoming procrastination in this case) begins with the goal and then determines what sequence of operations or actions are needed to attain it (Ashcraft, 1994). In clinical terms, two important processes are involved. The first is the application of means-ends analysis. This involves assessing the difference between the stage that the individual presently occupies and the completed task. The second process is called the sub-goal strategy. The individual takes an action or operation to close the gap between where they are at present and completing the goal.

For example, say an individual was procrastinating on the start of a term paper on American Colonial History. The means-ends analysis might include listing the tools such as a pencil, paper, and computer along with the resources such as books or journals needed to complete the assignment. (Clinically it is helpful to tell the patient that even these preparatory steps moves him towards goal attainment.) This is followed by action steps where the assignment is broken down into manageable sub-goals.The first sub-goal may be as simple as collecting several pencils and a pad and placing them on the table. The second sub-goal may be retrieving a resource such as an American History book and so on.

The procrastinating individual must have active involvement in this process. The Socratic method of asking the individual to choose the specific actions is helpful in fostering compliance. To illustrate, a sample clinician-patient dialogue might be:

Clinician: "Ok, what would be a first step?"
Patient: "Get a reference book."
Clinician: "Good, where would you get that?"
Patient: "At the library."
Clinician: "When would you go there?"
Patient: "During recess tomorrow."

Goal attainment and Self-efficacy

During application of the GPS model the clinician is also monitoring dysfunctional cognitions and emotional reactions to the sub-goal actions. The Clinician may ask such questions as, "How would you feel doing it?" and "How sure are you that the task can be accomplished?" The simpler the task and the greater the confidence that it can be accomplished, the more likely that action will be taken. Patients typically magnify the difficulty of the task and unrealistically conclude that completing it is emotionally unbearable. After completing a sub-goal however, patients are able to more realistically evaluate future task difficulty and thus facilitate action and overcome procrastination (Bandura, 1986, Morelli, 2006d).

Bandura calls this process self efficacy and defines it as "the ability to develop a program or plan for action to reach a goal" (Bandura, 1986). Generally people with higher self-efficacy are better able to attain goals. Psychological interventions that employ self-efficacy are incorporated into the treatment of procrastination. The major variables bringing about self efficacy are:

  • Mastery experience: Practicing appropriate concrete graduated actions leading toward the final goal. This may be viewed as mastering a series of sub-goals that lead to a final goal.

  • Vicarious experience: Observing a peer model struggling with the same problem of performing an appropriate behavior in response performing a sub-goal.

  • Prompting: Using key or phrases as cues to appropriate action followed by verbal approval as reinforcement (Morelli, 2005). For example, the patient will verbalize such actions as "get resource book"; "check index" and so forth. Once he accomplished the sub-goal the patient says out loud, "Good job!"

  • Perceptions of arousal: Monitor the emotional reactions that are experienced. Is the feeling as uncomfortable as predicted?

Eliminating Distracting Stimulus Cues in Procrastination

In 1938 behavioral research psychologist B.F. Skinner investigated the powerful effects of stimulus elicitation or control of behavior (also noted centuries earlier by the Church Fathers). Skinner concluded that specific responses occur automatically (learned by repetition and followed by reward) when triggered by specific stimuli or cues. Put another way, Skinner discovered that cues work because they signal the reward that follows a behavioral response.

To illustrate: a telephone rings (stimulus cue) and automatically a person picks it up and says "Hello." The picking up and "Hello" would not occur if the stimulus cue had not elicited it. Persons with procrastination problems are usually surrounded by stimulus cues that are associated with rewards greater than the task at hand. These cues serve as distracters by engaging the individual in actions associated with them. Instead of looking for the resource needed to accomplish the task the individual engages in a competing behavior. One behavioral solution is to eliminate these "cues" as much as possible. For example, a person writing a report might want to work in a library cubicle, for example than in their home office filled with such distracting cues (Morelli, 2006d).

Any treatment of procrastination requires a program of stimulus control. Contemporary research psychologists recommend changing the stimulus cues by using distinct signals such as location, size, color and sensory modality (Martin and Pear 1992). Overcoming procrastination therefore involves eliminating cues that elicit highly desirable rewarding behaviors.

Response Management

Individuals reporting procrastination about starting or completing a series of tasks frequently do the easy task first and put off the difficult tasks for a later time. This strategy actually violates the principles of reinforcement or reward well delineated by behavioral psychologists (Martin and Pear, 1992; Morelli, 2006b). One way to solve this problem is to use the principle of activity rewards and arrange them to work in increasing the difficult task.

For example, when a procrastinating student selects which homework assignment to do, he usually begins with his favorite subject. If he prefers history and considers calculus onerous, then history is the first subject tackled. Unfortunately fatigue builds up as even pleasant tasks are performed which makes calculus seem even more onerous than it is. A better strategy would be to start with a small segment of the onerous task, followed by part of the history assignment as an reward. In activity reinforcement, the disliked task is rewarded by the liked task.

Spiritual Procrastination: Healing by Spirit and Cognitive Synergia

The Church Fathers defined procrastination in different terms than the scientific clinicians but a close look reveals that both often shared a similar basis. St. John Cassian for example, in his discussion on the eight vices devoted an entire section on listnessless, the condition we define today as procrastination. He considered it a harsh and terrible malady because the person afflicted with it is slack and full of fear. He hates his surroundings, those around him, and work of any kind (" ... even for reading Holy Scripture"). This description is similar to what research scientists uncovered over a millennium and a half later. St. John tells us the mind of the person suffering from listlessness suffers from "vain distraction ... [and] is grievously caught up in them" (Philokalia I).

The Spiritual Rationale

The Church Fathers approach listlessness (also called sloth and laziness) with a spiritual rationale. They see listlessness as internal conflict that deals with a person's orientation towards God. Their starting point is a sense of the presence of God particularly how it ties into the remembrance of salvation. Examples from scripture and the writings of the Fathers clarify this point. For example, St. Matthew wrote about the necessity of keeping the heart (the inward orientation) on God:

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon ... where your treasure is, there will your heart be also (Matthew 6: 24,21). .

The spiritual rationale for St. Diadochos of Photiki centered on the contemplation of hope in God and His love towards us:

All spiritual contemplation should be governed by faith, hope and love but mostly by love. The first two teach us to be detached from visible delights, but love unites the soul with the excellence of God, searching out the Invisible by means of intellectual perception (Philokalia I).

Motivational factors as a rationale in the spiritual life are also emphasized by the Church Fathers. St. Mark the Ascetic in his letter to Nicolas the Solitary wrote:

So, when we are humbled and shattered, and keep in mind possession Christ’s humiliation, what anger, wrath or bitterness can take possession of us? But when forgetfulness of these life-creating truths is accompanied by the sister vices of laziness and ignorance, then these three oppressive and deep-seated passions of the soul, hard to discover and correct, overlay and darken us with terrible futility.

This defintion of listlessness, sloth, and laziness was developed even more by Orthodox theologian Dmitru Staniloe (2003) who wrote:

Some passions are of the soul, others of the spirit. But the close unity of the body and soul cause the bodily passions to be interwoven with those of the soul or to have an inter-influence. It could be said than that there is a double circuit which leads from gluttony to all the passions -- including those of the soul -- and again from pride, to almost all of the passions including some of the bodily ones. Gluttony and pride represent one and the same egocentric thirst of man, under the double aspect of his psycho-physical nature. There is a close interconnection between the biological and the spiritual; one realm influences the other both in the decline and in the restoration of man.

Haucherr (quoted by Staniloae 2003) noted:

The demon of listlessness is the hardest of all to bear. He pours out drop by drop his bitterness in all our motives to live in a supernatural way. There is no longer any love whatsoever around you, God Himself no longer cares for you at all, The demon of listlessness cuts off all hope ...

And whether you know it, or whether you don't, if this thought persists, in the time of prayer, it shuts off the holy light from the soul. You no longer dare to seek the mercy of God with all your prayers. You want to cry, but a horrible thought suppresses suppresses the tears: they don't help at all. Thus we fall into to the depths of egoism.

(H)e who is egotistic, has all the passions (St. Maximus the Confessor, Philokalia I 38). ... egotism represents a rupture with God ... egotism represents a gravitation toward the world. Thus egoism is fertile ground for the growth of the seeds of procrastination and sloth.

St Gregory of Sinai (Philokalia IV) offered insight on how stimuli interfere with action and thus contribute to procrastination. He wrote:

Sinful acts provoke passions, the passions provoke distractive thoughts, and distractive thoughts provoke fantasies. The fragmented memory begets a multiplicity of ideas, forgetfulness causes the fragmentation of the memory, ignorance leads to forgetfulness and laziness to ignorance. Laziness is spawned by lustful appetites ... appetites are arouse by misdirected emotions and misdirected mindless desire of evil and a strong attachment to the senses and to sensory things.

The Church Fathers would surely have welcomed the modern psychological interventions that are applied to procrastination since they deal with the listlessness related to it. The individual who suffers delay and start up problems may question himself about the underlying causes of his malady, which compels an inner disputation that requires psychological and spiritual guidance in order to find resolution. The patient may be prompted to dig deep to discern the ground of particular thoughts and how it should be tilled to bring healing.

Spiritual Combat with Listlessness and Sloth

For the committed Christian, listlessness and sloth is unrealistic procrastination. In fact, listlessness is the most unrealistic of all procrastination because it puts off the grace of God expended toward us. Put another way, listlessness occurs when the inner orientation is unresponsive to the life that pours forth from God on our behalf; a condition that creates anguish and despair. Nevertheless God's grace is given to all, including the procrastinator. St. John wrote:

Jesus said, " ... whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life" (John 4: 13-14).

Blessed Augustine, quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, said:

Indeed we also work, but we are only collaborating with God who works, for his mercy has gone before us. It has gone before us so that we may be healed, and follows us so that once healed, we may be given life; it goes before us so that we may be called, and follows us so that we may be glorified; it goes before us so that we may live devoutly, and follows us so that we may always live with God: for without him we can do nothing."

As St. Paul wrote:

... but he said to me, My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.'' I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me (2 Corinthians 12:9) ... I can do all things in him who strengthens me (Philippians 4:13).

A story from the ancient desert fathers, translated by Archimandrite Chrysostomos (1980) explained the point:

A beginning monk, who went to a certain elder to confess, posed, among others, this question: "Why, Father, do I fall so often into sloth?" "You lack the faith which makes you see God everywhere; for this reason you can be careless and lazy about your salvation," the discerning elder wisely explained.

Spiritual Cognition

While not using the modern scientific psychological term cognition, the Church Fathers meant something quite similar when they spoke of intelligence. A handy definition for intelligence would be "right thinking in dealing with listlessness and slothfulness (or what we have termed spiritual procrastination). St. Maximus the Confessor wrote:

While passions such as forgetfulness and ignorance affect but one of the soul's thee aspects - the incensive, the desiring, or the intelligent - listlessness alone seizes control of all the souls powers and arouses almost all the passions together. That is why this passion is more serious than all the others. Hence our Lord has given us an excellent remedy against it saying: "'you will gain possession of your souls through your patient endurance' (Luke 21:19)" (Philokalia II.).

The fathers link sloth or laziness with it's opposite: ardor and zeal. St. Mark the Ascetic told an inquirer:

Memory and intelligence work interactively to produce ardor or zeal. Laziness enables evil to root itself in the soul because you do not fill yourself with spiritual knowledge and you are thus darkly ignorant ... So, through the power of the Holy Spirit, with all prayer and entreaty ... through mindfulness of God, you will always reflect on "whatever is true, whatever is modest, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good report, whatever is holy and deserving of praise" (Philippians 4:8); and in this way you will banish from yourself the pernicious evil of forgetfulness, Through the light of spiritual knowledge you will expel the destructive darkness of ignorance ... (Philkalia I).

An increase of fervent love of God and zealousness towards Him becomes a cognitive restructuring of the hopelessness component of spiritual procrastination and thus a part of the healing process. St. Mark continues: "through your true ardor of all that is good you will drive out the godless laziness that enables evil to root itself in the soul."

This is accomplished by attentive prayer:

When by deep attentiveness and prayer you have acquired these virtues, not only through your own personal choice, but also through the power of God and with the help of the Holy Spirit ... the combination of these three expels from the soul and obliterates every trace of forgetfulness, ignorance and laziness and henceforth grace reigns within it, through Christ Jesus our Lord. May He be glorified through all the ages. Amen.

In Orthodox Christianity, prayer is in part an action of the mind. Prayer is, of course, much more than a cognitive act. In its purest form, prayer is an indwelling of God in the nous, the center of the heart, the faculty of spiritual illumination. Pomazansky (1997) called it the "prayer of mind in the heart." To the extent the mind is involved however, prayer is similar to the cognitive acts defined by the psychological models of procrastination. Vivian (2004) wrote that the Church Fathers, Isaac, Cassian and Evagrius "places pure prayer to the extent that the mind 'withdraws from the contemplation of earthly and material things, its state of purity lets it progress and causes Jesus to be seen by the soul's inward gaze ... "

Spiritual reading (somewhat analogous to bibliotherapy techniques used by the clinician) is a major practice in the spiritual life. The Philokalia (the set of collected teachings often referenced in my articles) is the collection of Eastern Christian spirituality most recommended by spiritual directors and clergy.

The Greek word philokalia means "love of the beautiful, the exalted, and the good". Kadloubovsky and Palmer (1951), in the Russian introduction to the Writings From the Philokalia on Prayer from the Heart wrote that the collection:

... contains an interpretation of the secret life in our Lord Jesus Christ. The secret life in our Lord Jesus Christ, which is the truly Christian life, begins, develops, and rises to perfection (for each in his own measure), through the good will of God the Father, by the action of the grace of the Holy Spirit present in all Christians, and under the guidance of our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, who promised to abide with us for all time.

In order to increase zealous love for God and overcome procrastination, a person must steep their mind in the scripture and counsels of the Fathers. Reading the work of the Holy Fathers Barsanuphius and John is a good place to begin:

Dispose yourself to give thanks to God or everything, hearkening to the words of the Apostle: "In everything give thanks" (1 Thessalonians 5:18). No man who wishes to reach a city lies down on the ground; no man who wishes to work gives himself up to laziness when he sees the sun rise ... Thus even the ordinary can remind us of God: "The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament proclaims His handiwork" (Psalm 18:1). "He that has ear to hear, let him hear" (Matthew 11:15). (Kadloubovsky, & Palmer, 1951).

Thoughts Arouse Senses That Distract Us

When contemporary research psychologists speak of the cognitive-emotional connection in procrastination, they echo what Jesus said: "The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!" (Matthew 6: 22-23). The Fathers also noted that thoughts evoke feelings and they indicated how we should combat the cognitive triggers (stimuli). St Maximus the Confessor counseled, "Do not befoul your intellect by clinging to thoughts filled with anger or sensual desire. Otherwise you will lose your capacity for pure prayer and fall victim to the demon of listlessness" (Philokalia II).

St. Thalassios likewise wrote: "If the intellect dallies with pleasure or dejection, it rapidly succumbs to the passion of listlessness ... Listlessness is an apathy of the soul; and a soul becomes apathetic when sick with self-indulgence" (Philokalia II). Morever, St. Thalassios offered an antidote for listlessness: "He who loves Jesus trains himself in suffering: perseverance in suffering dispels listlessness ... The soul is strengthened through ascetic suffering, and dispels listlessness by doing all things according to measure" (Philokalia II). His counsel is congruent with the graduated step by step approach recommended by modern scientifically based clinicians.

Abba Philimon expanded the counsel, also in ways similar to the sub-goaling employed by modern clinicians. Note how Abba Philimon instructed a young monk afflicted with procrastination to begin with small, attainable goals. The novice asked the wise monk:

"What must I do father? During my night rule sleep weighs me down and does not allow me to pray with inner watchfulness or to keep vigil beyond the regular period. And when I sing psalms, I want to take up manual work." Abba Philimon said: "When you are able to pray with inner watchfulness, do not engage in manual work. But if you are weighed down by listlessness, move about a little, so as to rid yourself of it, and take up manual work" (Abba Philimon, Philokalia II).

As in choosing goals in the General Problem Solving model or engaging in mastery experiences in developing self-efficacy, Abba Philimon wisely recommended taking steps the beginner in prayer can master.

The same congruence between the Fathers and modern clinicians is revealed in the concept of stimulus control. While not using the technical term "stimulus control," St. John of Damascus' observed:

The roots or primary causes of all these passions are love of sensual pleasure, love of praise and love of material wealth. Every evil has its origin in these. As Mark, the wisest of the ascetics, says: a man cannot commit a single sin unless the three powerful giants, forgetfulness, laziness and ignorance, first overpower him. And these giants are the offspring of sensual pleasure, luxury, love of men's esteem and distraction. The primary cause and vile mother of them all is self-love, which is a senseless love of one's body and an impassioned attachment to it (Philokalia II).

In overcoming spiritual sloth we must focus on God in the healing process. The more we focus on the things around us, the more distracted we become and the more we put off the needful and necessary things. Only by returning the eyes and ultimately the heart to God can procrastination be overcome.

The Warning of Jesus

The penultimate example of procrastination was given to us by Jesus in the Parable of the Ten Virgins:

Then the kingdom of heaven shall be compared to ten maidens who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, "Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him." Then all those maidens rose and trimmed their lamps.

And the foolish said to the wise, "Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out." But the wise replied, "Perhaps there will not be enough for us and for you; go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves." And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast; and the door was shut. Afterward the other maidens came also, saying, "Lord, lord, open to us." But he replied, "Truly, I say to you, I do not know you. "Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour" (Matthew 25: 1-13).

The Lord's warning ought to shake us out of slumber of sloth into watchful sobriety. He tells us that procrastination, if not overcome, can shut us out of His Kingdom.

Let us learn from our spiritual fathers. Psycho-spiritual healing and defeating the demon of sloth and requires an increase in the spiritual "oil" of zeal, ardor, and love of God from the depths of our hearts. Trust in God, true repentance, reception of the Holy Mysteries and prayer allows His grace to pour forth into our hearts. The scientific cognitive-behavioral techniques shown to be effective in overcoming procrastination can help us.


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Published: June 4, 2006

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