‘Maybe Tomorrow’

How to Overcome Procrastination

For those prone to procrastinate, tomorrow can sound like the magic word.

With a simple wave of tomorrow, dirty dishes seem to vanish, hard conversations disappear, emails hide, and house projects stand by patiently. How wonderful it can feel to send today’s undesirables into the fog of tomorrow — and how ready tomorrow is to receive them! Yes, we could take care of such responsibilities today, but why when there’s always tomorrow?

Then, of course, tomorrow comes, and the magic vanishes under the weight of undone tasks. And we again realize, in the frustratingly wise words of Alexander MacLaren,

No unwelcome tasks become any the less unwelcome by putting them off till tomorrow. It is only when they are behind us and done, that we begin to find that there is a sweetness to be tasted afterwards, and that the remembrance of unwelcome duties unhesitatingly done is welcome and pleasant. (The Conquering Christ and Other Sermons, 143)

If an unwelcome task is a thorn, tomorrow will not change it into a rose. The thorn will still be there, unwelcome as ever. And whether today or tomorrow, we will still need to grab it.

Today and Tomorrow

Today and tomorrow. Many problems arise from the failure to rightly divide these two days.

“If an unwelcome task is a thorn, tomorrow will not change it into a rose.”

Take worry, for example. “Do not be anxious about tomorrow,” Jesus once told a crowd of worriers, “for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Matthew 6:34). God calls us to live within this 24-hour boundary called today, but worriers try to reach across the fence and drag over some of tomorrow’s trouble. Jesus’s response? Pull back your hand from tomorrow; today has enough trouble of its own.

Procrastinators, of course, do just the opposite. Rather than dragging tomorrow’s trouble into today, they push today’s trouble into tomorrow, perhaps hoping it will disappear over the fence. To which Jesus might respond with similar common-sense counsel: “Tomorrow will have enough trouble without your adding more. Handle today’s trouble today; handle tomorrow’s trouble tomorrow.”

Sounds fairly sensible, doesn’t it? Indeed it does. Unfortunately, our inner procrastinator proves surprisingly impervious to sense (Proverbs 24:30). He knows by well-worn experience that “no unwelcome tasks become any the less unwelcome by putting them off till tomorrow,” yet he still finds a way to try and try again.

So, along with common sense, our Lord gives more grace. When we look at today’s trouble and feel tempted to say, “Tomorrow, tomorrow,” he speaks a twofold promise: strength for today, and a harvest tomorrow.

Today’s Strength

Why do some of us wave the wand of tomorrow so frequently? Often, because we feel like we just don’t have what it takes today. We don’t have energy to clean the bathroom today. We don’t feel motivated to write the report today. We don’t sense an inner spark for creative work today. Perhaps we pray for strength; perhaps not. Either way, we eventually turn aside with a shrug of “Tomorrow.”

In such moments, when we stare at some unwelcome task and feel no strength to do it, we can forget that God often gives strength only as we start doing. The Jordan River stopped only as the priests stepped in (Joshua 3:13). The widow’s oil flowed only as she poured (2 Kings 4:1–6). The ten lepers were cleansed only as they walked away from Jesus (Luke 17:11–14). And often, God works his strength within us only as (and not before) we start working (Philippians 2:12–13).

Hardworking Christians, J.I. Packer once observed,

expect help from God in each day’s trouble, strength from God for obedience in each day’s tasks. . . . They find that the very strength of their expectations of being helped is used by the Spirit to give them energy to “keep on keeping on” in the humdrum routines of every day. (Keep in Step with the Spirit, 108–9)

Some wait to work until they feel strong; others get to work expecting to be strengthened. The latter know that energy to accomplish unwelcome tasks comes to the expectant — to those who respond to “not feeling like it” with hearty prayer and lifted head. Today’s grace will be sufficient for today’s trouble, even if that grace has not arrived yet. So, when we face some unwelcome duty and feel our inward weakness, the wise learn to say, “Not tomorrow — today,” trusting that help is on the way.

Tomorrow’s Harvest

The book of Proverbs casts procrastination in the context of the harvest: “The sluggard does not plow in the autumn; he will seek at harvest and have nothing” (Proverbs 20:4). Our inner procrastinator loves tomorrow, but only because he does not see tomorrow clearly. If he did, he would notice the coming harvest and know that today’s nap might be tomorrow’s barren field. In other words, we reap tomorrow what we sow today.

What happens when a young man, for example, procrastinates not here and there, but everywhere? When procrastination is the seed he always sows? Soon, family and friends will learn to no longer rely upon him; his promises for today always slip into tomorrow. His colleagues will come to expect disappointing work — labor that always bears the marks of eleventh-hour haste. In time, others will stop asking much from him: better to do it yourself or find someone else. Eventually, his life and relationships will be filled with the thorns he refused to pluck (Proverbs 15:19).

And on the other hand, what will happen if the same young man keeps his eyes on the harvest? Slowly, he will grow in stature: A man who lets his “today” be today and his “tomorrow” tomorrow (James 5:12). A man who attacks the thorns in his field with the strength that God gives. A man whose faithfulness in the smallest unwelcome tasks spreads out to the largest (Luke 16:10). A man whose diligence becomes a tree of life for family and friends, neighbors and coworkers.

“We reap tomorrow what we sow today.”

Such a man knows that even the best parts of life include a hundred unwelcome tasks. Only by embracing the unwelcome are homes established, relationships restored, friendships maintained, vows kept, children disciplined and nurtured, churches planted and grown, and vocations fulfilled. And so, with every suggestion of tomorrow, he looks to the harvest.

Grab the Thorn

For now, we live in a thorn-covered land, where unwelcome tasks fill every day’s to-do list. One day our God will clear the land, and “instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle” (Isaiah 55:13). But for now, we live among thorns. And one way we glorify God is by grabbing today’s thorns with today’s grace.

Common sense calls us to, for “no unwelcome task becomes any the less unwelcome by putting it off till tomorrow.” And even more, God’s promises call us to, for daily trouble comes with daily strength, and on some coming tomorrow, seeds planted today will rise in a glorious harvest.