The secret of ‘reverse procrastination’

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Use St. Paul’s advice to defeat temptation and grow in virtue

After my first wrestling season in high school, I decided I needed to boost my endurance. So I resolved to go to the track and run at least three miles each day over summer break. The track at my old junior high was a mile away and the route there was partially downhill so that wasn’t hard. Running that mile back wasn’t a problem either. There was proximate motivation — I would be running home where there would be food. No, my problem was the mile in the middle. Running around the track over and over again, my mind kept devising justifications to cut the run short, and the more I thought about quitting, the harder it was to keep going.

One day, however, I discovered something that helped: reverse procrastination. If procrastination is giving in to the temptation to put something off, reverse procrastination means putting off giving in to temptation.

When I got tired, I would tell myself that I would just finish the particular lap that I was running, promising myself, “When I get to the gate that leads to the route home, then I will stop running.” Then, when I got to the gate, I would tell myself, “Let’s just do one more lap — then we can quit.” As soon as the gate was out of view, I could renew the self-deception. Using this “reverse procrastination” method, I was able to keep at the running until my endurance improved and I found I enjoyed it.

‘The desires of the flesh’

This was no original discovery on my part. St. Paul thought of this method long ago. In his Letter to the Romans he tells them to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh.”
(Romans 13:14) St. Paul knew that Rome offered his friends many temptations. Living a Christian life there was like a long-distance race. These new Christians would have to ignore the voice of doubt telling them, “This is too hard, the race is too long, let’s quit today, maybe we can try again tomorrow.”

St. Paul “flipped the script” on this temptation, telling the Romans to use their own version of reverse procrastination by making “no provision for the desires of the flesh.”

To defeat gluttony, the sinner simply neglects to buy that piece of cake while they are at the store, telling themselves, “If I really need it, I can just come back later.” Then, when tempted at home, they procrastinate getting the cake by saying, “It’s such a hassle going to the store, I will just have some fruit tonight. There will always be cake tomorrow.” Then, when tomorrow comes, the sinner can once again defer gratification, knowing they can always misbehave the next day.

Virtue is more habit-forming than sin

Like our wrestling coach who, after we had done what felt like a million pushups at practice, would yell, “Just 10 more,” only to yell, “Just five more,” after we had done the 10, and then, “Just five more,” after we had done that five, St. Paul was leading the new Christians of Rome into lives of virtue with repeated small commitments until virtue came naturally.

In a time when smartphones make distraction, overspending and other sins a continual temptation, St. Paul’s reverse procrastination technique can be invaluable. We can delete the distracting game from our phone and tell ourselves, “If I ever need to play it, I can always reload it. But today I will do my homework and visit my friends.” If going to Mass on Sunday seems like a hassle, we can just tell ourselves, “I’ll go today. If it’s really too burdensome, I can always skip next week.” If we are mad at our brother or sister and we really want to tell them off, we can just tell ourselves, “I will let it go today. I can always lose my patience some other time.”

Of course, this method is just one tool among many to live a virtuous life. But it can sometimes be very helpful. St. Paul ingeniously uses it, knowing that virtue is more habit-forming than sin. Our Lord designed us to live in grace and will help us to do so. When those voices of doubt and fear tell us, “A life of virtue is too hard, the race is too long,” we can take St. Paul’s advice, neglecting the bad while attending to the good.

Northwest Catholic - April 2018

Deacon Eric Paige

Deacon Eric Paige is the Archdiocese of Seattle's executive director for evangelization, formation and discipleship. Contact him at eric.paige@seattlearch.org.