Earlier this week, I mentioned Do the Work!, Steven Pressfield’s small book about overcoming procrastination and getting things done. Today, I want to share something I read recently in The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck.
My parents loved The Road Less Traveled when I was a boy, but I’ve never read it myself. Kim has a copy of it on her bookshelf, so I’ve been making my way through it slowly when I have downtime at her house. It’s interesting.
Peck’s book begins in a buddhic fashion, postulating that “life is difficult”. (The first of Buddha’s four noble truths is that “life is suffering”.) Peck argues that suffering is necessary, but that we can achieve mental and spiritual health by using four tools to cope with the challenges we face. Namely:
- Delaying gratification
- Accepting responsibility
- Dedication to truth
I don’t know what he means by all of these yet because I’m not very far in the book. I have, however, begun to read the section on delaying gratification, and I find it fascinating.
I particularly liked this passage in which Peck explains that procrastination is, essentially, a manifestation of low self-esteem. If you don’t like yourself, you don’t value your time, and so you waste it or you put things off. (As always, emphasis is mine.)
When we love something it is of value to us, and when something is of value to us we spend time with it, time enjoying it and time taking care of it. Observe a teenager in love with his car and not the time he will spend admiring it, polishing it, repairing it, tuning it. Or an older person with a beloved rose garden, and the time spent pruning and mulching and fertilizing and studying it. So it is when we love children; we spend time admiring them and caring for them. We give them our time.
The time and the quality of the time that their parents devote to them indicate to the children the degree to which they are valued by their parents.
The feeling of being valuable — “I am a valuable person” — is essential to mental health and is a cornerstone of self-discipline. It is a direct product of parental love. Such a conviction must be gained in childhood; it is extremely difficult to acquire it in adulthood. Conversely, when children have learned through the love of their parents to feel valuable, it is almost impossible for the vicissitudes of adulthood to destroy their spirit.
This feeling of being valuable is a cornerstone of self-discipline because when one considers oneself valuable one will take care of oneself in all ways that are necessary. Self-discipline is self-caring. For instance — since we are discussing the process of delaying gratification, of scheduling and ordering our time — let us examine the matter of time. If we feel ourselves valuable, then we will feel our time to be valuable, and if we feel our time to be valuable, then we will want to use it well.
The financial analyst who procrastinated [mentioned earlier in the book] did not value her time. If she had, she would not have allowed herself to spend most of her day so unhappily and unproductively. It was not without consequence for her that throughout her childhood she was “farmed out” during all school vacations to live with paid foster parents although her parents could have taken care of her perfectly well had they wanted to. They did not value her. They did not want to care for her. So she grew up feeling herself to be of little value, not worth caring for; therefor she did not care for herself. She did not feel she was worth disciplining herself. Despite the fact that she was an intelligent and competent woman she required the most elementary instruction in self-discipline because she lacked a realistic assessment of her own worth and the value of her own time. Once she was able to perceive her time as being valuable, it naturally followed that she wanted to organize it and protect it and make maximum use of it.
I used to be a terrible procrastinator. I also used to waste my time on frivolities. Based on the above passage, it will probably come as no surprise to find that I had little self-esteem. I didn’t like myself, so no wonder I didn’t value my time.
Now, though, I’ve changed. I do like myself. I like who I am. I like what I do. And because I’ve found self-worth, my relationship with time has changed. Whereas I once wasted hours on mindless television or (especially) on videogames, I rarely do this anymore. (Sure, I play games and watch TV sometimes, but it’s a conscious choice, a chance to unwind now and then.) I’ve also become much better about procrastination. When I do procrastinate, it’s usually because I’ve done a poor job prioritizing, not because I’m unhappy with myself.
There’s a lot of good stuff in The Road Less Traveled; I can see why it has sold seven million copies. If I’d read it earlier in my life, it might be one of those foundational books that my personal philosophy is built upon. Actually, it may still become one of those books. I’m sure I’ll be sharing more insights from The Road Less Traveled as I slowly work my way through it.