The Importance of Setting Priorities to Overcome Procrastination

The apostle Paul offers helpful advice for the procrastinator in Ephesians 4:16 when he says “make the best use of the time.” Paul’s not comparing good and bad, implying a moral decision. He’s speaking of better and best, underscoring a priority-based decision. Some translations render this with the phrase, “redeeming the time.” Redeem is a biblical word with a rich heritage. It literally means “buy for the purpose of setting free.” Purchasing time for the sake of freedom. Now that’s good news for the procrastinator who is shackled by his many unfinished tasks. He needs to make better use of his time, and this is possible when he begins to make decisions in light of chosen priorities. The Bible often speaks of priorities.

Consider these two familiar passages:

  • But seek first the kingdom of God and all these things will be added unto you.
  • And this is the first commandment, you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.

One of the areas where laziness slips in for the procrastinator is in the setting of priorities. When we don’t establish our priorities and make choices in light of them we will find that, often, decisions are made for us. Then, out of necessity, we will put off what is really important because the less important task has risen to the level of urgency. Jesus makes the same observation when he addresses Martha. She was doing the urgent task while neglecting the important.

Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.

R.H Stein comments,

Martha also wanted to hear Jesus, but the tyranny of the urgent prevented her from doing this. Martha was too easily distracted by less important things. […] There is a need to focus on what is most important, for although serving is good, sitting at Jesus’ feet is best.

Dwight D. Eisenhower served as the General of Armed forces as well as President of the United States for two terms. Making the case for what is truly important, he is reported to have said,

Especially whenever our affairs seem to be in crisis, we are almost compelled to give our first attention to the urgent present rather than to the important future.

There is a thought-provoking matrix that bears Eisenhower’s name. The matrix has the support of numerous biblical passages, and is helpful for evaluating our priorities in light of how we spend our time. The Eisenhower matrix comprises four quadrants. It is important to remember these boxes are never static. Picture the four boxes together as composing a 24-hour period. Then imagine that the individual boxes enlarge or contract based upon how you spend your time. In order for one to increase in size an accompanying box will need to decrease. As you attempt to determine priorities, the events of your day fall into one of these categories.

Quadrant 1 is the important and urgent. When the good Samaritan came upon the man who had been robbed and left for dead it was both important (this is how we love our neighbor) and urgent (something needed to be done immediately).

Quadrant 2 is the important but not urgent. This is where preparation is done. The life of Jesus is an excellent example of this kind of activity. He prayed early in the morning on his busiest days, learned the Scripture well in advance of temptation, and always thoroughly prepared to teach and explain the Scriptures. Your spiritual disciplines fall into quadrant 2. This is where the procrastinator spends the least amount of time because putting off quadrant 2 activities has no immediate consequence. This quadrant lacks urgency. The world will not come to an end if, for instance, you miss a day of prayer, Scripture reading, or Scripture memory. But you will not be spiritually prepared when an opportunity presents itself in the future. This is the procrastinator’s trouble spot—he is always less prepared than he could have been. Quadrant 2 is where the procrastinator needs to spend more time. It is the quadrant of preparation.

Quadrant 3 is not important but urgent. While we must spend some time here, through adequate planning we can spend less. Jesus’ dinner with Mary and Martha provides a good example. Dirty dishes have a place, but not first place. Martha’s serving may have felt like it needed to be done right away, but when Jesus is seated at your table, the dishes can wait. Giving your undivided attention to the words of Jesus is of greater importance than your acts of service. The procrastinator lives in the urgent quadrants. Actually, if you put off anything long enough, it will eventually become urgent and you’ll have to do it. But such a pattern keeps you from doing what is really important. Goethe said,

Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.

Finally, there’s quadrant 4. These are the items that are neither important nor urgent. Because the procrastinator has not developed proper priorities, he is prone to spend an inordinate amount of time in this category. Mindlessly surfing the internet, excessive online gaming, entertainment, and social media fill this category. The average young person ages 8-18 spends 44.5 hours of screen time per week. More often than not, this is quadrant 4 activity. When you put off the important (because it isn’t urgent) you often replace it with the unimportant. Proverbs 12:11 warns us: “Whoever works his land will have plenty of bread, but he who follows worthless pursuits lacks sense.” The word worthless can mean empty, unprincipled, or vain. It is used to describe a cistern that is empty of water. It is also used to describe the pursuit of desires that are unfulfilled. It’s a good word to describe quadrant 4. Time spent here is a waste of time. Furthermore, worthless desires will always remain unfulfilled—wanting more of your time, no matter how much you give. Most procrastinators find they spend a significant amount of time in quadrant 4. This is why, when a procrastinator claims: I just didn’t have enough time, they are deceiving themselves. They did have time, they just spent too much of it in quadrant 4.

The procrastinator spends most of his time in quadrants 1, 3, and 4. He allows something or someone to set his priorities with the urgent marker (quadrants 1 and 3). Then, as he falls further behind with the important things that he didn’t get to, he will give himself to the unimportant (quadrant 4). As this pattern continues, the urgent list grows longer, and he pushes the important issues off until tomorrow. Jesus gave a powerful promise when he said, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will added unto you.”Because God holds you responsible for what you seek to do first, you cannot allow the tyranny of the urgent to set your priorities. To overcome procrastination, you will need to reevaluate your priorities and invest your time in things of lasting value.

Taken from Taking Back Time: biblical strategies for overcoming procrastination, pp. 45-50

Next Week: Step 3-Biblicize

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