There’s an old saying “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day, but teach him to fish and he will eat for a lifetime”. Essentially the message here is to understand and deal with the cause and not just the symptom of a problem. Procrastination is an affliction that probably stifles us all at some point but for some it becomes a way of life forever infiltrating into best intention and hard held plans until lives look like a pale shadow of all they could be. The disappointment that ensues succeeds in making the procrastination self perpetuating, it feeds off the feeling we have of our own uselessness and uses it to shackle our efforts to break free, insisting that we’re just not up to it so we may as well give up rather than getting on with building a truly remarkable existence. Procrastination is beaten by understanding it’s cause and dealing with it. So this post is essentially about learning to fish.
One of the most effective ways of overcoming procrastination is through understanding what it is which provides the motivation for our life. Now, it’s pretty hard for me to help answer that one for you in a blog even though I would be pretty confident of doing so if you were sitting face to face with me. However, there are other important things to understand about procrastination which make it far less of a miserable mystery and much more beatable.
We can procrastinate when faced with two fears. The fear of success, and the fear of failure. Fear of failure probably sounds quite logical, we avoid doing something because we feel uncomfortable about the consequence of getting it wrong, so we mistakenly believe that not doing it at all will spare us the pain. Not true. What actually happens is we still feel a pain but it is the pain of limiting ourselves, knowing underneath that we are letting ourselves down, failing to push beyond the comfortable and safe boundaries. In essence we get a feeling of pain from the failure to act rather than the pain from acting and getting it wrong. Here’s the big eureka moment…the pain of not doing it is far far worse than the one you fear from getting it wrong. So you keep yourself in an uncomfortable place through fear of being in an uncomfortable place. How messed up is that?
Fear of success. Ooh, really? Yes, really. Sometimes, particularly when we have a low opinion of ourselves, we find it impossible to think of ourselves as capable and effective. In fact the idea that we might be successful is so against our self image that it seems implausible and impossible. Faced with this belief what on earth would be the consequences of actually achieving something fabulous, realising a dream? Suddenly everyone would start to think you were “OK”, in fact better than that, they would believe you were “good” and maybe even “valuable”! But you know you’re not, right? So the expectation levels have suddenly gone through the roof and you don’t believe you can maintain them. How dreadful to give people the impression that you’re talented and in control of your own life. You would never be able to keep that up so the best thing to do would be not to succeed in the first place, that way expectations (yours and everyone else’s) remain on the floor and, on a good day, you can probably meet them.
It goes deeper than this. Hold on tight because we’re going down, much deeper down.
I have worked with countless people who stand in their own way extremely effectively and often one of the aspects which underpins their self sabotage is a fundamental disbelief in their right to feel happy and have an enjoyable life. Yes, that’s right, some of us procrastinate because we don’t believe in our right to happiness. Think about that for a few moments. We stop ourselves from contentment because we don’t think we deserve it. Here’s a question for you and if you’re struggling at the moment think about it carefully;
What makes you so special that you don’t deserve to be happy like other people?
We also procrastinate because we don’t want the bad feeling we expect to be associated with doing the thing we’re avoiding. We delay paying an already massively overdue bill because we think we’ll be judged by someone for being so disorganised. We don’t make the difficult phone call because we think that the other person will get angry with us (guess what, not telling them at all makes them much angrier), we say “yes” and then procrastinate all the way up to the point at which we say “no” at the last minute creating an impression of ourselves as some flakey airhead when really we’re just fearful of being rejected if we ever say “no”. We do the metaphorical equivalent of disappearing off to sit in the toilet in the vain hope that when we emerge everything bad will have gone away, except it doesn’t, not ever. We just find ourselves in an ever decreasing circle of self destruction, paying more than we need to, missing opportunities which could have really helped us, upsetting people we care about and generally cocking up our lives, the only one we have (as far as we know).
If you Google it you’ll find an endless stream of suggestions aimed at combating procrastination. The problem is that if it were as simple as following a “Top 10” suggestion list it would not be the terrible problem that it is. So instead I am offering some thoughts that might help things to shift, no demand, no expectation, just a little exploration which might help you make a difference to your own life.
A little technique I have used with some success is having a “Procrastination Week”. I list down all the things I haven’t got around too but which I know will be of help to me but I use a couple of rules. Firstly, they must be things I know I have avoided already (you know what they are so don’t kid yourself), secondly I must be able to complete the task I write down within a single week. This is very very important because the enemy of procrastination is progress and progress only feels like progress when you complete something. Therefore, if a task is straightforward and can be completed in the week, such as paying a bill, it can go on the list. If however it is something much bigger and wide reaching (like writing a book) the task on your list must be a small piece of this, for example “write the book plan”. This way, you can be sure that your procrastination won’t take hold simply through the task being so big that it feels unmanageable. This process is called “chunking down”. It reminds me of the old saying “How do you eat an elephant? Take one bite at a time” Although I don’t have any sympathy with those of you trying to eat elephants, they are wonderful majestic creatures and should be left alone to wander about. Don’t feed them buns either, that shit is bad for them.
Another enemy of procrastination is other people. Whenever you get someone else involved in your project you’ll feel a step change in your own motivation. Why? Because we already know you fear success or failure or both, and that it’s also likely that you fear rejection and admonishment. So, if you involve someone else you will feel a responsibility to them to get things done when you say you will. This is genius with bigger projects. For example, if you really need to do a piece of work which you have been putting off just ask someone if they will review it for you after you have drafted it. Agree a deadline and set a meeting with them. If it’s at work or private it makes no difference, once you have committed just watch yourself squirm at the thought of letting them down and having them think badly of you.
Honesty is a powerful weapon with which to fight procrastination. I read a laughable suggestion to combat procrastination the other day, it said “Don’t Give In” or something similarly vapid. You may as well tell an alcoholic not to have a drink it’s so condescending and daft. Being honest with the problem means acknowledging the behaviour, so if you are browsing through Facebook or making another coffee rather than doing an important piece of work don’t just focus on stopping the behaviour and getting back to your desk, instead recognise what you’re doing, what you’re really doing without trying to change it. Your unwillingness to get on and do something important is self destructive, nobody else is hurting you, you are doing it yourself. Accept it. Be honest about it and also remind yourself that you can carry on hurting yourself, standing in your own way, but you are now doing it consciously rather than ignoring it. It’s hard to deliberately damage yourself without asking yourself why. If I hit myself on the hand with a hammer and keep doing it despite the pain I am probably going to quite quickly reach the point when I ask myself what the hell I’m doing it for. You might not know the answer but you will at the very least find it more uncomfortable to continue. Change often takes place in small imperceptible shifts.
Motivation is another excellent area to think about. There are only two types of motivation. Motivation towards and motivation away from. When we procrastinate we are wholly motivated to get “away from” emotions we don’t want. Our motivation is to escape from the perceived pain of doing whatever it is. We keep revolving around this loop putting things off constantly until the pain of not doing it becomes bigger than the pain of doing it. Revising can provide a great illustration of this. Put it off and put it off until the exam looms and the fear of staring blankly at the exam paper and visualising the horror and shame of failure suddenly prompts an all-nighter with a crate of Red Bull. Instead, if you can find your “towards” motivation everything starts to change. I made this switch recently when my hatred of emptying the dishwasher became unmanageable. I stopped focusing on the misery of taking everything out and putting it away (including my pet hate – the cutlery basket) and instead thought about how much I love a clean kitchen, somewhere I can cook and create, where I feel comfortable and happy. But I know my kitchen is at it’s cleanest and most comfortable when everything is put away and dirty plates and cutlery are out of the sink and waiting in the dishwasher. I love my kitchen looking like this! So I just focus on going “towards” that instead of getting “away from” emptying the dishwasher. Oh it’s so simple but it’s dynamite. Really.
In the end whatever you do to address procrastination will be undermined by any lack of clarity around its purpose. If you understand a little about why you get in your own way you have a much better chance of changing it.
Back in my teens I went through a stage of going fishing. Nobody had taught me how to do it and, consequently, I never caught a single fish. Not one. The only thing that ever snagged my line was a passing boat which pulled line, float, rod, reel into the murky depths leaving me gazing miserably on from the bank. If you want to fix procrastination learn more about why you’re doing it rather than just trying to fix it through sheer effort. You might then find that you catch an abundance of fish rather than losing all of your tackle.