Since I’ve resumed work on my book in earnest, I’ve been examining my desire to procrastinate and trying to understand why I’d avoid a project I’m so excited about.
I know I’m not alone. It’s a cultural trope that creatives would rather do almost anything than sit down to write, paint or play music. I’ve talked with several coaching clients recently about their procrastination struggles.
So I found this recent New York Times article insightful: Why You Procrastinate (It Has Nothing to Do With Self-Control)
Here’s the idea that stuck with me:
Procrastination isn’t a unique character flaw or a mysterious curse on your ability to manage time, but a way of coping with challenging emotions and negative moods induced by certain tasks — boredom, anxiety, insecurity, frustration, resentment, self-doubt and beyond.
“Procrastination is an emotion regulation problem, not a time management problem,” said Dr. Tim Pychyl, professor of psychology and member of the Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University in Ottawa.
We aren’t avoiding a task because we’re lazy. When a task feels bad, we substitute something else to avoid the discomfort.
When I was in business school, we joked that cleaning the bathroom never sounds as good as when you have an exam to study for. Usually cleaning the bathroom sounds tedious and dirty, but compared to feeling confused or overwhelmed by difficult material, scrubbing the toilet feels like safe harbor.
We also aren’t great at delayed gratification. Our brains care more about avoiding discomfort now than about the long-term payoff of the task we’re avoiding.
“We really weren’t designed to think ahead into the further future because we needed to focus on providing for ourselves in the here and now,” said psychologist Dr. Hal Hershfield, a professor of marketing at the U.C.L.A. Anderson School of Management.
Dr. Hershfield’s research has shown that, on a neural level, we perceive our “future selves” more like strangers than as parts of ourselves. When we procrastinate, parts of our brains actually think that the tasks we’re putting off — and the accompanying negative feelings that await us on the other side — are somebody else’s problem.
Check out the full article for more insights on why we procrastinate and ideas for overcoming our well-developed avoidance techniques: Why You Procrastinate (It Has Nothing to Do With Self-Control)
This recent post from Zen Habits points to a similar problem — when we’re uncomfortable with uncertainty, we’ll avoid it.
It resonated with me so deeply that I’m reposting in its entirety:
A man I know wanted to create a nonprofit organization that was going to help give people a voice who don’t have that voice in our society.
He felt really strongly about this issue, and knew that this would have a big impact on people who he cared deeply about.
But he kept putting off starting.
He was like a million others who want to do meaningful work: write a book, fight for those who are powerless, create a startup, code a phone app that could change lives, volunteer at a charity, launch a business that has a heart. We put off doing this work because of deep uncertainty.
This man, like many of you, wasn’t sure if he could do it. He wasn’t sure how to go about doing it. He was worried that people would judge him, worried about what they might say. He didn’t know what path to take, was overwhelmed by how much there was to do, discouraged that he kept having to start over.
These are just a small subset of the doubt, fear and uncertainty we all face when we think about doing something meaningful.
So this man made a list. Everything he had to do. He picked the first thing on the list, and told himself he’d do it tomorrow.
Tomorrow came, and it turns out he needed to organize all the files on his computer. Oh, and clean his desk and also his bedroom and kitchen. Once these things were done, he’d be all clear to go.
He started the next day, but wondered if he was using the right tools. He did a search and spent the day researching the best tools for what he needed to do. That lead to a lot of other research, so that he didn’t feel he was procrastinating.
The tools research led him to research a bunch of other things, and he felt good doing this research. He spent weeks in the research phase — not tackling the things on his list but just reading and searching and taking notes. He told himself he was doing the meaningful work.
He decided he needed to get back to that first task on his list, so he told himself to do it tomorrow. Tomorrow came, but he decided to check his email first, to see if anything important was in his inbox. He also answered messages, checked some news websites, answered some more emails, started organizing all the things he had to do, and paid some bills. That lasted several days. If he got all these things clear, then he’d be ready to work on the nonprofit.
You can see where this is going. He found lots of reasons not to actually do the meaningful work. He was feeling worse and worse about himself at this point.
But the people who he wanted to serve are those who continued to suffer. He himself was in a pretty comfortable life, other than the angst of not taking action. But those who he wanted to help were still suffering, because he couldn’t face the uncertainty.
The story isn’t over yet. He’s still avoiding the uncertainty … but it’s possible he’ll turn and face it. Practice with it with full mindfulness. Be absolutely courageous and present with it. And then begin to open up to it, letting it transform him like a fire transforms metal. It’s difficult at first but he can relax into it and fall in love with it.
The key is to open up to the deep uncertainty of the meaningful work. Recognize it as a necessary component of that work, not something to be feared or hated or avoided, but embraced and loved. It’s like the uncertainty of falling in love — how boring would a relationship be without the shakiness of that uncertainty? We can learn to recognize the uncertainty of our meaningful work as the thrill of exploration, falling in love, adventure, learning, creating, playing, or serving those we love.
Devoting ourselves to those we love helps us to open up to the uncertainty, to relax into it, because we allow our minds to open beyond the smallness of our self-concern. We see that there’s more to this than worrying about our own comfort, and realize that the most meaningful moments in our lives were achieved with discomfort, and that wasn’t a coincidence — the uncertainty and discomfort are a necessary component for us to do anything meaningful.
We can train in this. With love.
Related posts on Zen Habits:
- The Universal Narrative: When You Feel Unworthy
- How to Do Your Scariest Tasks of the Day, with Joy
- The Underestimated Importance of Encouragement in Habit Change
- Focus as an Antidote for Wanting to Do Everything
Related posts on Newvine Growing:
- Procrastination is not about laziness. Don’t put off overcoming it.
- Pay now or pay later, but the dishes must get done