Reducing Procrastination

Procrastination is rooted largely in fear (of failure), self-doubt or laziness. We can’t eliminate it, we can only reduce it. The more something threatens our identity, the more we avoid doing it.

Our identity is how we validate our self-worth, how we define ourselves to ourselves and how we convince ourselves to feel good about our behaviours. It’s a consequence of how we think the world should work according to our assumptions, biases and principles.

When we look at the world through the lens of our beliefs about what is “right”, or about how things ought to be, much of what we see doesn’t always agree with how we think. In simple terms, the more something threatens to change how we view ourselves, the more we pause, withdraw and procrastinate.

A degree of indecision can be beneficial. It depends on how much and about what. Some people are afraid of success for the same reason they’re afraid of failure, because it threatens an identity they’ve created about their strengths and limitations. And we choose to avoid or ignore what conflicts with that self-determined identity.

The beliefs that define who we think we are constitute our mindset. We stridently protect these self-affirming notions, often at a cost to our integrity and effectiveness. If you believe you’re a nice person, you step away from or eliminate situations that could potentially contradict that belief. If you believe you’re an awesome conversationalist, you seek opportunities to prove it.

The hardest things we must do in life arise from emotional resistance. While feelings dictate behaviours, our emotions are not a matter of choice. But our behaviour always is. We have two interdependent but competitive ways of thinking – one is called the head, the other the gut. The latter wants the cookie; the former says “but, if you eat it, it will make you fat.” These decisions are made emotionally in the limbic system but are rationalized or overridden in the cerebral cortex, where reasoned thinking occurs.

Trying to eliminate an emotion only makes it stronger. Negative emotions are like quicksand: the more we think about them or use dumb strategies to extricate ourselves from their grip, the further we sink into them. The trick is to openly acknowledge them, then explicitly let go of them.

This is a skill borne of the realization from which all personal growth emerges – accepting that we are ultimately responsible for everything we do, no matter the circumstances. That simple choice, taking responsibility for our actions, enables us to feel in control. And this allows us to transform negative feelings into far more empowering behaviours.

We can’t always control what happens to us, but we can control how we interpret what happens to us, as well as how we choose to respond to what happens. Whether we consciously recognize and accept our circumstances or choose not to do so, we are always responsible for our actions.

Those who procrastinate try to either justify their behaviour or motivate themselves with positive self-talk. The self-defeating approach sounds like this: “Why did I take this on? … it needs to be perfect and I just don’t have the time … so I’ll put it off a while longer. Because, if I don’t do it right, people will be disappointed in me.”

The internal pep talk says: “You can do this. You’re smart. No, you’re amazing! You can do anything you want to do.” But the more you try to psyche yourself up or rationalize your avoidance, the more you attach your identity to either untrue superlatives or berating put-downs. And the more you conclude any action you might take could threaten that belief, the less likely you are to do it.

When we let go of the stories we tell ourselves about our self-induced identity of either greatness or ineptitude, we free ourselves to act, to fail (or succeed) and to grow. When we admit to ourselves, “You know, maybe I’m not that great, maybe I’m just scared” or “Perhaps I can just give this a go and see how it turns out,” we allow ourselves to be ambitious, give our to-dos an honest effort and just let life take its course.

The antidote to procrastination lies not in having supreme confidence but in possessing realistic humility. Procrastinators need to redefine their self-image. They need to see themselves not as unrecognized geniuses or as victims without control, but simply as human beings. (And bouncing back from failure is how we become stronger and more resilient.) They need to define themselves as learners, as creators, as trusted friends, partners and colleagues and, above all, as imperfect.

It’s human to see ourselves as uniquely intelligent, spectacularly talented or victimized in ways others cannot imagine. We tell ourselves these self-aggrandizing, self-fulfilling stories because they satisfy the picture we have in our heads about who we are. Our brains demand this self-delusion because it makes us feel good. But this delusion is precisely what holds us back from achieving our potential.

The more accurate the identity you choose for yourself, the less circumstances will threaten you. Eliminating those imagined, perceived and debilitating threats will reduce the self-inflicted procrastination about doing the sorts of things that really matter.