My first post of 2019 (A Year From Now You'll Wish You Started Today) outlined 3 steps to a more productive year. Step 1: create a one year vision; Step 2: align your identity with your vision; Step 3: take action in alignment with your new identity and vision. It's October now. And if you are like me, even though you created a vision and have taken action to achieve it, there is at least one part where you just can't seem to get traction. You may have even tried a few times, or started and stopped and started again, but something is keeping you from taking consistent action. Procrastination has won the day.
Congratulations, you are human. And because you are human, your procrastination has something to teach you about you.
Ironically, I wrote the first two paragraphs last Thursday and then put off finishing this post for a few days. I like to pretend it's because I was interrupted or got busy. I could blame it on my mom and her 3-week hospitalization (she's back home now, thankfully). It's easier on my ego to go with an excuse. Truth? With this topic, I tapped into a vulnerable place. Fear crept in, and my ego triggered a detour. As usual, the detour led me right back to my original path, and here we are. That's what procrastination does.
Why do we procrastinate? What do we get by doing it? What do we lose? Here are four common reasons, each rooted in avoidance of vulnerability.
Fear of Failure
We are less likely to hesistate when a task is familiar, and we know how to complete it. Tasks that need learning or creativity can feel more daunting. You'd think a "new" or creative task would be more exciting than one that is routine, and that the excitement would be motivating. And it can be. But most of us have had at least one experience, either personally or as a witness, where creative efforts were judged harshly by others. This kind of experience tends to stick with us -- embedded in our subconscious. And when situations arise that feel similar, our subconscious mind triggers those old, familiar feelings of fear.
Like all fears, fear of failure is learned through experience. We don't really "unlearn" it over time, but we can learn to recognize it. Instead of those feelings being overwhelming and showstopping, we can learn to appreciate the fear as a reminder of who we've been and how far we've come. That's called resilience.
Patrick Kennedy said, "procrastination is a sign of a perfectionist." Perfection is another version of fear of failure. This time, though, the subconscious taps into feelings that you are "not enough", and so, your work will also be not enough. Perfection can be a good thing -- but not always. A chronic need for perfection is rooted in a lack of self-love. You'd think that the ability to do tasks perfectly would result in a high sense of self-esteem, but that's not how it works. Perfectionists seek approval from others through their perfectionism. But the feelings of approval are short-lived. Because approval is external, the self-love hole inside is never filled.
Affirmations can help. You can start by reminding yourself that you are creative, resourceful and whole. It's also helpful to remember that your feelings come from inside you. Only you can make yourself feel unloved, not respected, or not enough. Which also means only you can make yourself feel loved, respected, and enough.
Ever wonder why they put the candy, soda, and magazines by the checkouts at the store? It's not for the sake of convenience. Marketers know about a thing called "decision fatigue." By the time you get to the checkout at the grocery store, for example, you've made quite a few decisions. If you're in the store at the end of the day, on your way home from work or other activities, you've been making decisions all day. Research has shown that as we go through our day, our ability to make decisions -- decisions that are in alignment with our highest good and/or our goals -- declines significantly.
The purpose of the "list" at a grocery store is not just so you remember everything you need. If you follow your list, and buy only the things that are on the list, you will not be less tempted by those sugary snacks, but you will be more firm in your decision to avoid them because you already made the decision not to. You made that decision when you made your list.
It's the difference between "deciding what to do when you get home" and "deciding what you'll do at home before you get home." You're less likely to be tempted by the "shiny thing" when you've made a commitment to yourself to work on a project, attend a child's event, or watch your favorite show. I work out in the morning because I know I can talk myself out of it in the afternoon. Know anyone who does meal planning? People at my gym plan all their meals for the week and pre-package them all. They make their food decisions on Sunday, which helps them stick to their best laid plans all week long.
One way to combat decision fatigue is to "bookmark" your projects. When you finish a step, write down the step you just finished, then add the next step. This way, when you sit down the next time to work on the project, the decision for how to start has already been made. You can just get to work. When you're ready to leave the project again, write down the next step before you walk away.
Using a calendar can also help, as long as you see the "meetings" you make with yourself as a priority. The trick is to keep your commitments to yourself. If you schedule your workout from 6-7 pm, then meet yourself with your workout gear on at the time specified. Over time, if you continue to keep your commitments to yourself, you'll develop a strong sense of self-trust, and you'll be able to apply that self-trust to other areas of your life.
I was standing on a rope bridge in a climbing harness, gripping the tree behind me and trying to figure out how I was going to walk across that ladder when I couldn't feel my feet. The ropes course facilitator asked me if I was going to come over to the landing where he was sitting. I told him I wanted to, but I didn't think I could, since I couldn't feel my feet. He replied, "When you can't feel your feet, wiggle your toes."
I didn't know until later how profound that simple statement was. The smallest successful action can free us to move forward with confidence.
As instructed, I wiggled my toes. And in that instant, I knew I could move to the next step. One step at a time, I moved across the ladder to the platform. A task that seemed impossible became possible in the instant I took the simplest of actions.
Procrastination has its rewards -- and its consequences. At the least, when we procrastinate, we can avoid unpleasant feelings -- at least for a while. As time passes, and the time available to complete the task shrinks, we can blame "not enough time" as our reason for any imperfection. And our fear of failure shifts its definition from failure on the task to failure to do anything -- which is way worse. Time pressure leads us to take action, essentially forcing us to move through the unpleasant feelings (which are still there) whether we want to or not.
Sometimes procrastination rewards us by making the task unnecessary. I remember times when I put off requests from others that I didn't want to do, figuring that if they really wanted it done they'd follow up. When they didn't follow up, or if enough time passed to make it silly to do the task, I got out of it.
By getting out of it, though, I missed out on an opportunity for growth. You see, those unpleasant feelings you have that trigger your procrastination in the first place -- those feelings are there to teach you something about you. They alert us to gaps in our own character or holes in our values. If you think of yourself as a person of integrity, putting off a task you committed to completing goes against that value.
Your procrastination is a sign that something is off. Did you agree to a task that you didn't want to do? If so, why? Were you trying to impress someone? Were you trying to be helpful? Do you assess your own value based on how helpful you are to others? Unpleasant feelings are an invitation to do this kind of questioning -- to get curious about ourselves. Through this kind of questioning, as well as the act of pushing through and moving to action, we grow. Growth -- all change & transformation -- happens from the inside out.
When you procrastinate, the voices in your head are trying to tell you something. What are you putting off today? What is the smallest action you could take right now? What would you do if you knew that you would succeed? What is your procrastination trying to tell you about you? What is the shift that needs to happen inside so you can get moving?
Finally, what action could you take today that would help put you back on your path to your vision for 2019? There's still plenty of time for progress. And a year from now, you'll wish you started today.
Photo used with permission by 123rf.com.