I used to think that procrastination was just plain laziness. Recently, however, I discovered that procrastination is a type of self-soothing activity to avoid anxiety.
A self-soothing activity is something we do to calm our axieties and fears. Examples include biting our nails, pacing back and forth, emotional eating, shopping, drug addication, and even being a workaholic.
Taking on any task, whether it be a major project or daily minutia, does come with some built in fear and anxiety:
- “What if I fail?”
- “What if I don’t finish on time?”
- “What if it gets more complicated?”
- “What if I’m going down the wrong path?”
- “What if I miss out on something fun?”
When these thoughts start looping around in our minds, we begin to feel that what we are about to do is daunting. So we resort to procrastination to self-soothe our anxiety.
There are three primary reason why use procrastination as a self-soothing activity:
Procrastination is a way of escaping this anxiety. We’d rather watch hours of mindless TV than re-paint the kitchen. We’d rather escape into our office work to avoid spending time mending a fractured relationship. We’d rather spend countless hours researching rather than writing. We pretend to be busy, confusing it with productivity. We escape into procrastination to avoid the thing that is most important to us.
The trick to overcoming procrastination is to only take on that which is important to you. It needs to be so important that you are willing to suffer through the anxiety and stress to get that which most important to you. It’s easy to give up on projects that are unfulfilling or unworthy of your skills. It’s very difficult to give up on things that are important.
We procrastinate because we feel that the anxiety produced in doing what we need to do will be greater than the anticipated joy one gets from accomplishing something. One reason this might happen is that we set such unrealistic goals that when we do finish a project, the actual feeling accomplishment does not meet the anticipated feeling of accomplishment. So we give up on the trying altogether, and go play Call of Duty for 8 hours straight.
This doesn’t mean that one should dream small. It’s just important to reaconize there are dangers in dreaming too big. A part of setting unrealistic expectations is lack of self-esteem. You feel that somehow you are only of value if you go after million dollar ideas, and that anything smaller makes you small. Or you do it to build a sense of grandness hoping it will motivate you to do great things. The focus should not be on greatness of ideas but making progress.
Lack of Self-Worth
Another reason why we procrastinate is because there is some inner-critic in us that tells us that we’ll fail. That our efforts won’t amount to anything. So why bother? This inner-critic has a distinct voice, and can usually be traced to a specifc person, like a disapproving parent, or an unsupportive friend. It’s that part of you that tells you that you can’t accomplish anything, that you’re not worthy of success, and that you’re setting your self up for dissappointment. So what do we do? We succumb to the inner-critic, pre-emptively giving up, and going onto to do something that is utterly a waste of time.
It’s important to have a good support base to keep you motivated. An unsupportive spouse, friend, colleague, boss, teacher, or parent can easily derail your goals. If they cannot value giving constructive feedback rather than descructive feedback, you need to surround yourself with people who will. Find a coach, mentor, or anyone who you feel is successful to provide that support. Most importantly, value yourself, and be mindful of the inner-critic.
Think of procrastination like really self-indulgent, fatty, sugary, unhealthy comfort food. It’s great in the moment, but you end up paying for it in the long run.