“There is some risk involved in action, there always is. But there is far more risk in failure to act”- Harry S. Truman
I have the pleasure of writing today’s post at the request of a long-time subscriber who is also a close friend. He asked me to send everything I had written on procrastination but I thought it would be better to put it together in a tailor-made blog. I hope this does the job. (To all my other readers - If you have a burning topic you would like me to write about, please let me know).
“Procrastination: The belief that there's a magical fairy called "Tomorrow" who can get all your work done for you.” – Chatgpt4
Why this is a topic close to my heart
I suffered greatly from procrastination in my late 20s and early 30s when trying to change professional direction. I know intimately what procrastination feels like. For me it was always a question of scale, ‘what difference does this small action make to such a large problem’. That sense of overwhelm is real and paralysing.
Why procrastination is fear
I believe procrastination is fear. Not the fear of finding ghouls under your bed but the fear associated with doing new things. I think procrastination is often lumped in with distraction, but I think it is quite different. We often blame the things we are doing instead of our priorities but it is so much easier to get distracted away from things you are fearful doing.
Procrastination is the fear of:
Mental effort: we often procrastinate because the problem is not simple or easy to navigate. There is a ton of upfront work required to get organised. We tell ourselves to ‘wait for the right day’ to set up website, make the connection or start reading the book.
Failure: the fear of failure is paralysing. If we do not attempt the task we cannot fail right? And how much difference is missing today going to make when we have a mountain to climb. Are we even going to get to climb this mountain?
Success: If we make that project work we might get more responsibility and what if we cannot live up to the new and higher expectations and increased attention. Will people find out we're nothing that special?
Judgment: What if we do not want to attract attention ? Will people call us an ‘attention-seeker’ or a ‘suck-up’ or will they think negatively of our motives?
Making decisions: Sometimes we fear making the hard decisions. Facing up to a trade-off between two or more imperfect avenues. This fear of making the wrong decision often leads to no decision which is more often than not a worse path
Saying no: Maybe we feel an obligation to someone else or otherwise feel pushed into somebody else's agenda. We procrastinate because we cannot justify spending our time on it.
What's happening whilst you are procrastinating?
Procrastination is a fear of what might happens when the rubber hits the road - that lack of willingness to make hard decisions. When we procrastinate, the old brain (e.g. the amygdala the emotional part of the brain), is in conflict with the new brain (e.g. the pre-frontal cortex the planning, decision-making part of the brain). During procrastination the old brain, avoiding discomfort can overpower the new brain.
The problem with procrastination
Procrastination can lead you into the following set of dominos:
Missed opportunities - procrastination leads to doing fewer valuable things. The time spent in a holding pattern will ultimately lead to less satisfaction with your day and a feeling of missed opportunity
Rush - having eaten into the time you had to do something properly the next problem is that you might attempt to do it but find you have to take shortcuts and not be able to take pride in the work you have produced.
Regret - having either done something poorly or not all will leave you with a feeling of regret. Regret is a powerful emotion - often far worse to deal with than any of the emotions that stopped you getting started.
Get stressed - stress comes from two angles: the growing to-do list, and the regret associated with having already wasted a lot of time. The impact of stress we have covered before through the hormone cortisol (Cortisol - the hormone of alarm (hartejsingh.com)).
Less joy - A state of stress will make you enjoy things less including being able to connect with those that are important to you.
How do we overcome procrastination?
Imagine you wanted to research your local schools to see which one will work best for your child and family. It's easy to put it off until it becomes an emergency! So here are my 7 steps to getting started.
1) Look forward to that positive feeling of having made some headway into that task you have been putting off. The motivating hormone Dopamine is released when we make progress, reach a milestone or complete something. It is both reward and a stimulus for further progress. Motivation often follows action rather than the other way round.
2) Fear regret: Cornell University conducted a study that concluded that people tend to regret more the things they didn't do when they had the opportunity, rather than the things they did. Get going now to avoid regret.
3) Allocate time now: Firstly, remind yourself why it is so important and secondly resolve to spend at least 20 minutes a day on it for as many days as it takes to complete. This might seem like an arbitrary number, but it is a number where you cannot say you do not have time to do it.
4) Start fresh: I find that in battles between my old brain and new brain, I am best equipped to overcome things in the morning after a good sleep (at least 7hours and no greasy food the night before).
5) Plan first: I would spend the first session putting together a set of steps to follow e.g. 1) I am going to choose all the schools within 20 minutes of the house, 2) rank them on these 4 criteria 3) get the information from the school websites, and 4) speak to at least 4 parents who have older children. I would save a word file or equivalent to keep all my notes together.
6) Celebrate consistency: In a relatively short period of time, you would have unpicked an unholy mess and will be clearer on your direction. We over-rate the benefit of long sessions of intensity and miss out on the more important factor of consistency. Consistency is how things really get done.
7) Make the required trade-offs: Picking a school, party venue, house or gym involves trade-offs. Your aim is to get a great outcome not a perfect outcome which only happens in fairy-tales.
How is this relevant to decision-making? Here are three take-aways before we pick it up next week:
1) Procrastination is fear: the fear of mental effort, failure, success, judgment, making decisions, or saying no. Accepting that procrastination is fear can help us address and overcome it.
2) Procrastination can lead to missed opportunities, rushing through tasks, regret, increased stress levels, and diminished enjoyment of life. These negative outcomes are severe and therefore procrastination is a serious issue for those who suffer from it.
3) Your procrastination busters are: focusing on the positive feeling of progress, avoiding regret, dedicating time, starting fresh, planning steps involved, chipping away and making trade-offs where needed.
I would love your feedback on this.
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