Fear-based procrastination

Half of what I read about procrastination, focus, and productivity seems to ignore what for me has always been the prime driver of procrastination: fear.

The unfearing view of procrastination focuses on perfectly reasonable advice, some of which I also give, to alleviate some symptoms. But the best way to beat fear-based procrastination is to beat fear: the fear of doing the hard thing.

Doing the hard thing is scary. But I have a feeling that along with the fear comes shame. We think it’s not supposed to be hard or scary, and that if we were good, in any way, we’d waltz right into it. But we’re not; looks like we’re a shameful mess, instead.

That’s quite an emotional cocktail to be dealing with on a Monday morning.

So let’s start at the end. There’s nothing wrong with fear, so we don’t need to be ashamed. If a task is scaring the caffeine out of us, we can just acknowledge the fear without judging it. Hard things scare us? Perfectly reasonable. Now what?

Now we’re on to the “it shouldn’t be hard” judgement that is at the root of that shame. And I have to say: “Says who?”

Who says it shouldn’t be hard? Why does finding something hard feel like failure, a mark against our character, intelligence, or professionalism? None of these things make sense in the world of chaotic professional skill development, and I bet you learned them all as a school-kid.

School teaches you many wrong things. One of them is that everything in life has a clear, easy progression and if you’re uncertain for even a moment then you must have not been paying attention, or maybe you were lazy or just not as smart as the other kids. Maybe this “just isn’t your thing”.

School lied.

And even if it were true – even if we should have learned how to do something a decade ago – does that matter? Maybe we should know this by now, but the reality is we don’t, and we won’t get much out of getting angry at reality.

All the emotions that hit us when we face the hard thing are either lies or irrelevant truths. None of them are the least bit helpful. They make us turn away from the work in either fear or shame or both, at which point we get a few more painful emotions about the procrastination itself, and it all spirals down from there.

So what can we do when we find ourselves procrastinating?

  1. Sit for a moment – possibly a long moment – think about the task we’re avoiding, and work out what we’re feeling. What emotions are flooding us?
  2. Explicitly work out which emotions are wrong – like shame or disgust – and which, like fear, are simply irrelevant.
  3. We can do two things now: we can just dismiss these emotions, as none of them matter. Or we can actively convert them to a more useful counterpart: pride and thrill at tackling hard, scary things.

Either way, the fear and its sometimes companion shame should have eased. Analysing our emotions tends to take the sting out of them, and frees us to act.

So now we can get started.

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