Procrastination. I mean, who even wants to read that word. Fending off procrastination seemed futile. Just one of those things to grit your teeth and endure – this time I’ll start early, this time I’ll follow up with more questions earlier.

Procrastinating on solving the procrastination problem, just look at how pernicious it is. 

This is a book that will help you stop procrastinating. 

Procrastination is not a cause but an effect
The key insight is to reframe what procrastination is. It’s not the cause of delaying on working, it’s the effect of beliefs you hold about yourself. Procrastination is an attempt to resolve a variety of underlying issues, including low self-esteem, perfectionism, fear of failure and of success, indecisiveness, an imbalance between work and play, ineffective goal-setting, and negative concepts about work and yourself.

Procrastination is not a result of insufficient disciplining of oneself or insufficient regard for one’s work product – it’s the exact opposite. As Fiore observes, “people who have been procrastinating for years on major life goals are already pretty good at self-criticism.”

What procrastination really is is a technique for managing negative and critical feelings. “Procrastination is a mechanism for coping with the anxiety association with starting or completing any task or decision”. This anxiety is based on beliefs about how working on certain tasks will make you feel – based on feedback received or imagined. 

What are the real triggers of procrastination
Fears of failure, perfectionism, and impossible expectations trigger procrastination. These impair our ability to have compassion and respect for ourselves. The faulty premise of these beliefs is that you are your work, and specifically your worth is based on your work today. 

To break the cycle of procrastination, we need new beliefs about ourselves – that we are capable of excellent work, that we desire being challenged, that we esteem our work and ourselves. That mindset shift enables us to embrace opportunities to work, to communicate about our needs in order to create great work, and to plan appropriately. 

For many, early messaging in our lives focused on critical feedback; praise was withheld for fear of letting it “go to your head”. This naturally created a judge or “discipliner” inner voice to take the mantle of that critical authority when it was no longer in the room. The message is that the work is never finished, and work and strife is all one deserves. In order to get anything done at all, the judge/discipliner cracks the whip. 

In response to developing this inner critic, we develop the inner victim. The inner victim hands over control to the inner discipliner; the discipliner is perceived to reflect authority. We must see that it is we that choose this dynamic. 

Perfectionism -> fear of failure -> procrastination -> criticism of the self, anxiety, loss of confidence -> more intense fear of failure -> perfectionism. Note that procrastination is not the the cause but a product of other self-views. 

Procrastination is also a passive aggressive tool to resist pressure from authorities – internal or external. This technique requires conceiving ourselves as the powerless victim – you can’t take on the powers that be directly. but you can half ass the work or sabotage it. 

Procrastination is also a tool for plausible deniability; advancement =  mo money mo problems. New challenges require new work to take on – maybe you have to move coasts and mail your plants and and buy a house. Good challenges, sure, but challenges. And yet another fear is that even when you succeed you will fail later – fear of delayed failure. 

How to believe new things about your relation to work
Solutions for resolving procrastination typically refer to the task itself – “just doing it” or “breaking it into pieces”. But it’s not the substance of the project that is the obstacle, it’s the motivation that is the obstacle. So we need a good theory of what motivates us. You can see the wan motivation inherent in the typical advice to”work harder, start earlier, plan ahead”. This suggest work is baleful and to be managed rather than engaged. To build a new conception of our relation to work, we must dismantle the conception of the self as a child to be disciplined, and liberate ourselves us creators that gain meaning and expression through taking on the challenges ahead. This approach “has a greater faith in human nature.” 

The mechanism of sublimating procrastination into production is teaching ourselves that we can choose to make meaningful progress, and then we can choose to rest and enjoy ourselves. 

How we perceive ourselves is a choice. We choose the narratives. We can choose to believe in ourselves. By exercising this choice, we create dignity and capability all at once. If you think about it, the most satisfying professional relationships were based on trust; someone trusted you to do a good job, and then you did. We should all treat ourselves with that same trust. And then we will be motivated to rise to the occasion. 

While this is a discrete theory, there are multiple tactics involved in building in habits around this perspective shift. These resonated with me: 

  1. creating safety by building in safety nets: positive statements that affirm your ability to handle any adversity
  2. reprogramming negative attitudes: rejecting harmful narratives about yourself and reminding yourself of your capabilities
  3. scheduling and enjoying guilt free play: we deserve play and rest
  4. channeling anxiety to complete the task into eagerness to begin, with tractable small steps to begin

#1 is echoed in a technique Tim Ferris swears by: fear setting. What’s the worst that could happen at work – getting fired? So you get fired – what’s the worst thing that happens then? Any potential solutions? You rapidly see that you can build out actionable contingencies for just about any source of anxiety. #2 shows us that we can reprogram ourselves with some simple narrative switches. The simplest switch is from “I have to” to “I choose to”. We can wilt in the face of work, or we can take it head on with resolve, and choose our fate. 

#3 and #4 are tied: we have to build cycles of work and play to motivate ourselves. The future reward for completion of the entire project is too remote and abstract; we must build rewards for starting. And in starting, we create opportunity to complete – because we actually want dignity and control, we will choose to return to the project to carry it further. Prolific author Tyler Cowen uses this technique: “I guess I try to write a few pages every day. I don’t obsess over the counting, I just do as much as I can and stop before I feel I am done, so I am eager to start up again the next day, or after lunch.”

Likewise, Anne Lamott explains why we should put out a Shitty First Draft in Bird by Bird:

“What I’ve learned to do when I sit down to work on a shitty first draft is to quiet the voices in my head. First there’s the vinegar-lipped Reader Lady, who says primly, ‘Well, that’s not very interesting, is it?’… And there are your parents, agonizing over your lack of loyalty and discretion…Quieting these voices is at least half the battle I fight daily.” Lamott’s particular technique involves sitting quietly, listening for that chatter and then having isolated it, imagine a volume button to turn it down. 

#4 also finds support in Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck:  “The pain you pursue in the gym results in better all-around health and energy… Everything worthwhile in life is won through surmounting the associated negative experience. Any attempt to escape the negative, to avoid it or quash it or silence it, only backfires. The avoidance of suffering is a form of suffering.”

So go get ‘em.  Get the book here.