The Challenge of Procrastination

With an effective cue, you will remember that you need to take action. Yet that doesn’t mean that you will actually follow through with it. Sometimes, for one reason or another, you avoid that action. This is procrastination—it prevents you from taking action, delays your goals, and weakens your aspiration.

Why do we procrastinate? To avoid some form of pain—be it physical, mental, or emotional. It could be the pain of anxiety and fear—such as fear of failing, fear of loss, fear of being judged, or even fear of success. It could also be task aversion—when we perceive the activity to be meaningless, boring, or difficult.

Several books have been written on procrastination and its causes, and at the core here’s all there is to it: we foresee pain, and our lizard brain kicks in to “save us” from it. Then we seek to soothe ourselves emotionally by engaging in an activity that provides a quick and easy shot of dopamine. Dopamine temporarily suppresses the experience of emotional distress, but this just makes the situation worse.

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If procrastination is avoiding pain, then there are only three ways to really overcome it:

  • Decrease the pain of action
  • Increase the pain of inaction
  • Embrace the pain and power through

All the different “tips and tricks” to overcome procrastination typically fall into one of these buckets. If they don’t, they are unlikely to address the core issue. For example, many blogs advise you to install apps that limit your access to certain time-wasting websites. Although this strategy can certainly be useful, the truth is that unless we address the underlying pain we are trying to avoid, removing one source of distraction will only be a temporary fix. We will always find a way to procrastinate with something else—our lizard brain is really good at that!

In Mindful Self-Discipline, the way we deal with procrastination is the same way we deal with most self-discipline challenges: by using a variant of the PAW Method: Pause, Awareness, and Willpower. The first step is to pause for a moment, breathe, and slow things down. Then you become aware of the underlying pain that is making you procrastinate, by asking yourself: “What pain am I avoiding now?”. 

Find out what you are running away from. Be specific in your answer. Go deep and find the real cause—without it, it will be hard to overcome procrastination for good. Then, apply one of the three main willpower methods taught in the book to shift your state, so that you can take action that is aligned with your goals.

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