Progress Over Procrastination

By Mike Reeves-McMillan, who blogs at Living Skillfully: Change Your Life.

We all put off things we don’t want to do.

For example, I put off starting study assignments. That’s not going to be much of a problem in the future, because I’m coming to the end of my last formal study, at least for some time. But reflecting on where my procrastination might be coming from has given me some insights into procrastination in general, and what we can do about it.

Procrastination is internal resistance, arising out of negative experiences in the past. It’s a manifestation of fear, rebellion, and lack of self-confidence. It’s the exact opposite of self-efficacy, the justified belief that you can achieve a specific task.

When I was about 12 years old, my teacher wasn’t very competent. He was a young man in his first year out of teachers’ college, and the classroom was the site of a continual struggle which he was largely losing.

I was one of the few people in the class who actually handed in my assignments. So in desperation, Mr Harris set an assignment that linked in to the interests of most of the class. We had to write about our favourite musical group.

This was 1979, so there was an awful lot of ABBA, and I think some Bee Gees. The problem was that I wasn’t into music. Not even a little bit. Certainly not pop music – my father was a classically-trained singer (not professionally, but he was pretty good), and I’d been taught to look down on anyone who needed a microphone to be heard at the back of the hall.

I didn’t hand in that assignment. I still remember the feeling of helplessness, of being unable to begin (the Internet wouldn’t exist for many more years, and I didn’t know how to get information about symphony orchestras). And I distinctly remember my outrage when my school report said that I “didn’t always hand in assignments” – as if it had been more than that one stupid assignment that I had missed.

I think my procrastination about assignments began there.

And a lot of people growing up felt that way about all their assignments. Am I right?

There are other things we procrastinate, too. I put off doing the dishes. I think to myself, “I have to do this, even though I don’t enjoy it. But I don’t have to do it now. I can do it later.” (The result is that you can barely see my kitchen counter.)

So: Fear. Helplessness. Rebellion. Thinking you’ll fail and look stupid, you’ll hate the process, or you don’t know where to start.

That’s why we procrastinate (at least, it’s why I do, and I don’t think I’m alone).

What can we do?

Here are a few ideas.

  1. Be aware that a lot of your resistance is not because of what the task is, but what it reminds you of. Allow yourself to become aware that this isn’t really like that.
  2. Connect to the emotions and let them be. Greet them by name. Let them slowly disperse as you hold them in your consciousness and realize that you don’t need them right now.
  3. Start by stealth. Kind of look away from the task and just do preparatory work for maybe doing the task later. Set up the file for the project, or run the water in the sink. Once you’re underway, it’s not as hard to keep moving.
  4. Rebel against rebellion. “I can do this now if I choose to. You can’t stop me.”
  5. Build your self-efficacy. Remind yourself of all the things you can do, all the things you have done, done successfully, done well. Get yourself into that mindset. Then look back at the task. Easy!
  6. Related to that: Update your inner self-concept. I’m not 12 years old any more. I’m 43 and have a master’s degree. Clearly, I can do assignments.
  7. Use my recently coined Paramount Pictures technique: Blow the task up to something that really is immensely challenging. Then look back at the actual task. It’ll shrink by comparison.

What are you putting off? And which of those techniques can help you progress anyway?

4 thoughts on “Progress Over Procrastination”

  1. This is some of the best advice I’ve heard on how to deal with procrastination – I especially like the “paramount pictures” way of dealing with it.

  2. Haha I love the “I’m not 12 years old any more. I’m 43 and have a master’s degree. Clearly, I can do assignments.”

    It’s so true that we often make ridiculous excuses for us to procrastinate on doing something. A lot of times it just takes forced repetition and building a habit out of it. It’s much more difficult to start it the first time than the 10th time.

    Nice post 🙂

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