Procrastination Isn’t A Problem. It’s a Symptom of Something Else

For as long as I can remember, I have always been a procrastinator. No matter how important something is, I always seem to find a way to put it off until the last minute, or when I finally have no other choice.

Unfortunately for me, this strategy has always worked just fine. Both in school and now as an adult making my living as a freelance writer, I’ve always managed to do what I need to do, even if I’ve had to suffer through some late nights to make it happen. And the results have always been positive; I was always a good student and I have managed to cobble together a collection of clients who love and appreciate my work.

Over time, these results led me to believe that procrastination was actually helping me. I convinced myself that I needed the pressure and that it helped me produce my best work.

Perhaps there is some truth to this. But as I’ve gotten older and my goals have become loftier, I’ve found that procrastination is an evil habit that must be squashed. Along my journey to do this, however, I learned that my propensity to procrastinate was not only the symptom of something else but also a roadblock in my quest to live my best life possible.

What You’re Really Putting Off is Your Own Growth

If your only goal is to do the bare minimum to meet or perhaps even slightly exceed expectations, then procrastination is just fine, especially if you’re like me and always find a way to do the work.

However, if you’re a dreamer and want to take responsibility for your life, then you’ll soon realize that the bare minimum is not acceptable.

Living life on your own terms demands more. It requires a strategy. But, more importantly, it requires discipline and constancy. In other words, it requires the very opposite of procrastination.

The word “procrastinate” has Latin roots; “Pro” comes from the Latin for “forward,” and “crastinate” comes from “crastinus,” meaning belonging to tomorrow. So, when we procrastinate, we are simply saying that whatever we think we want to do today actually belongs to tomorrow. But then when we wake up tomorrow, we will think the same thing. This repeats and repeats and nothing ever happens. 

The way I’ve always managed to halt this cycle is deadlines. I have always had a deep sense of personal responsibility. Letting others down has always been more traumatic to me than letting myself down, so not finishing an assignment, or blowing off a client, was just never a part my reality. This is why the work always got done.

But once I began to move outside the world of externally-imposed deadlines and into the world of intrinsic motivation, there was nothing there to break that cycle. Ideas for creative projects would pop into my head, make their way onto a notepad, maybe get some attention, and then die, deferred eternally to some “tomorrow” that I knew deep down would never come.

After some time, so much inaction leads to a feeling of stagnation, which feels like death; growth and change is always happening, and if we’re not flowing with this energy, we’re likely to implode.

The Ramifications of Putting off Your Own Own Dreams

Procrastinating during school and work always produced anxiety. But I learned how to deal with this by simply calling on past experiences. I would tell myself, “You always get things done. And you always do them well.” Which was true, and so I could move past the nerves. In this way, the deadline served as a way to soothe my anxiety because I knew it would force me to get the work done, ensuring I would fulfill my expectations.

But in areas of my life where there were no deadlines, there was no tranquility to be found. If there were deadlines, they were self-imposed, which, to a procrastinator, means they basically don’t exist. So, the anxiety produced by putting things off grew and grew until it eventually manifested as self-doubt and later self-loathing.

The initial thoughts are, “Maybe I just don’t have what it takes to achieve these goals,” or, “Perhaps this isn’t your path if it’s so hard for you to sit down and work.”

But after a long time of thinking like this, these thoughts slowly evolve into, “You’re a piece of shit. Why can’t you get anything done?,” or “What is your problem? Get your act together.”

This negativity is useless and has no place in our inner dialogues. But if we continuously put things off and don’t develop and execute a strategy for creating the lives we want, then it’s bound to creep in and wreck our mental and emotional states. And once we get into this spot, we’re in real trouble because it’s nearly impossible to motivate ourselves to work towards our goals when we’re mentally and emotionally unstable. 

In this context, procrastination is no longer just about delaying things until the last minute. It becomes a wellspring of negativity, and this energy can seep into other areas of our life, degrade our self-esteem, and poison our relationship to ourselves.

Why Do I Procrastinate?

After a couple of years of living in this cycle, I couldn’t take it anymore and finally decided to try and figure out a way to be more proactive and to procrastinate less. 

To start, I tried coming up with routines and habits that would force me to work. I thought all I needed was some structure, so I would try and impose it on myself. But I hate structure. It kills my creative flow. So all these attempts to “write for an hour when you wake up,” or “write every day from 9-11,” always failed.

I also explored different ways of rewarding myself so that I could create some sort of incentive system. But these also failed, usually because I would tell myself I didn’t really need that reward anyway. Talk about self-sabotage.

After a while, I realized these approaches failed because I was treating procrastination as the primary problem I needed to address instead of a symptom of something much deeper.

A conversation with a friend helped me see this, and once I applied this lens, things became much clearer. 

Pain and Pleasure

Our subconscious minds, for reasons we can’t always understand (unless we do the work to dig deep into our past and present psyches), tend to focus on either the pain or pleasure associated with a task. 

Minds that focus too much on pleasure want dessert first. They seek out the good feelings their actions can produce, and when they lean too much into this, they begin to expect instant gratification in all that they do. 

This usually leads to an inability to stick with one task, since the moment things become difficult and the pleasure they seek is postponed or withheld, that task is no longer worth their time. 

Left unchecked, this tendency can lead to indulgent behavior, often in things that do provide instant gratification (food, drugs, sex, other sensual delights). These people don’t procrastinate so much as they simply don’t follow through with anything they start. A subtle distinction, but a distinction nonetheless. 

On the other hand, people with minds that are excessively focused on pain tend to overemphasize the struggle involved in doing things. They — we, for this is my tendency — avoid action, even when we know its good for us, because our perception of the struggle involved is distorted.

This is where procrastination emerges. Fear of the challenge causes us to put things off until the last minute. We try with all our might to avoid it until something forces us to face it.

But when there’s nothing there requiring immediate action, as is the case when pursuing longer-term goals with no defined endpoint, these things get put off forever, leading to the vicious cycle of anxiety and self-doubt detailed above.

Interestingly, when we are self aware and can operate more objectively, these inclinations towards pain and pleasure are helpful. There are some things that are too hard and that should be avoided, and keeping an eye on the pleasure that can come from an action is a useful motivator. But all too often these perceptions get thrown out of whack, and we become hyper-focused on one or the other.

Those who are excessively focused on pleasure need to learn that the best things come to those who are willing to wait and work, and those who exaggerate pain need to realize that the struggle is never as bad as it seems, and that following through is always worth it in the end. 

This is easier said than done, of course, largely because it requires us to dive deep into ourselves and ask some tough questions.

Why Do I Avoid the Struggle?

When I first heard heard and thought about this, I was a bit confused. I began this inquiry because I was struggling to stop putting off working on my own personal goals. But since these goals are based around something I enjoy — writing — it didn’t make sense to me that I would be so afraid of the pain or struggle involved with doing it. 

But the reality is that writing is hard work. You have to sit down in front of a blank page and try to find unique and interesting things to write about, as well as new and different ways to write about them. You have to slog through writer’s block, write when you’re not feeling inspired, rewrite large amounts of text that took hours to write and then edit, edit, edit, and edit some more. 

I’m tired just writing about this process. But again, I supposedly enjoy this, and I truly do. When I actually sit down and write, I may struggle for a bit, but then after I’m off and running, and especially when I am done, I feel like a million bucks. It doesn’t’ matter if what I wrote was crap. That’s for later. The fact is that I did it and now I feel great about myself for having done it.

Yet for most of my life it has always been a monumental task for me to convince myself of this, which always led me to put it it off until “tomorrow.” 

Things didn’t change until I realized that the real reason I was avoiding the struggle was fear.

I was afraid to fail, afraid of wasting my time, and afraid of learning that I’m not good enough to achieve what I want.

All of these fears are irrational since by procrastinating I was doomed to fail, wasted more time than ever, and never gave myself the chance to learn the skills I needed to succeed. But almost all fear is irrational.

However, what all this fear really showed me was that I didn’t trust myself. I didn’t have that faith that good things would come if I just took action. But this belief emerged from my years of experience as a procrastinator, and all the self-doubt and self-loathing that comes with that tendency. So it too was irrational.

In seeing all this, I saw a way out. All I had to do was change the conversation.

Everything is Hard. Trust That Good Things Will Come

Once I had this realization, I began to notice how this “pain-avoiding” tendency had infiltrated other parts of my life.

I had started and stopped yoga and meditation practices multiple time in my life, and each time my efforts got derailed because a day came when sitting down or getting to the mat just seemed like too much work. Or because I convinced myself that these activities weren’t really doing all that much for me, a common mistake in meditation since there are days when it just feels plain old silly to sit down and breathe.

The same thing happened with my diet. Cooking healthy, nutrient-packed, clean meals takes time and effort, and I’d avoid it and avoid it. 

I didn’t trust that these things would be good for me, and I feared failing, so I kept putting these things off until “tomorrow.”

This led me to the realization that everything is hard. Even life itself. Sitting and meditating is hard; doing yoga is hard; running and hiking are hard; writing is hard; sometimes even just getting out of bed is hard. 

But so what?

As human beings, we’re hardwired to be dissatisfied with what we have, and we suffer constantly as we try to exert ourselves onto reality. Doing “hard” things is just a part of life, but when we do them, we feel better about ourselves, and little by little we begin to perceive these roadblocks as much less threatening, freeing us up to pursue what we want in life with confidence and fervor. 

In the end, life itself is a struggle, so ask yourself: would you rather struggle towards a goal that you know will improve your life? Or would you prefer to struggle simply for the sake of struggling? 

The latter sounds absurd.

If I’m going to struggle, I’d like to at least feel like I am doing it for some reason. As I move forward, my goals will likely change and I will need to adjust my approach. But by changing the conversation to one that reminds me that doing hard things is not only a part of life but a requirement for living the way we want, the dialogue became much more positive.

I started saying things like, “Just do a little. It’ll be hard, but it’ll be worth it in the end,” or “You don’t feel like doing this, but you’ll be happy that you did.”

This centers the conversation around positivity and trust, and from there, it’s a lot easier to convince myself that taking action and “struggling” is actually a good thing that can only lead to positive results.

Maybe I can’t tell you exactly what those results will be, but I can tell you that they will bring me closer to the life I want to live.

And isn’t that enough? 

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