I have something important to tell you. Something really important. I’m talking about life-changing, paradigm-shifting, plane-of-reality-transcending, poop-your-pants-and-call-your-mother important.
But I don’t feel like writing it down right now. So let’s watch this video of a guy doing overhead barbell splits:
Aaanndd, I’m suddenly motivated now. OK, let’s do this!
It’s ironic, but for two days now, I’ve been procrastinating writing a post on procrastination. I’ve done it all. I’ve distracted myself with other, less important work. I’ve taken “breaks” that extended about three hours longer than they should have. I’ve done that thing where I sit on Facebook and then I close the window, open a new one, and instinctively type in Facebook again.
If I were to graph out the process of my own procrastination it would look something like this:
The red bar includes all of the negative feelings associated with getting off my fat ass and doing something productive. Things such as lack of sleep, mental fatigue, being distracted by a few personal problems going on, the uncertainty surrounding whether what I write will be any good or not, insecurity that people may hate it, that they’ll call me bad names and make disparaging comments about my mother, etc.
The green bar includes all of the positive feelings associated with writing this bad boy. Feelings such as the pleasure of creativity, the relief of knowing it’s done, the chuckles I get writing the inevitable poop jokes that are to come, knowing that I helped people out, the simple pleasure of writing, and so on.
As you can see though, the red bar — the total of all the negative feelings — is higher than the green bar — the total of all the positive feelings. Therefore, I just don’t write a fucking thing. I sit on YouTube, then Facebook, then take a nap, then spend way longer than I’d like to admit figuring out how to make an ugly bar graph with smiley faces on it.1
And instead of writing that life-changing, pants-pooping, mother-hollering, epiphanic psycho-spiritual orgy of life advice that I promised, I sit here, analyzing my own laziness.
But such is being human.
The model above is simplistic but it essentially explains why we often don’t do the things that we should. That raise you never ask for. That attractive person you never ask out. That mother you always forget to call. The article you don’t bother to write. The unpleasant feelings outweigh the pleasant ones in the short-term, and so we avoid the unpleasantness, even if we’re making our lives worse in the process.2
It often isn’t until the 11th hour, until the night before, until someone is screaming at you or the threat of complete and utter failure is breathing down your neck, that the equation finally shifts, the pressure becomes too much and the associated positive feelings of doing said action outweigh the negative ones.3 It becomes more painful not to do something than it does to do it, and that’s when the bastard finally gets done.
Your Typical Ways to Beat Procrastination
There are a couple strategies that “trick” your brain into doing something it doesn’t really want to do.4
One is by creating what’s sometimes referred to as “an environment of inevitability.” Basically what that means is that you create an environment where it’s more difficult not to do something than to do it.
For example, if you want to lose weight, you can go buy $500 worth of personal training and schedule classes for the next 10 weeks. Now the pain of wasting $500 and not showing up for the classes will outweigh the pain of getting off your ass and going to the gym.
I basically got through college by forcing myself to go to the library every day. I discovered that if I was there, I would inevitably end up studying. If I just went home, I would fuck off all week.
Another common strategy for beating procrastination is what I call “The Do Something Principle.” The Do Something Principle basically says that if you want to do something — anything — then you just start with the simplest component of that task.
I was procrastinating writing this article, so I just told myself that I’d open up a blank document and write the first sentence. Strangely, once you bring yourself to write one sentence, the next 40 get quite easy.
Same goes for the gym example. Just tell yourself to put on your gym clothes. That’s easy. Then once your gym clothes are on, you feel like a moron if you don’t go work out. So you work out.
The “Do Something” Principle takes advantage of the fact that action is both the cause of motivation as well as the effect of motivation. And once you take one small, simple action, there’s a momentum that builds inside you, making the rest easier.
But, while these strategies are all sexy and make you want to rub your nipples with cocoa butter, they don’t get at the root of your procrastination problems.
These are like the band-aid solutions. They get you through to the next day, but they don’t solve a lifetime of laziness.
Because if you’re like most people, then you experience procrastination over and over and over again. It’s incessant. And that’s because there’s a deeper issue underlying for why you procrastinate.
The Root Cause of Procrastination
So here’s the deal. When it’s something dumb and plain like taking out the garbage, we all know why we procrastinate. Garbage sucks. It smells bad. It’s annoying to pick it up and walk it outside. We’re lazy. And so on.
It usually isn’t until our garbage is overflowing and spreading the sweet stench of rotting flesh throughout our house that we finally feel motivated enough to do something about it.
But what about the serious and sometimes personal stuff on which we procrastinate? Applying for that new job. Breaking up with your boyfriend. Starting a web business. Writing your master’s thesis. Telling your girlfriend you have herpes.
These are deeply emotional, stressful events. And as such, we go to extreme lengths to avoid them, procrastinating doing them for days, weeks, even months or years, even though we know they’re best for us. We feel permanently stuck.5
This sort of procrastination — “Oh, I’ll go back and finish my degree one day,” — goes on and on and tortures us, yet the red and green bars never rebalance to where we’re able to do it.
This is due to the fact that underlying our worst procrastination is a deep underlying fear that doesn’t go away. Maybe it’s a fear of failure. Maybe it’s a fear of success. Maybe it’s a fear of vulnerability. Or maybe it’s a fear of hurting someone else.
But there’s always a fear behind it, and that’s why you procrastinate. Procrastination, when not rooted in some petty displeasure, when debilitating and life-destroying and hair-greying in its intensity, is always rooted in some form of fear.6
But where does this fear come from?
Manson’s Law of Avoidance
Chances are you’ve heard of Parkinson’s Law. It says that “work expands so as to fill up the time available for its completion.” So whether you’re given two weeks or two days to finish a project, you’ll feel like you need all of the time given to you.
You’ve also undoubtedly heard of Murphy’s Law, the immortal, “Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.”
Well, next time you’re at a swanky cocktail party and you want to impress somebody, try dropping Manson’s Law of Avoidance on them.7 What? Never heard of Manson’s Law? Of course you haven’t, I just made it up. Check it out:
The crazy thing about Manson’s Law is that it can apply to both good and bad things in one’s life. Making a million dollars can threaten your identity just as much as losing all your money. Becoming a famous rock star can threaten your identity just as much as losing your job. This is why people are often so afraid of success — for the exact same reason they’re afraid of failure — it threatens who they are and what they know now.9
You avoid writing that screenplay you’ve always dreamt of because that would call into question your identity as a practical insurance adjuster. You avoid talking to your husband about being more adventurous in the bedroom because that would challenge your identity as a good, moral woman. You avoid telling your friend you don’t want to see them anymore because that would conflict with your identity as a nice, forgiving person.
These are good, important decisions that we consistently pass up because they threaten to change how we view and feel about ourselves. It sounds insane, but it’s true.
I had a friend who, for the longest time, talked about putting his artwork online and making a go of it as a professional (or at least semi-professional) artist. He talked about it for years. He saved up money. He even built a few websites and uploaded his portfolio.
But he never launched. There was always some reason. The resolution of his work wasn’t good enough. Or he had just painted something better. Or he wasn’t in a position to dedicate enough time to it yet.
Years passed and he never did it. Why? Because despite dreaming it, the reality of being an artist threatened his non-artist, non-vulnerable identity.
I had another friend who was a party guy, always chasing after the girls. Yet, after years of living the “high life,” he was terribly lonely, depressed, and unhealthy. He wanted to give it up. He spoke with a fierce jealousy of those of us who were in relationships and more “settled down” than him. Yet he never gave it up. For years he went on, empty night after empty night, bottle after bottle. Always some excuse. Always some reason he couldn’t slow down.
It threatened his identity too much. The Party Guy was all he knew. To give it up was tantamount to psychological harakiri.
We all have a set of beliefs about who we are. Generally speaking, we protect these beliefs. So if I believe I’m a nice guy, I will avoid situations that could potentially contradict that belief. If I believe that I’m an awesome cook, then I will seek out opportunities to prove that to myself over and over again.10
Generally, the hardest things for us to do in life are full of emotional resistance. Whether it’s putting in the time to study and make good grades, or finally moving away from our hometown, or shutting up and starting to write that idea that we’re always telling people about, we avoid these things because in some way they threaten to contradict the beliefs we have about ourselves. The kid doesn’t study because she believes herself to be a rebel and a loner. The man doesn’t leave his hometown because he secretly believes he’s not good enough to be successful anywhere else. The woman never sits down to write the book because ironically, the possibility of failure would threaten her belief that she’s smart and capable of anything.
The belief always takes precedence. Until we change how we view ourselves, what we believe we are and what we are not, we cannot adopt the decisions and behaviors we spend so much time avoiding.
The Subtle Danger of Positive Thinking
There’s something funny that happens to me when I write these articles. The more I think about how amazing an article I’m going to write is going to be, the more I procrastinate and the harder it is to write it.
Conversely, when I stop caring whether the article is great or not, the article feels as though it “writes itself” and it usually turns out great.
Chances are you’ve experienced this in some area of your life as well. The more you care about the outcome, the harder it feels to achieve. The less you care, the more naturally it comes to you.
It’s backward in a way. The more I try to convince myself that I’m a brilliant writer and that I have something important to say, the more the simple act of writing an article threatens my identity, and the more I procrastinate writing it.
Whereas if I just believe that I’m just some random dude who puts words on paper, eventually the act of writing then threatens nothing and procrastination stops.11
This is one (of many) ways that positive thinking can actually derail us. Most people’s approach to deep-seated procrastination is to give themselves a lot of positive self-talk:
“Come on, you can do this. You’re so smart. You’re amazing. You can do anything you want to do.”
But the more you talk yourself up like this, the more you attach your identity to superlatives like being the “smartest” and “most amazing,” the more any action has the ability to threaten that belief.
And because it threatens your newfound belief of being this amazing, perfect little snowflake, you’re less likely to actually go do it than you were before.
The Solution: Kill Yourself (Figuratively, Of Course)
In Buddhism, there’s a strong emphasis on letting go of the concept that we even exist at all.12 What this means is that, psychologically speaking, your idea of who “you” are is constructed throughout your life with a bunch of arbitrary stuff. Buddhism argues that this stuff actually just traps you and that you’re better off just letting go of it.
It sounds wonky, but there are some psychological benefits to this.13 When we let go of the stories we tell about ourselves, to ourselves, we free ourselves up to actually act (and fail) and grow.
When the wife admits to herself, “You know, maybe I’m not a great wife or good at relationships,” then she is suddenly free to act and end her bad marriage. She has no identity to protect.
When the student admits to himself, “You know, maybe I’m not a rebel, maybe I’m just scared,” then he is free to be ambitious again. He has no reason to feel threatened.
When the insurance adjuster admits to himself, “You know, maybe there’s nothing unique or special about my dreams or my job,” then he’s free to give that screenplay an honest go and see what happens.
Because I have some good news and bad news for you: there’s very little that is special about you or your problems.
My recommendation: redefine yourself in mundane and broad ways. Choose to see yourself not as this rising star or unheard genius. Choose to see yourself not as some horrible victim or dismal failure. Instead, see yourself as just a few simple things: a student, a partner, a friend, a creator.
This often means giving up some grandiose and pleasant ideas about yourself: that you’re uniquely intelligent, or spectacularly talented, or intimidatingly attractive, or especially victimized in ways other people simply could never imagine.
We like telling ourselves these stories and giving ourselves these labels. They make us feel good. But they also hold us back.14
Define yourself in the simplest and most mundane ways possible. Because the narrower and rarer the identity you choose for yourself, the more everything will begin to threaten you. And with those threats will come the avoidance, the fear, and the procrastination of all of the things that really matter.
- My childish bar graphs in this article are loosely based on cognitive cost-benefit analysis, a central idea in behavioral economics.↵
- Tice, D. M., & Baumeister, R. F. (1997). Longitudinal Study of Procrastination, Performance, Stress, and Health: The Costs and Benefits of Dawdling. Psychological Science (0956-7976), 8(6), 454–458.
Hagura, N., Haggard, P., & Diedrichsen, J. (2017). Perceptual decisions are biased by the cost to act. ELife, 6, e18422.↵
- Ariely, D., & Wertenbroch, K. (2002). Procrastination, Deadline, and Performance: Self-Control by Precommitment. Psychological Science (0956-7976), 13(3), 219.↵
- I would call these “mind hacks” but then I’d have to hate myself.↵
- Jaffe, E. (2013). Why Wait? The Science Behind Procrastination. APS Observer, 26(4).
Pychyl, T. A. (2013). Solving the Procrastination Puzzle: A Concise Guide to Strategies for Change. TarcherPerigee.↵
- Lieberman, C. (2019, March 25). Why You Procrastinate (It Has Nothing to Do With Self-Control). The New York Times.↵
- And when they ask “Manson, who?” just make sure they don’t think you mean the serial killer.↵
- Manson’s Law is basically just a particular encapsulation of self-verification theory from social psychology. I’m really not smart enough to invent this stuff myself. But fuck you, I’m putting my name on it anyway.↵
- Shrauger, J. S., & Lund, A. K. (1975). Self-evaluation and reactions to evaluations from others. Journal of Personality, 43(1), 94–108.
Swann Jr., W. B. (2011). Self-Verification Theory. In P. A. M. V. Lange, A. W. Kruglanski, & E. T. Higgins (Eds.), Handbook of Theories of Social Psychology: Volume Two (Vol. 2, pp. 23–42). SAGE.↵
- Our old friend, Confirmation Bias, is back to their usual tricks here again.↵
- Without the ‘burden’ of perfectionism or expectations, I am free to write my ‘shitty first draft‘, which is what all writing ultimately is.↵
- This is often referred to as “No Self” in various literatures.↵
- Morgan, H. (2010). Self and No-Self: Continuing the Dialogue Between Buddhism and Psychotherapy edited by Mathers, D., Miller, M. E. and Ando, O. Journal of Analytical Psychology, 55(5), 726–728.↵
- “The more labels you have for yourself, the dumber they make you.” – Paul Graham↵