"Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy."
Procrastination, also known as, “oh look there’s that new series on Netflix”, *mindlessly scrolling on Facebook* and browses page after page of Reddit, is the source of many failed goals and shattered dreams.
How do I know this?
Hi, I’m Theo and I used to be a big-time procrastinator.
I could procrastinate with the best of them and often used to think to myself (whilst procrastinating of course) that if there was an award for champion procrastinator then I'd be right up there with a great chance of getting gold.
In fact, I was so adept at procrastinating that I often didn't realise I was doing it, instead I’d convince myself that I was doing something productive and meaningful when in reality I was doing everything except what I should have be doing.
I'd make another cup of coffee, get sucked into depths of YouTube or get lost in Google search pages (for research of course).
Tasks that should have taken me 5 minutes to complete took me 50 or more, in fact, often when writing a post like this I would have managed to make 5 cups of coffee and look at numerous dog videos.
Before I knew it another day, week or month has passed and I’d wonder why I haven't reached my goals yet. I think deep down I always knew why but it was infinitely easier to pretend I didn’t than it was to fix the issue.
The truth is I was scared. Scared of failing, of letting myself and other people down, even scared of succeeding and I know I'm not the only one.
What is procrastination? – The fine line between success and failure
"All procrastination is delay, but not all delay is procrastination." --Timothy Pychyl
Procrastination is usually considered the habit of delaying or postponing something.
However, on closer inspection procrastination is more than just postponing something, it’s actually better described as putting off something that needs to be done.
In fact, in an article written in Psychology Today by Piers Steel Ph.D., an internationally recognised researcher and speaker on the science of motivation and procrastination, discusses how if procrastination merely meant putting something off we would “be comfortable placing it along[side] similar concepts [like] scheduling or prioritizing.”
However, as we don’t consider procrastination this way, it’s clear this isn’t the case. Let me give you an example…imagine you’d planned to go on a trip to the seaside but due to unseasonably stormy weather you were forced to postpone the trip.
Would you describe this as procrastination? Of course not, even though it involves the act of delaying something.
Steel goes on to explain that this, “important distinction is increasingly [being] recognized.” Sighting the American Heritage Dictionary and Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary examples respectively; “To put off doing something, especially out of habitual carelessness or laziness," and "To put off intentionally the doing of something that should be done."
In his own words, Steel believes the Oxford English Dictionary “gets closest to the irrational dark heart of the word.” It defines procrastination as a postponement, "often with the sense of deferring through indecision, when early action would have been preferable," or as "defer[ing] action, especially without good reason."
Why do we procrastinate – why we do nothing instead of something
Timothy Pychyl Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada identifies 3 main reasons we procrastinate:
- Challenging tasks make us feel uncomfortable
- We have weak and vague intentions
- We are easily distracted
You can begin to see it now and although it’s not named directly, fear (specifically the fear of failure) is entangled with each reason for procrastination.
Let me show you how;
- Challenging tasks are by their nature more complex and difficult to complete, you fear that if you try and fail you’ll let not only yourself down but those around you too.
- Weak and vague intentions bolster this fear by failing to give you a clear path to follow, it leaves you unable to make a decision and second guessing your actions.
- You then use distractions to regulate your fear, falsely believing it is better that people think you lack the necessary effort than the necessary ability.
Then on top of this you also fear the unknown, the darkness and the uncertainty that the future holds. All of this only adds to your reluctance to complete a task or action that would take you closer to your goals.
These feelings of fear are so strong you seek comfort in the idea that it’s better to never try and never fail than it is to give your all and risk falling flat on your face.
You procrastinate, get distracted and put off what you know you should do. Only to end up stuck in no-mans-land trying to give the illusion of progress whilst insulating yourself from failure by never truly putting yourself out there.
Can we overcome procrastination and the fear of failure? – The antidote
Yes, you can! It’s not always easy and there isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ solution but it can be done. I’ve put together a selection of strategies that have worked for me and hope you find something that works for you.
Every mountain appears difficult to climb when you’re standing at the base. However, if you start with one or two small steps and break the journey into small chunks it becomes more and more manageable. Eventually, what at one point seemed out of reach begins to feel doable.
Small won’t strike fear into your heart, small is easy, doable and non-threatening. So, whenever you’re faced with a task or goal that seems out of reach, break it down into small steps and make a start. Once you’ve done that it all gets easier.
Knowledge is power. You must arm yourself with the information relevant to the goal you wish to accomplish.
Through this act of preparation you will remove the fear you have of failing. You’ll know what you need to do and how to do it. By getting prepared you’ll diminish the fear of the unknown by making it known.
One way to get prepared is to specific measurable goals for the short, medium and long-term. This means you can keep a close on eye on whether or not you’re doing what needs to be done day-to-day but it also means when motivation fails you’ll have a pre-laid path to follow and can keep going.
By doing all of this you‘ll remove the darkness and shine a light on your fear giving it nowhere to hide.
Realise there is no perfect moment
There is always a temptation to put things off in favour of getting started right away. The idea that there will be a better time will always be trying to lead you astray.
You’ll fool yourself into thinking you can’t do something if you don’t feel like it or if motivation hasn’t hit you and mistakenly believe this means you cannot get started. When in fact, the simple act of getting started will dissolve any feelings you have of it not being the right moment.
It’s important to realise that there is never a perfect moment and to chase this moment or more accurately sit around and wait for it will confine you to a life of inactivity.
Understand that most mistakes can be fixed
A mistake is not the end, it’s an opportunity to learn and move forwards.
As a child, you made mistakes all the time and what did you do? That’s right, you tried again, many times over if necessary. You weren’t afraid of breaking anything, in fact, you probably broke a lot of things just to see how they worked.
You need to adopt this mentality again and realise that when it comes to reaching your goals you’ll make mistakes but it’s ok, it’ll teach you how things work or more importantly don’t work and if you take each opportunity to learn you’ll come out stronger the other side.
Once you adopt this mindset your fear of failure will disappear, no longer will mistakes or failings be a bad thing but instead they will be an opportunity to grow. Don’t be afraid to experiment and try different things to get the results you want.
Give it your all
Nothing worth having comes easily so don’t expect to get outstanding results with mediocre effort.
Don’t get caught in the trap of telling yourself that you're making progress when in fact you're spinning your wheels, doing enough to give the false impression of progress but never really going anywhere.
If you want to achieve whatever it is you set your mind to, then you must apply yourself and give your all. It won’t always be easy and it probably won’t be quick but it will always be worth it, so get some of your favourite tunes, put your head down and get to work.
Distractions help you to regulate your fear by doing anything but what you need to do. You do everything you can to give the impression you lack the necessary effort rather than the necessary talent.
Mentally this is a much more comfortable place to be but it does nothing to address your fear. By eliminating all distractions (Facebook, your phone, Netflix, email, etc) you give yourself no choice but to face your fear, to understand it and conquer it.
Instead of letting your distractions have free roam over your day, try setting specific time aside to do these things by creating periods of work and rest.
Optimise your decisions
The inability to make decisions is a key driver of procrastination. However, there are ways to overcome this fear through optimisation of your daily decisions.
There are a few ways to do this:
- Prioritise the one thing that will make the biggest difference and focus on that
- Cut anything that won’t make a difference or will likely never get done
- Set up your surroundings for success
This means doing things like planning your day, listing everything that you want to accomplish and then cutting anything that doesn’t need to get done. This should get your list down to just the important things, from here you need to prioritise the single most important task and focus exclusively on that until it’s either done or as close to done as you can get it at that time.
To set up your surroundings for success you can do things like keeping a bottle of water on your desk so your default decision is to drink water and not a sugary drink. Another example is to leave your phone in another room on silent so there is no temptation to check it and get distracted.
If you do some or all of these things you can minimise or remove your fear of failure and therefore remove the things that are causing you to procrastinate.
This will give you the head space and clarity you need to take action and make meaningful progress towards your goals.