The Real Reason We Procrastinate (And What to Do About It)
This guest post is written by Phil Stutz, a practicing psychiatrist, and Barry Michels, a practicing psychotherapist. Together, they are the authors of The TOOLS: 5 tools to help you find courage, creativity, and willpower and inspire you to live life in forward motion. The views expressed herein are theirs and theirs alone.
We both have psychotherapy practices in Los Angeles, which means we treat many creative people. Do you know when these people display the highest degree of creativity? It’s not when they perform, write, or sing; it’s when they make up excuses to postpone doing the things they should — even when those things are crucial to their future.
This tendency to procrastinate isn’t limited to Hollywood. Everyone avoids taking action — going to the gym, sticking to a diet, introducing yourself to someone you’re interested in, tackling a difficult assignment at work. Less obvious examples include apologizing to someone, telling a friend your idea for a new business, asking someone in your family for financial help, and so on.
The Real Reason We Procrastinate
The list of things we can procrastinate about is endless, but the list of reasons for why we procrastinate is not. We avoid every task for the same reason: Taking action will cause us a certain amount of pain. To understand this concept, close your eyes and try the following:
Think of an action you’ve been avoiding. It could be any of the examples we’ve given or something that’s specific to your life. Imagine yourself starting to take that action. You’re going to feel something unpleasant. Concentrate on what you feel.
No matter what you call it, that unpleasant feeling is a kind of pain. Under this broad definition, fear, shame, vulnerability, and so on are all forms of pain.
Retreating to the Comfort Zone
The process of overcoming procrastination can begin once you’re able to admit that when you avoid taking action, you’re really avoiding pain. It’s also important to admit that for most of us, pain avoidance isn’t limited to one situation. Rather, it applies to almost anything that’s painful. Without realizing it, most of us instinctively retreat to a comfort zone and try our best never to leave it.
An easy (and extreme) example is that of an agoraphobic. Their comfort zone is restricted to their own home, so that just walking out the door fills them with terror. For most of us, the comfort zone isn’t a physical place — it’s a pattern of avoidant behaviors. A shy person will avoid public speaking, and this habit will apply to other areas of their life, as well: They may not attend social events and might even skip an interview for a promising new job.
The Price of Comfort
Whatever a person’s comfort zone, they pay a huge price for staying inside it. It’s a shrunken world where ideas, opportunities, and new relationships can easily pass us by. Worst of all, procrastinators squander the most precious asset a human can have: time.
Our time on earth is limited. Every moment is an opportunity we’ll never have again. Procrastinators act as if they had all the time in the world. But deep down, they know they’re wasting parts of their life. The trouble is, most of us don’t know how to free ourselves. That’s why, in the words of Henry David Thoreau, most people “live lives of quiet desperation and die with their song unsung.”
We want you to sing your song before you die.
The Secret to Taking Back Your Time
In order to take back our lives, people need a plan for facing pain and moving through it. Pain can actually become our guide to an expanded life once we know its secret: Pain is never absolute. When we move away from pain, it increases — it’s like a monster pursuing us in a dream. But if we turn around and face pain, it shrinks.
Phil learned this secret from a most unlikely teacher:
He sat next to me in my 10th grade mechanical drawing class. I was 13 years old and weighed a measly 125 pounds. He had five years and 100 pounds on me. That was intimidating enough, but he was also the captain and star player on our football team. I was afraid to even speak to him until we discovered we had one thing in common: We both sucked at mechanical drawing.
That broke the ice and we began to talk. He was eager to explain why he was the best running back in the city. He admitted he wasn’t the fastest runner, nor the trickiest. He was the best runner, he said, because he wasn’t afraid of being tackled. In fact, he welcomed it. Given my limited life experience, this seemed like the craziest thing I’d ever heard. Just hearing him explain it was frightening. But it did have its own logic.
He told me he’d get the ball on the first play from scrimmage; but, unlike the other running backs, he wouldn’t try to avoid the tacklers. Instead, he’d pick one out and run right for him. I’ll never forget how he described this: “I get knocked on my ass. It hurts for a minute, but when I get up, I feel like I can conquer the world.” He didn’t avoid the pain of being tackled, he desired it. He knew that by going right at the pain, it would shrink. He knew that when you move toward it, pain turns into power.
I was sure that this philosophy would help all of my stuck patients. There was just one problem. Desiring pain is completely unnatural for most of us. That’s where a tool is needed. I called the tool I developed the Reversal of Desire; it takes your natural desire to avoid pain and reverses it into a desire to feel pain and move through it.
The Reversal of Desire
The Reversal of Desire (which takes three to five seconds to use) is explained in depth in our book, THE TOOLS. You can begin this process of reversal by visualizing the pain you’re avoiding as a black cloud in front of you. Notice how you’re fed up with the ways in which this pain has held you back in life, and tell yourself that you’re determined to conquer it. Then it’s time to propel yourself through the cloud and out to the other side — where you’re free.
If people use this tool every time they feel like avoiding something, life changes profoundly. They get in the habit of moving toward pain all the time. They can take emotional and creative risks because they now have a way to deal with the pain of failure. This gives individuals confidence that nothing can stop them.
We call this “living in forward motion.” It has an amazing effect on people’s lives — as if the universe has become an ally. Out of the blue, new opportunities and relationships appear. The Scottish explorer W. H. Murray described it best: “The moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too … raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way.”
This isn’t a mystery; it’s the result of a newfound harmony with the universe. The universe is constantly moving forward — there have never been two moments exactly alike in its entire history. By putting yourself in forward motion, you harmonize yourself with these universal processes. The universe then leads you to people, places, and opportunities that you never could have found on your own.
Before you dismiss these concepts as part of a New Age fairy tale, consider what happened to Barry:
For the first half of my life, I was driven to achieve as much status as I could. I was admitted to Harvard as a sophomore, I went to a prestigious law school, and by age 25 I’d graduated near the top of my class and was hired by an outstanding law firm. I should’ve felt like I’d reached the top of Mt. Everest, but inside it was the low point of my life — I hated what I was doing.
I wanted to quit, but it was going to be painful. So I procrastinated — and stayed at my law firm for three of the longest years of my life. One day, I found myself propelled into my boss’s office. I explained that I couldn’t do it anymore. I quit.
Almost immediately, I felt strangely free. To my surprise, I began to feel that something much wiser than me was guiding me along my path. Over the course of the next three years, I become a psychotherapist (and discovered that I loved it), met my wife (at a psychotherapy conference), and met Phil, who has become an amazing friend as well as an incomparable source of information and encouragement.
You can chalk these things up to coincidence. But in my heart I know the truth: I never would have found these people or these opportunities on my own. Life guided me to them — but only after I stopped procrastinating and left my comfort zone.
Moving forward can change your life, too. So take a moment and ask yourself: “What kind of life do I want to live?” Do you want to live a small life, limited by your fear of moving forward? Or a big life in which you free yourself of your petty fears and embrace the opportunities that lie ahead?
The choice is entirely yours.
What are your strategies for coping with procrastination and moving through the fear of pain? Share in the comments below!
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