We’ve all been there. There’s a big project to complete and as the deadline approaches, you find yourself avoiding work. You’d rather do anything but concentrate on the project at hand. This is how you find yourself cleaning your refrigerator, mowing the lawn, any number of other things, so you sense you’ve accomplished something that day, but you haven’t worked on the big project.
In my life, I’ve had phases of productivity, and I’ve had phases of procrastination where I avoided work. It became an interest of mine to find out exactly what procrastination is and how it works.
Why do we procrastinate?
There are many theories and while I think most of them are BS, the one that makes the most sense to me is rooted in our psychology. Let’s summarize it and draw some conclusions.
We procrastinate because the goal we set is too big.
We want to save face in front of our friends, family, and “tribe,” and end up not trying at all.
Let me explain it using a different example. A little boy plays the piano and gets told constantly by his mom that he’s so talented that he’s going to become a concert pianist and play at Carnegie Hall. So he practices with great zeal and enthusiasm, but one day something switches inside of him.
He starts procrastinating. He’s not practicing as much. His mom gets worried. What is going on? He starts taking drugs, God forbid. His life is spiraling downwards. He’s being rebellious and his mom keeps telling him, “…but you’ve got so much talent. You could go to Carnegie Hall. You could become a concert pianist.”
Now, there are multiple realities at play here. What the boy is feeling, what he understands in his head, and what his mom and friends are telling him. In reality, the boy is not that talented, and how does he know that? Because he’s seen other people play.
He’s been to concerts, he’s been to competitions, and he’s seen how well extremely talented children play. So, at some point in his mind, he drew a pretty simple conclusion: The chances of me going to Carnegie Hall are pretty slim and, even if I practice a lot, I’m probably not going to make it. At best, I’ll become a piano teacher.
His mom and everyone else tells him he can do anything, but in his own mind, he doesn’t believe it, not a word of it, though he won’t admit it to them.
Because everybody thinks he can achieve these things, he has two choices: he can try and fail or simply give up. If he tries and fails, everybody will realize that he’s not that talented. Despite his hard work, he’s not getting where they thought he would.
However, if he procrastinates and doesn’t try at all, then everybody will say, for the rest of their lives, “Oh, poor Johnny. He had so much talent. He could have gone to Carnegie Hall but, then he got into drugs and never reached his potential.”
So you see, procrastination is a protection mechanism to save our reputation. I’m not saying that this is something we consciously do, but this is how the process of the mind evolved through our psychology. Many times, procrastination works because we save face.
Another explanation is, when we procrastinate, sometimes, the problem goes away on its own.
A friend comes over and asks you if they can borrow something, but you don’t want to lend it to them. They ask several times, but at some point, they stop asking. They found another way to solve their problem. So, while you were avoiding the situation, the problem resolved itself.
This is how our minds work and how procrastination develops. We set a huge goal, and at some point, we start doubting that we’ll succeed. So we procrastinate. By not doing it, at least we’re not failing. We’re just not trying. If we tried, maybe we’d succeed. Yet we’re not trying, so we’ll never know.
How do you get around that?
First, you have to stop setting overly large goals. Get rid of huge goals entirely and focus instead on small, incremental steps.
Instead of saying “I’m going to work full time and make one hundred thousand dollars a year online two years from now,” you could forget about that for the time being. Then have an intermediate goal, such as finishing your website, or writing the first twenty pages of your e-book.
You work on that and on the daily steps you need to take to eventually get you to your larger goal, it’s not your primary focus. You see, the field of personal development has not taken into account the psychology of procrastination. Due to this, they’ve led us to think that as long as we think big, we’ll realize big things. However, sometimes thinking too big can turn against you.
The solution is to think in small steps and forget about the lofty goals for the time being. Focus on daily steps and your mind will eventually realize, “Wow, I’m making progress.” You’ll continue to gain confidence and momentum for the next steps, which will ultimately make the larger goals possible.
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