Procrastination Characterized

After reading this page, please continue to the Solutions page. – Hillary

Procrastination is Derailment

Most of us wake up with at least a general plan for the day. (“I’m going to be at my desk by 9, work for three hours, exercise during lunch hour, then eat a salad at my desk, etc…”) Procrastination is when you get derailed from that plan.

You can get derailed at any moment, and by many things. Here are some typical reasons:

You wake up late.
You get a telephone call (business or personal).
You decide, or are compelled, to help someone with their project.
You’re not feeling well.
You’re distracted by personal or professional problems.
You’re overwhelmed.
You’re under-resourced and/or under-supported.
You’re detached from the project: bored with it, or alienated from it.
You’re afraid of failure or success.
Your workplace is dysfunctional.

A block (creative, writer’s, work, weight-loss, etc.) is a prolonged bout of procrastination. Therefore, everything on this page and the Solutions page applies to both procrastination and blocks.

People typically react to barriers in one of three ways. You want to be a "C."

The three typical reactions to productivity barriers. You want to be a “B” or “A”, not the poor “C,” who is procrastinating. Illustration by Barry Deutsch, from The 7 Secrets of the Prolific.

Our Reasons for Procrastinating are Always Valid

All of the above reasons for procrastinating are always valid. In fact your reasons for procrastinating are always valid. Always!

It’s just that procrastination is a suboptimal response.

It’s okay to procrastinate some of the time as a coping mechanism. If you procrastinate 10%, 20%, or even 30% of the time you’ll probably still get the job done. (Although, obviously, less procrastination is better.)

It’s when procrastination becomes your primary coping mechanism that it becomes a problem.

Procrastination is Disempowerment

Many who procrastinate think they do so because they’re lazy, undisciplined, uncommitted, unfocused, etc., but they couldn’t be further from the truth.

Procrastination is caused by disempowerment, which means you’re not missing anything you need, but separated from, or constrained from using your energy, discipline, commitment, focus, and other abilities in the service of your project. Laziness, etc., are symptoms, not causes, of disempowerment.

Overcome the disempowering forces in your work and life, and you’ll “automagically” reclaim your supposedly “lost” energy, commitment, discipline, etc.

The proof that procrastinators are not lazy is that many are dynamos in areas of their lives other than their writing, weight loss, or other key goal. (The reason we tend to procrastinate on key goals can be found here.) Many are the ultra-competent and ultra-productive family member, friend, and coworker to whom others routinely go for help.

Also, in my writing-productivity classes, we do free-writing exercises in which even those students who have been blocked for years somehow “magically” write prolifically. It’s a wonder to see! And it isn’t magic, of course, but only a sign that our procrastination is not some innate flaw, but resides somewhere in our context. Which brings us to…

Procrastination is Always Caused, and the Causes Always Lay Outside Ourselves

In David Copperfield, Charles Dickens famously called procrastination the "thief of time." Here is the immortal W.C. Fields as Micawber, perhaps giving that very advice to David, portrayed by Freddie Bartholomew.

In Dickens’ David Copperfield, the feckless but avuncular Micawber warned David against procrastination, the “thief of time.” Here, from the 1935 movie, is the immortal W.C. Fields as Micawber, perhaps giving that very advice to David, portrayed by Freddie Bartholomew.

Procrastination isn’t a character flaw or moral deficiency. It is always caused, and the causes always lay outside ourselves, in our current context, historical context (parents, teachers, bosses), or in the work itself. The main causes for most people’s procrastination are:

1. Perfectionism
2. Resource Deficiencies
3. Poorly Managed Time
4. Ineffective Work Process
5. Ambivalence
6. Unhealed Traumatic Rejections, and
7. Disempowering Work Environment

Each of these conditions is disempowering, so if you’re experiencing even one–and most people experience several or all simultaneously–you will probably procrastinate.

Perfectionism is worst, since it creates a profound terror and disempowerment that impedes not just your ability to write, but to resolve your other barriers. Click here to learn more about perfectionism.

How Disempowerment Causes Procrastination:

“The Disempowerment Cascade”

Here is what happens when you procrastinate:

1. You do a bit of work: if you’re a writer, say, perhaps you write a sentence. (I’ll continue using writing as an example, but please note that the sequence I’m describing applies to all forms of procrastination.)
2. You review your work and are disappointed. (“Wow, that stinks. It’s so unoriginal and the grammar is off.”)

At this point, someone who is not perfectionist (B’s and A’s in the illustration) will think, “Oh, a problem. Well, that’s just a normal part of the process. I’ll fix it later.” Or, more likely, she won’t even be thinking about the problems with her work: she’ll just be having fun writing.

However, a perfectionist follows a very different path, which I call The Disempowerment Cascade:

3. You have a presentiment of failure, not just about the sentence but about the day’s work, the project as a whole, and your overall career arc. (“Whatever made me think I could be a writer?”)
4. You feel a rising panic and terror because, due to perfectionism, failure is not an option. This terror disempowers you so that you lose access to your usual problem-solving abilities and perspectives.
5. In a desperate effort to get yourself to do better, you start verbally bullying yourself, e.g., “What’s wrong with you? This is pathetic! Anyone can write a decent sentence. Why must you be so incompetent? And lazy? Didn’t you take all those workshops? C’mon–let’s get going. You don’t want to be a loser!” Etc.
6. The bullying only increases your terror and disempowerment until you are forced to escape from your fears via procrastination, which typically manifests itself in one of two ways:

Dissociation / Denial. You lose time to video games, bad television, Web surfing, and other low-value activities.

Deception. Procrastination can be an excellent mimic of productive work, so instead of working you put your time into activities that seem important or even urgent, but really aren’t, at least at that moment. Housework chores, overgiving at work or volunteering, “busy work,” and working on the “wrong” part of your project (e.g., researching when you should be writing) are all common examples of procrastination mimicking productive work.


*The entire Disempowerment Cascade can happen in a flash, and it can also happen before you even start to do your work–when you’re just contemplating it. (When the latter happens, you’re unlikely to even try to do your work.)

*One reason procrastination is such a tough habit to overcome is that it’s a reaction to fear–or, more appropriately, perfectionism-fueled terror–and when we’re afraid we are reduced to one main motive: to feel safe again. (In this case, via the escape of procrastination.)

*Perfectionism is the main trigger for the Cascade. The other six disempowering forces typically work either by triggering your perfectionism, or by making it that much harder to do your work at all. (If you are ambivalent, time constrained, or under-resourced, your work will be hard even if you’re not perfectionist.)

*Everything we’re discussing applies not just to writing, but any goal on which you’ve been procrastinating. That includes non-writing work, health and fitness (including exercise and weight loss), and important life changes (e.g., finding a better job or a better primary relationship).

The Disempowerment Cascade. Illustration by Barry Deutsch, from The 7 Secrets of the Prolific.

The Disempowerment Cascade. Illustration by Barry Deutsch, from The 7 Secrets of the Prolific.

Click here to learn how to interrupt the Disempowerment Cascade, and solve your procrastination problem.

One final point:

Don’t Be Ashamed of Your Procrastination Problem

1. Because it is universal. Pretty much everyone suffers from it, in one or another sphere of life.

2. Because you didn’t cause it. As noted above, it is a behavior that is caused by outside forces, many dating back to your childhood.

3. Because it tends to afflict the best people: the ones who care the most, hold themselves to the highest standard, seek to do the most good, and uphold their responsibilities not just to themselves but those around them, and society as a whole.

It has always been, and probably always will be, harder for such people to succeed than those who are narrowly focused on their own interests.

4. And, it is solvable. Working to become a more effective person is the essence of the human journey, and few activities yield more profound rewards.

So, congratulations for committing to work on your procrastination problem. I wish you much productivity and joy–which you now have a much better chance of attaining. — Hillary

See Solutions page.

For more information, check out The 7 Secrets of the Prolific and my workshops.

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