Everyone has a theory on procrastination:
- It’s because we dread the work
- It’s because we fill up the time we have (Parkinson’s Law)
- It’s because we’re addicted to candy crush
The case-by-case reasons for procrastination vary, but they’re not all that helpful for solving the problem. Let’s find the root cause of procrastination.
Procrastinators Get Stuck In The Deliberation Phase
In making decisions, first we deliberate (weigh our options) and then we implement (act). Procrastination is failure to enter the implemental phase. In the moment that you commit to one task, your thinking switches to the implemental phase and you take action.
The goal with any task is to transition from deliberation to implementation. In the words of researchers (Vohs, Baumeister),
“To move from the first mental mode to the second involves a termination of the deliberating process and then an initiation of actions in pursuit of the chosen option. […] The philosopher Searle (2002) has discussed this difference at some length and argues that rationality presupposes some degree of free will (or purposeful control over behavior) because rational analysis is functionally useless unless one can act based on the outcome of the analysis. Searle further emphasized that people can recognize multiple reasons to behave in a certain way but still not perform the behavior, again indicating that contemplating and choosing are separable steps.” (emphasis added) ~ Quote from source
That’s a bit wordy, but here’s the root issue: Procrastinators fail to commit to a single course of (valuable) action. They never leave the deliberative mindset. You could say that they’ve simply chosen other activities, but that carries the same implication of NOT acting on the most important tasks.
The follow-up question is: why do procrastinators delay commitment?
How Perfectionism & Fear Reverse Your Priorities
Perfectionism either leads to or is caused by fear, depending on the person. As the most important tasks to us are the scariest ones, fear drives us to choose zero-risk and unimportant “filler” activities (i.e. it reverses our priorities). When your priorities are reversed, you might find yourself treating trivial games and social media like must-do activities, and ignoring the things you really want to do.
Some perfectionists have genuinely high standards. If you act anyway, it’s not a problem. But many people use perfectionism as an excuse; they wear it as a mask to disguise their fear (as I wrote about in a prior message). The outside of the mask shows a person who—poor thing—can’t help that their standards are so high. But under that mask is a person too scared to face the reality of taking imperfect action. Imperfect action is the only reality we have. (Note: I’m not talking about people with clinical OCD; that’s another matter.)
Perfectionism can be a life-destroying problem when it reverses your priorities. Here’s how it ties in with procrastination:
The pseudo-benefit of procrastination (i.e. staying in the deliberative mindset) is that it maintains the illusion of perfection. It’s only when you pull the trigger and say, “I’m going to work on this project right now” that you’re exposed to an entire wave of imperfection. Before action, it’s seemingly possible that you could get in the perfect mood, have the perfect ideas, and produce a perfect result.
Even though we all know it takes hard, unpretty work to do something meaningful, the perfection fantasy about our work and our lives can still persist because it’s an emotional desire (not a logical one). In real life, conditions for work and results from work are never perfect. For example, I wrote a portion of this message with an aggressively affectionate cat kneading my thighs and other “key” areas. It was imperfect for productivity; it tickled and made me laugh, but I continued (as best I could).
Lessons From Hollywood? Yes!
Think of what heroes do in the movies. We love them for being fearless in the face of sure death, but have you noticed how they don’t procrastinate either? It turns out that these two are intricately connected.
Does James Bond—as fearless as anyone—ever think, hmmm, well…um…maybe we should….no….uh….I don’t know what to do. No. He’s making a quick, confident decision as I write this. Sometimes it’s the wrong decision (imperfect!), and he suddenly finds himself with three guns pointed at his head, but guess what happens then? He is saved by the screenwriter. Ha. Ok. Deus Ex Machina jokes aside, Bond adapts and conquers.
Don’t you get the sense that this is the key to life? Act, adapt, and conquer! It’s so much better than stand still and wait for the signal.
Key takeaway: If you’re willing to make imperfect decisions and take imperfect action in imperfect conditions, you will surely conquer procrastination.
Embracing imperfection in all phases of the process destroys excuses. It kills the fear of failure, because failure will be baked in on some level: “I know this won’t go perfectly, but it will go.”
The rest of this message will cover other factors in procrastination such as overcomplication, vague feelings of risk, application of this information, and a special note on deadline-related procrastination. It’s only for email subscribers because they’re the best—don’t you want to be the best, too?
The subscriber-only message on 2/11/14 expands upon this post! Join Deep Existence below to read the rest.