I know a thing or two about procrastination. The day they begin handing out certifications in delay tactics, I will receive a Ph.D. In fact, this article is three decades in the making.
I was on a trajectory to never write and publish this, my first piece on Medium, until I took the actions I am going to share with you today.
I first had the desire to be a professional writer thirty-one years ago in high school. My teenage prejudices about both myself and writing convinced me that I could not be a successful writer, so I quit before I even tried.
I’ve since learned that writing — like most things in life — is a learned skill and not an innate ability. That understanding rekindled my desire to pursue writing, but more insidious forms of procrastination stopped me in my tracks once again.
As I began planning and preparing to launch a writing career, my inspiration soon turned into exasperation. Everyone seemed to be writing about the topics I wanted to cover. They were are also far ahead of me in their abilities and audience. It seemed like I was too late to the game.
Disheartened, I gave up on writing for a second time.
Luckily, I’m a stubborn S.O.B., so I didn’t quit for good.
The third time around, I found myself caught up in the preparation whirlpool. The more I learned, the more I realized how little I knew about what it takes to be a successful writer. I felt the need to hone my writing skills until I was proficient enough to share anything in public. I began a daily writing habit. I purchased and read a dozen books on writing.
I practiced and practiced and practiced, but I never felt ready.
So, I continued to study and practice, and I have a writing streak of 301 consecutive days as of today. I even considered myself a writer until I realized that a writer’s job is not writing — it’s publishing.
Hobbyist write. Writers publish.
I recognized that I was never going to feel ready to publish, and I saw that I was allowing procrastination in the disguise of “action” to run my life once again.
Why We Procrastinate
At the most basic level, we procrastinate when the pain or penalty of inaction is less than the effort or pain of taking action. We do a cost-benefit analysis to see if it is worth the inconvenience of exerting ourselves at this moment.
This analysis explains why procrastinators put off studying or writing a term paper until the night before it is due. Every time we think about studying or writing our essay when there is time to spare, we tell ourselves that there is no urgency to act because we have plenty of time remaining.
Our default mode is to delay as long as we can concoct a reason to postpone taking action.
We also practice the ultimate form of procrastination — giving up and quitting — if we feel like we are incapable of achieving success through our efforts. We tell ourselves that we would like to have the results, but we are not the kind of person who can get them.
As we repeatedly give up before we ever take the first action, it becomes more comfortable to simply ignore the things that inspire us. Quitting or delaying becomes an automatic response of which we are not even aware.
The Two Areas of Procrastination
If procrastination is a default human response that we all indulge in, what can break us out of the cycle of delay?
To answer that question, we must first understand that there are two realms of action in which we postpone taking action: Obligations and Opportunities.
Obligations occur in all areas of our lives.
We have obligations to other people and entities that demand we maintain our relationships, turn in our school assignments, do our work, and pay our bills.
Society also places demands on us, like paying taxes or obtaining licenses and permits.
We even have responsibilities to ourselves in the form of survival actions like maintaining our health, saving money for emergencies and retirement, or getting a new job if we lose our current one.
Opportunities, on the other hand, are singular to each of us.
Opportunities are inspirational ideas about a new way of being or acting that will provide an improved quality of life and experience of self, if fulfilled.
You can recognize Opportunities when you think things like “I wish I could…”; “Wouldn’t it be nice if…”; “I’d love to…, but…”.
We focus on Opportunities when we set goals for ourselves or make New Year’s resolutions. Unfortunately, most people experience a high failure rate in achieving their goals and realizing their Opportunities. With enough failed attempts at improving our lives, we begin seeing ourselves as incapable of making meaningful changes.
Why Are Opportunities More Difficult to Complete Than Obligations?
Consequences help us overcome procrastination.
In the realm of Obligations, structures usually exist that compel us to take action, at least eventually.
Obligations have well-defined penalties and identifiable consequences that we face if we fail to complete tasks.
If you do not turn in your term paper, you will receive a zero and possibly fail the class, get in trouble with your parents, lose your scholarship, flunk out of school, and ruin the rest of your life. Pulling an all-nighter to write a term paper sounds like an equitable trade-off compared to ruining the rest of your life.
Obligations typically have a deadline by which to complete them.
Your electric bill is due on a specific date. Failure to pay it on time will result in a penalty, and failure to pay it repeatedly means you will have your power cut off. Deadlines allow us the excuse to delay paying the bill or turning in our term paper until the last possible moment, but it also provides the stick to drive us forward.
Obligations are not run on the honor system; someone is overseeing our compliance.
These arbiters take note of whether or not we did what we were supposed to and that we did it by when it was due. The more consistent this oversight is, the more likely we are to comply with our obligations fully. We know we can not get away with procrastinating in perpetuity.
Our Obligations usually also have a public component.
If you fail to pay your electric bill for three months and your service is shut off, people will notice when they come to visit you. The peer pressure to avoid looking bad is an added incentive to take action when we do not feel like it. We feel the need to conform to social expectations because isolation and expulsion from our pack is a primal fear that once meant certain death.
Why We Fail to Act on Opportunities
Opportunities like creative work, on the other hand, seldom have any of the same kinds of safeguards for completion built into them.
The incentives associated with Obligations are, by default, absent in Opportunities.
We complete Obligations to avoid pain. There is no immediate pain in ignoring an Opportunity. Pursuing Opportunities generates pain instead of avoiding pain.
We must step outside of our comfort zone when we engage with Opportunities, and we experience the discomfort, inconvenience, and mental stress of doing something new. Even worse, we understand there is no guarantee that we will be rewarded for all of that suffering.
We could exert time and energy yet still fail to attain our dreams.
The cost of pursuing Opportunities is clear and concrete, but the penalty for not pursuing them remains murky, uncertain, and vague. We are surviving the life we have, so why expend effort on an uncertain future?
Obligations always have a deadline. Even when we decide the potential reward is worth the risk of ultimate failure, deadlines for Opportunities are open-ended.
Without an ultimatum for action, it’s easy to tell yourself that you will pursue your dreams starting next week when you clear some room in your schedule.
The more time that passes between the thought to act and taking that action, the less likely you are ever to act. Before you know it, ten, twenty, or (in my case) thirty years will have past you by and you will have done nothing.
The private nature of Opportunities means no one else has to know about our failure to act on them.
You have no outside accountability whatsoever unless you create it. No one will stop you from hitting the snooze button in the morning instead of getting up to exercise. No one will dispute your assertions that you are not capable of success. You have a free pass to delay or to abandon your Opportunities, and no one will be the wiser.
Inspirational thoughts are ethereal seeds of possibility that quickly die if we fail to act on them. Without a substantial penalty, deadline, or other types of accountability, why would we ever seize Opportunity when it knocks on our door?
Seizing our Opportunities take some uncomfortable work, but it is not impossible.
Don’t buy into the myth that some people are born with a drive and self-discipline that the rest of us lack. People with self-discipline simply take different actions than everyone else.
As a serial procrastinator, these are the ten steps that I utilize to seize opportunities, improve my life, and achieve my dreams:
- I pay attention to what inspires me. I no longer reflexively dismiss my inspirations as things that are beyond my reach.
- I refuse to compare myself to other people. Nothing good comes from comparing ourselves to others. We always assume they have some talent or circumstance that creates their success. We cannot see the sacrifices they made, the effort they exerted, or the failures they have experienced to this point.
- I have patience and understanding with myself. We do not exit the womb with the ability to walk. We must first learn balance, not by hearing about it or studying it, but through experience. The way to gain mastery of new things is to do them and learn from your failures.
- I take my Opportunities as seriously as my Obligations. Why spend your entire life following other people’s agendas and ignoring your own? I take full responsibility for the way my life has turned out, and I demand that I take the actions necessary for it to be a life I love.
- I get a clear picture of the real future cost of ignoring my Opportunities. I make sure I understand that the pain of inaction will someday be due with interest, and it will be more costly than the pain of taking action today.
- I lay out precise tasks, and I set deadlines for them. All of my Opportunities have expiration dates on them. I know what actions I must take and by when to complete them.
- I share my Opportunities with other people. My Opportunities do not remain private. I take the uncomfortable step of sharing them with my friends and acquaintances so they can help keep me accountable.
- I establish enhanced accountability. I do not leave accountability to chance. I have an accountability buddy, my wife. We check in with each other to ensure that neither one of us gets too far astray from what we want to create in the world.
- I construct a set of rewards and punishments. You know what things motivate you, including both pains to avoid, and rewards to seek. Use this knowledge to your advantage and establish both carrots and sticks to keep yourself in action.
- I keep my commitments alive. I do this by scheduling, tracking, and reviewing my obligations. You will not act on things unless they are at the forefront of your mind when it is time to act. Schedule every meaningful step you want to complete, and set alarms when it is time to take them. Keep track of your performance, and set aside a time each week to check in with your accountability partner and show them precisely what you have and have not done.
Banishing procrastination to seize Opportunities is as simple (and as difficult) as that.