How do we learn to procrastinate?
We are waging a cultural war against procrastination and inner resistance as if they were evil itself. I believe it is time to STOP the War and START negotiating a peace treaty with yourself. Persistent patterns of procrastination are the outer manifestations or signposts of inner conflict and resistance.
Procrastination is the result you get when one part of you is trying to get the rest of you to do something using tactics like: ordering, coercing, pressuring, tricking, or even bullying yourself to do it.
Resistance can only exist when there is some kind of pushing, pressure, or force trying to get you to do something you don’t want to do, or aren’t ready or willing to do at this time for some reason.
You win when and ONLY when you learn how to resolve the inner conflicts andcooperate so that ALL parts of you win.
Procrastination is a window into the most neglected corners of your soul. It’s the nonverbal part of you trying to get your attention. It’s BEGGING you to LISTEN.
You may try to tell me that you don’t push or coerce yourself, or that you have a right to expect yourself to “just do it”, but the very fact that you are consistently not doing something you are telling yourself to do is the evidence that you are pressuring yourself.
Where there is fire, there is oxygen feeding it. Where there is chronic procrastination, there is resistance, and therefore, some form of pressure feeding it.
Procrastination is the behavioral evidence of pressure. There are also other ingredients in the “soup” of procrastination, but pressure is one of the most necessary ingredients. The other ingredients like anxiety, depression, idealist thinking, magical thinking, denial, etc. just give it different flavors. What fuels procrastination and keeps it alive is:
Severe and chronic procrastination is the evidence of a long term war. No inner war = no procrastination. In order to exist, profound procrastination REQUIRES the use of warlike gaming strategies and tactics to coerce or manipulate yourself to do things you aren’t yet fully ready, willing or able to do.
If you are routinely procrastinating, there is always a valid reason. There is something that your heart, body, or soul is telling you it needs. And the part of you that wants you to “just do it” isn’t listening and isn’t negotiating.
On the other hand, when you ask yourself questions instead of demanding yourself to do things, and when you listen to the concerns, needs and reasons why you aren’t ready and when you have a conversation with yourself about how you could collaborate with yourself to redesign the task, tweak the timing, get more information or whatever it is you need to get ready to start, there is no procrastination.
There is only “becoming ready.”
When your inner dialogue transforms from war to cooperation, from bully to ally, what you are doing is “facilitating readiness” in a self-respecting way instead of“conquering” procrastination.
When you “conquer” yourself, one part of you loses. One part of you is left feeling disrespected and resentful.
Next time, that part of you will be even LESS willing to do what you forced it to do. And thus procrastination and resistance grows even stronger. So you may be able to conquer it for a few weeks, but then suddenly what you thought was a victory results in an even bigger battle. Like following a diet for a few weeks and then suddenly have a huge binge. Or losing 5 pounds and then gaining back 10.
Is winning a battle AGAINST yourself really winning?
After all, it’s YOU. You need the part of you that resists pressure to trust you, not fearyou. Deep self-confidence only comes when all parts of you trust you to listen and respect them. Would you want to live full-time with someone who is constantly dominating you and forcing or pushing you to do things against your will? I doubt it.
Wouldn’t you rather be asked nicely and allowed to negotiate than be ordered around?
So how did we learn to become chronic procrastinators?
It’s important to understand how you learned this way of treating yourself, because then you can learn the ingredients needed to design your own personalized recipe for UNlearning it and trying out other ways to do things.
No one is BORN procrastinating. That is a myth. You learn to procrastinate over time. You learn it without having to be “taught” – just like you learned to walk. You learn procrastination as a compensatory strategy to fill the void that exists when you are not taught how to accept, respect and listen to yourself and design more effective, custom strategies that work with your interests, motivations, drives and abilities.
In our culture, most people are not taught how to listen to their own hearts and minds. We are not encouraged to make our own decisions about when and how to do things. Most people are not taught how to design their own custom strategies for daily living.
We are expected to “know” or figure it out the same way we learned to walk. For example, “Clean your room” is something most parents don’t think they need to teach and certainly they don’t think they need to help you define your own standards of what “clean” actually means. Or to help you understand the value of putting things away. Or how cleaning is not the same thing as organizing. etc. etc. It’s just an order you should obey without asking questions. It should be obvious what “clean your room or clean the house” means right?
From school age on, we are taught to “do what we are told.” We are rarely taught how to listen to ourselves and advocate or stand up for own interests and needs. We like to say that “everyone has a right to their opinion,” but in reality, if you express an opinion that the authority figures (teachers, parents, bosses, etc.) don’t like or that doesn’t fit their world view, it is rarely received well. You are expected to either keep your thoughts to yourself or “get with the program” and do what either your parents or teachers want you to do.
We are taught that there is “no such thing as a stupid question”, or “the only stupid question is the one that isn’t asked” But ask a parent or teacher or boss more than one or two questions and just watch how annoyed they get. Asking too many questions or the wrong questions will get you lower grades, lower performance reviews and more. And so we start learning to repress our naturally intense curiousity and try to become more like the good little “order takers” who get the raises and promotions.
Thus you learn to stop listening to yourself. You learn that you “should” be, think and act like the majority around you if you want to “keep the peace” and get along with people. You “must always be on time” is another example of cultural bias against creative, non-linear, non-chronological thinkers. ”No Excuses” is often heard. You are not “given” the right to say “but that is so freaking hard for me, can’t we compromise?”
We worship being on time, while also knowing that in reality, most of the best things in life do NOT happen on a schedule.
Talk about mixed messages. We are usually expected to just do the homework or work assignment as it given – No questions asked. But what if you do have questions or don’t like the assignment? What if you don’t know where to begin? Who teaches you step by step how to deal with that in a way that doesn’t piss people off?
So you start learning that if you procrastinate or wait till the last minute, somehow you will gather the ability and (desperate) energy to FORCE yourself through the assignment. You begin to believe that “pressure” is only way to get yourself to do challenging tasks or boring tasks or tasks you don’t inherently like doing. You literallylearn to use procrastination as a tactic to “motivate” yourself.
We are constantly bombarded with messages at home, work, school, advertising and even in our entertainment: reading, TV shows and movies, etc. that reinforce the belief that controlling, pressuring, and pushing yourself or using manipulative tactics such as external incentives, rewards, and accountability are highly effective habits forconquering procrastination.
External incentives are not always the right answer. (See Drive by Daniel Pink for an excellent resource on what really motivates us.) They may work occasionally, or in the short term, but for the long haul, they are barely better than putting a gun to your head every time you need to do something. Cultivating intrinsic motivation to do what needs doing on a day basis is far more effective, healthy, organic, reliable and sustainable as way to motivate performance and reinforce habit development.
Eventually, you WILL feel the manipulation and you WILL resist. What you really have is a perfect recipe for inadvertently reinforcing and strengthening the long term procrastination habit.
As it often is, the reality is counterintuitive. The truth is that solutions that “work” in the short term are often primary causes of the problems we experience in the longer term. Short term pressure and coercion tactics such as external incentives, rewards and punishments are the primary ingredients of chronic procrastination. It takes time to notice the longer term impact of today’s solutions. It requires willingness to think more deeply and relinquish “default settings” like “I should be able to just tell myself to do it and do it.” that keep us stuck in perpetual war with ourselves.
In the long term, what manipulative “motivators” actually accomplish is to unintentionally teach us to:
- Suppress our curiosity and natural love of the organic learning process. Instead of enjoying the natural process of asking our own questions, making guesses, testing them out and being willing to be wrong and make mistakes in our journey toward mastery, we learn to seek the grades, praise and rewards that come with giving the “right” answers to other people’s questions, getting it right the first time, getting A’s on someone else’s tests. Furthermore we learn to become anxious about mistakes because we learn that that not getting it right the first time could mean not getting something we deeply value, like being able to go to a good college or get a good job, etc.
- Require external pressure to overcome our learned fear of getting it wrong. Welearnto dread making a mistake, looking foolish, and not having enough time to get it “right” because that means we won’t get the praise, approval, A, or raise, or promotion, or whatever external reward we have developed a craving for. We learn to need external motivators and structure so intensely that we literally become addicted to external rewards. We become so dependent on them that we weaken the very thing we need to strengthen – our ability to experience intrinsic satisfaction and enjoyment from accomplishing the tasks of daily life.What I call “agilizing” is about RE-LEARNING to enjoy the iterative process of responding creatively to our needs by designing new strategies and ways to do things, testing our ideas, getting feedback, and adapting our strategies iteratively and incrementally over time. Agilizing and creativity requires being comfortable with and expecting mistakes will be made. Agilizing and design both require being comfortable with a degree of uncertainty and openness about what the right answer or solution is and expecting our creative ideas to yield unexpected and surprising results that will need to be adjusted.
To design our way out of procrastination we need to learn to think like a fashion designer who EXPECTS the first fitting of a new dress design to be wonky. Designers realize that they need to try out their ideas and value the feedback – they don’t see their imperfections as mistakes but as stepping stones to getting the right fit. They get that they NEED honest feedback about what works and what doesn’t so that they tailor their design and EVOLVE the fit, form, and flair to become just right. And even then, they know that dress won’t be worn forever. Next season, they’ll need an update or something new altogether.
In real life, everything we ever do is a draft. Rarely is anyone there to praise us for getting things that seem simple done. But in school, we learn to become addicted to approval and do things for the “grades.” We learn that rewards only come for “getting it right the first time.” That there are no do overs and that do overs are a “waste of time.” We learn to become anxious and embarrassed about making mistakes or not finishing on time. And thus we learn to procrastinate unless we have some kind of external pressure or incentive.
- Avoid making plans because we grow up so over-scheduled that we learn to associate schedules with pain and suffering. We learn that we aren’t allowed to change schedules once the school has established them. We learn from experience that for the sake of the schedule and operating on time our needs will be ignored and trampled on. We learn that schedules come with being dominated by time – with being frequently interrupted in our creative flow or process. We learnto dread and hate scheduling.People who enjoy thinking deeply and creatively are often just getting warmed up in a 45 minute class, for example. In school, the bell ringing feels so arbitrary. As kids, we don’t get why it’s so important to stop what we are doing even when we were just getting starting to become fully engaged or productive. Why do have to move on the next subject when this one was just getting so interesting?
Alternatively, 45 minutes on a subject we aren’t interested in, or with a teacher who gets angry when you ask a question or who cares more about grammar than the ideas, well that’s another kind of arbitrary torture. We wonder why we have to endure a teacher who is so boring or a subject that seems to have no relation to anything we care about.
We learn inadvertently that schedules are torture devices. No one explains their value in a way that helps us get over this deeply ingrained, hard to articulate, visceral aversion we have to schedules. The word alone can trigger an anxiety attack. We think we are born that way because we started learning it so young and the torture of having to comply with scheduled learning and having no input into our own learning or who we learn from – It is socially sanctioned, legally mandated and goes on for so many years most people no longer even question whether or not their kids should be sent to school.
Compounding the problem is that a majority of people including our parents believe that this way of schooling is the best option we have for educating our kids. They believe that its good “discipline” for them to be forced to adhere to scheduled learning. They believe that future success in life DEPENDS on success at school. They believe that if a child has problems “adjusting” to school then the child must be disordered in some way.
Hence, the “discovery” that roughly 25% or more of kids (when you combine all the diagnoses) have some kind of behavioral problem or labeled disorder such as too disruptive, too aggressive or bullying other kids, oppositional-defiant disorder, emotionally disturbed, ADHD, a range of learning disabilities, depression, performance anxiety, test anxiety, procrastination. Thankfully this is changing and home-schooling and unschooling are becoming an increasingly viable option for educating kids. But I digress.
Understanding the roots is necessary but not enough. What can you do to recover from chronic procrastination?
If you have a serious problem with procrastinating on daily tasks of life you are probably
- certain that doing the task is so critical and will be so good for you that you don’t even question why you need to do it.
- certain that you know the “right” or best way to do the task.
- dread actually doing the task enough to endure the painful consequences that come with not doing them
You mostly likely LEARNED this habit without being aware that you were learning it. This kind of habit is actually a learned aversion. Aversion cannot ever be “overcome” with external manipulation tactics disguised as “motivational” strategies. Aversions are not overcome by conducting an inner war disguised as efforts to exert self-control (such as “just do it.”
I have yet to work with or even meet anyone who has recovered from this problem or solved it using manipulation or self-control tactics.
Unlearning procrastination means unlearning mistaken beliefs about yourself, and unlearning mental and emotional habits that contribute to chronic procrastination. It involves learning new ways to understand yourself and learning how to teach yourself new habits. It requires accepting that it is natural to want to delay doing something that you have learned to end up feeling bad about even though you got it done. When you live every day expecting and fearing failure, frustration and feelings of hopelessness, why wouldn’t you procrastinate?
Recovery starts with becoming compassionate with yourself. With realizing that you did NOT and are NOT doing this because you are bad or defective or stupid or any other name you might call yourself.
Recovery from procrastination requires:
- Learning to accept, appreciate and harness your natural strengths and preferences. For example, learning how to improvise effectively to get things done “as needed” utilizes your gift for being “reactive” and cultivates it into effective need-responsiveness.
- Learning to design alternative scheduling and commitment-making strategies that that integrate your needs for flexibility (and respect your energy cycles and creative process) with other people’s needs for scheduling and do not feel arbitrary or restrictive.
- Learning self-cooperation, self-leadership, self-influencing and inner conflict resolution strategies that work for you when self-control does not. Control is NOT the only or even the best way to do things. Telling yourself to do something, however mild it may be, is still a form of control. Anytime you expect instant compliance or obedience without getting any talk-back or resistance – THAT IS controlist in nature.
- Learning ways to design intrinsic motivation in and resistance out of tasks you avoid or dread.
- Learning to set agile goals, manage your own expectations, and partner with yourself to agilize follow-through on commitments, give yourself approval, recognition and emotionally energizing rewards for progress and compassion for setbacks you experience.
- Learning to discern various kinds of mistakes; embrace “formative” mistakes which are a natural part of learning and iteration; and develop practices that mitigate the risk of making the kinds of mistakes that cause devastating or irreparable harm.
You are not doomed to endure and settle for the painful underachievement that comes from doing things at the last minute just to get them done “on-time” and you don’t have to deprive yourself of feeling the satisfaction that comes from a job well done even though it may not be the absolute best you are capable of. You don’t have to go through life feeling guilty, overwhelmed and inadequate when you look at your growing to do list.
There is a much less costly and painful way.
The Agile Way – Life, Time, and Performance Design meant for Human Beings who are designed to evolve and are NOT designed for the “Just Do It” life.
AgiliZen™ is about applying agile principles to “facilitate NOT manipulate” behavior. Agile Life, Performance and Time Design provides the high-leverage life skills needed to change beliefs, thinking habits, and emotional habits like anxiety and reactive depression.
Agile Design Thinking gives you tools and processes for enhancing performance, building habits, cultivating intrinsic enjoyment and emotional rewards, desensitizing unwanted behavior triggers, and ultimately healing the emotional and cognitive roots of chronic procrastination. As you experience the power you have to influence your own behavior, you cultivate self-respect and self-confidence that enhances your overall productivity and life satisfaction.
AgiliZen™ is a life long practice of increasingly mastering the art of giving yourself the freedom and courage to rethink anything that causes suffering in your life and design creative solutions. You become empowered to make agile plans, goals and decisions that inspire action to get things done with less stress. When needs, requirements and available resources change, agile goals and plans enable you to adapt:
- what you commit to do,
- how you do it,
- when you do it,
- how long you do it,
- how you talk to yourself before, during and after you do it,
- where you do it
- what enough is
- what the range of acceptable done is for each draft
- what the tolerance for mistakes or incompleteness is
- what the direction is, and when it’s time to change course or doing something else entirely
Becoming agile means becoming more confident in your resiliency and capability – more willing to experiment and take reasonable risks. Less attached to beliefs that hold you back and more ready to try doing things differently – maybe even theopposite of what you thought you “should” do.
Are you ready to try something outside your comfort zone? to consider listening to your own experience and designing your own pathways out of the procrastination habit? Are you ready to let go of the idea that what works for other people should work for you to?
If “just do it” rarely works for you, AgiliZen™ is a way of life which builds on a foundation of self-leadership skills and emphasizes self-facilitation over self-control strategies. AgiliZen respects the wholeness of you and doesn’t assume one part of you should be entitled to tell the other parts of you what to do and expect compliance.
Life change may be “slower” in the short term as you are learning new life skills, but like any skillset, once you reach a certain level of mastery, implementation becomes more fluent and high impact, strategic changes become increasingly easier to integrate into your life.