Procrastination is pain avoidance.
If something makes you feel good, you’ll do more of it. So if you’re struggling to complete a task, then it’s not making you feel good; it can’t be. It’s causing you some kind of pain and you’re avoiding that pain.
What can we learn from this view of procrastination as pain avoidance?
First, we can see that procrastination is natural. Avoiding pain is natural. It’s as natural to avoid pain as it is to seek pleasure.
But avoiding pain and seeking pleasure are two behaviors that cause trouble if they’re not constrained. Procrastination is what happens when our natural tendency towards pain avoidance continues without a limit that’s firm, immediate, and external to the self.
We procrastinate on a task when nothing forces us to do it right now. There’s no predator darting towards us that makes us jump into action. We know we can get away with sitting idle another moment, so we do.
Often, we’ll try to simulate that predator. We’ll growl at ourselves. “You must do it, now!” We’ll promise ourselves that we’ll be very angry and upset if the thing does not get done by us.
Those words never have much of a chance. They are just words competing against our primal instinct of avoiding pain.
What more can we take away from this view of procrastination as pain avoidance?
We can see that there’s hope for breaking the cycle.
Anytime we find ourselves procrastinating, we can consider it as an opportunity for self-improvement. It’s a chance to improve one of the most important relationships in our life: our relationship with pain.
Instead of saying “I’m procrastinating,” say “I’m avoiding pain.” What are you going to do next, having admitted that?
Yes, you can work on increasing your pain tolerance, learning to grin and bear it, so to speak. But you can also look closer at the pain itself. Why does it hurt so much, or does it? How does your response to the pain make it worse, or better? How much of the pain are you actually creating for yourself? If you knew you were inflicting that same pain on another person, would you stop?
Let’s take a closer look at the kinds of pain that are often involved in a “case” of procrastination.
Maybe the most common trigger for procrastination is boredom. But what is boredom? It’s the pain we experience when we crave stimulation and don’t receive it.
If we use social media, we’ve cultivated an intense craving for stimulation. We scroll through our feeds, looking for the next item that will excite or enrage us. When we don’t get the titillation we been trained to expect, we keep scrolling. Of course, when we try to turn away from social media to do something like writing an essay, we experience a loss of stimulation. Writing the essay isn’t as exciting. It’s slower. It’s harder. It’s more solitary.
If the essay and the social media feed exist in two competing panels on our screen, of course we’re going to keep returning to the social media feed. We tell ourselves to stop slacking off, and when this barked command doesn’t work, our self-esteem is damaged. We think we should be authoritative enough to tell ourselves what to do and have it get done. We should be virtuous enough to concentrate and keep our word. Breaking our word time and time again makes us feel ashamed.
We begin to fret over how much time we’ve wasted and how delayed we are on a task that could have been quick. We feel guilty about the waste. We compare the way our efforts were supposed to turn out with the way they’re actually turning out and we can’t bear the disappointment.
Observing our ineffectiveness, we begin to fear failure. Ditto if we have a high standard: we fear that we won’t meet it. This fear becomes part of the bundle of pain we must now avoid.
Some tasks are large and complex. If we feel confused, indecisive, unsure how to proceed, this feeling of confusion becomes part of the pain.
As we try to work on a given task, we know there are other tasks we could or should be doing too. Are we spending too much time on the current one? Would it be better to switch? Could we be more effective working on something else right now, or should we stick it out? Our indecision around time management becomes part of the pain.
And so a mild pain like the pain of boredom can grow, through our avoidance of it, into a big tangled knot of different kinds of pain including the intense pain of self-doubt or even self-hatred. And our avoidance of that pain will intensify along with it.
The key observation is that most of this pain is self-created. The guilt, the fear, the frustration, the doubt, the anxiety – these are all emotions we’re experiencing in response to our own behavior.
We would surely hesitate to inflict this much pain on another person, and yet when we do it to ourselves we somehow have the idea that it’s necessary. We think that by feeling this guilt, by calling ourselves names, scolding ourselves endlessly, our suffering will grow so great that it will be greater than the pain of doing the task. It will serve as the counterbalance that finally snaps us out of our avoidance behavior and forces us to get to work.
But our self-inflicted pain can’t serve as an effective counterbalance because it is not independent from the task; it’s tangled up with the task. There’s no clear, easy choice between guilt and work because the guilt doesn’t evaporate the moment we get to work; in fact, we feel it more strongly as we try to re-engage with what we’ve been avoiding. The shame that’s supposed to nudge us to confront the task actually repels us from it.
What is the solution?
To start, forgive yourself immediately and absolutely. Realize that self-imposed pain is not helping you. Your likeliest path to getting the task done is to regain self-esteem. It’s to feel better, not worse. If you think that you’ve wasted so much time and slacked off for so long and fallen so far behind that you can’t possibly forgive yourself, think again. You can forgive. If you’re alive, you’re a survivor. Be proud of that. Start there, with the acknowledgment that you had to do a lot of really hard things to get to where you are right now in your life and you got through them and you’re here – amazing.
Be a cheerleader. Listen for the critical voice in your mind that’s saying “No, this isn’t good and you’re not doing a good job.” As soon as you hear that voice, drown it out with cheerleading. Don’t worry if the cheerleading seems contrived; trust that it’ll work. Say “Yes, this coming along. Great! Keep going!”
Try to summon so much positivity that you look forward to getting to work on the task because of all the nice things you’re going to say.
Think about the pain you’ve been avoiding. Is it the pain of boredom? Try meditating to reduce your craving for stimulation. Is it the fear of failing? The fear of not meeting your standards? Not being good enough? Not being effective? Envision yourself creating a “shitty first draft” and feeling great about it. Be flexible. Consider it a badge of honor that you’re willing to take the risk of reducing your standards to get something done.
When you’ve released yourself from all the pain that’s self-inflicted, when you’ve shedded the baggage, decluttered your mind as much as possible, now look at the pain that’s left, the smaller core of pain that’s intrinsic to the task itself. Is the pain of the task really that bad or is it something you can face? And if you do face it, what good things will be unlocked?
How much could a little more bravery contribute to your life? How much happier would you be if you could learn, through the task at hand, a better way of conceptualizing and responding to pain? Now’s your chance to practice.