Why do we procrastinate?
This is probably one of the most discussed topics in the self-help literature, and when I say literature, I mean online blog posts. There are endless articles on techniques, strategies, and the reasons behind why we procrastinate.
But I’d like to share a really simple, powerful insight that I learned from my life coach many days ago.
It all comes down to must vs. have to.
Want Vs. Have To
Human psychology is such that when we are doing what we want to do, we are energized by the process. We look forward to it, we are energized by it, and when we are done, we look forward to doing more of it.
How come we can formulate endless creative ideas but have trouble putting them into practice?
Why is it that I procrastinate the most about things that are most important?
Have you ever noticed that today you might be avoiding assignment Y at all costs, but if tomorrow you are given assignment X which deemed even more important, you will immediately and happily engage in assignment Y just to avoid doing your new task?
It’s because there is an opposing psychological principle coming into the mix: we absolutely hate doing things we feel forced to do.
You might love running around for hours playing football, but if I put a gun to your head and tell you that you must play football, you will get resentful and hate every moment of it. We have a built-in desire for independence and free-will that is so strong it will do whatever it can to keep us
This is the secret behind everything you are avoiding doing: part of you feels compelled to do it. And if there is something you are very very good at, it’s making sure you avoid being compelled to do anything as much as you possibly can.
We have a built-in desire for independence and free-will that is so strong it will do whatever it can to keep us out of situations that compromise these values.
But wait, if that is the case, how come earlier in the day I was eagerly planning to take those pictures / finish that assignment / write that blog post? Here’s where things get interesting:
We do not live in a black and white world. We rarely just feel one way about anything. We have the capacity to experience two contradictory feelings at the same time.
The key word here is Ambivalence, and we experience on a daily basis in regards to our projects. On one hand we like doing what we are doing. But on the other hand, there is a negative association that comes with it:
I need the money. If I don’t do it they will fire me. They are expecting this from me. I will let them down if I don’t do it. I will get judged if it’s not up to par. I told myself I would do it, and now I must.
We may not be aware of this internal dialogue, but as long as it exists, we will always be held back.
The key to overcoming this issue is simple, but not easy. There is no quick fix. We need to examine the tasks we procrastinate most about and find what aspect of it makes us compelled to do it.
We then need to let go of that aspect, while strengthening the part of us that really wants do that thing anyway. Meditation can really help here, both in terms of letting go of the negative and increasing the positive.
Yes, I need to do that thing because if not I will get fired and starve. But to focus on that only brings me down. Why not focus on the fact that the task I need to do is not so bad? The fact that I really want to support my family? That I am (hopefully) helping others in some way?
I enjoy writing, but as long as I felt compelled to write in order to establish my credibility or because ‘that is what you need to do to maintain your blog’, I had a strong resistance not to write. Letting go of that allowed me to freely engage in what I love doing anyway. The number of posts I write a month increased exponentially and effortlessly.
Another example: I build websites. But I had a lot of difficulty marketing this service, because I needed to find clients in order to make money. However, when I thought about it more I realized that I honestly love building websites so much that all things being equal, I would love making them for free for people. The moment I truly came to terms with this, I became a lot less anxious about actually marketing my services.
So next time you find yourself procrastinating about something, try to find the part in you that feels forced to do it. Remember, it all about Want vs. Have to.
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