Despite having a comprehensive record of my thoughts, feelings, fears, decisions and activities over the past two and a bit years on this blog – a record that very clearly shows what’s good for me, what works for me and what doesn’t – I still struggle to put what I’ve learned into practice.
Procrastination is a case in point. Putting things off isn’t good for me. It does very little for me. In fact, it drags me down, makes me anxious, makes me angry with myself and takes up a lot of time that could be better spent enjoying my life. The things I’m procrastinating over sit on my shoulders like a heavy weight, producing tension, siphoning my energy and preventing me from moving freely.
I’d been pondering my procrastination in relation to a number of things – getting on with my writing, booking a trip to Spain, getting myself regularly to yoga and Pilates, to name but a few – when a friend sent me a link to a post that really resonated with me: The Real Reason We Procrastinate (And What To Do About It), written by Phil Stutz, a psychiatrist, and Barry Michels, a psychotherapist. Together they wrote the book The TOOLS: 5 tools to help you find courage, creativity, and willpower and inspire you to live life in forward motion (which I’d order right now if I didn’t already have a number of similar titles sitting unread on my book shelves and if I wasn’t aware that reading books about procrastination is a classic procrastination technique – but it looks really good so I might still get it anyway!).
If you can relate to procrastination, I’d recommend reading their post in full, but if that’s going to take up too much time – and stop you from doing the things you really want to be getting on with today – then here’s a brief summary and some of my own thoughts on it.
Stutz and Michels say we avoid tasks because they will cause us a certain amount of emotional pain – perhaps we’ll feel fear, vulnerability or shame, perhaps we’ll feel rejected or unloved.
For example, we put off making a phone call to a friend to explain we can’t make their party/picnic/wedding/christening etc because we know we’ll be exposing ourselves to pain – to potential disapproval, rejection or anger. It’s uncomfortable. Similarly, we don’t ask for a raise or apply for a new job or ask for time off work – the potential for pain is there too.
To use some examples from my own life, I put off going to yoga or Pilates because I’m not brilliant at either – stretching has never been my strong point – and I know I’m going to find the classes tough at first. I’d rather run or cycle, even though what my body really needs is to stretch. By not going, I’m avoiding physical and emotional pain.
Or I put off nailing the dates and buying the flights for that trip to Spain I’ve been talking about for the last few months. Why? On the one hand, I know it’ll be really good for me. I love Spain, I come alive when I’m speaking the language and I’m longing to spend some time in a foreign country, particularly a warm, Mediterranean one. But booking the trip also comes with a certain degree of pain – the fear of getting it wrong (because I always think I have to get things 100 percent right), of choosing the wrong dates and flights, of wishing I was at home rather than there, of feeling lonely, of not sleeping and so forth (as I write this, my fears seem rather minor compared to the lure of the Mediterranean!).
I had a similar experience before my month-long Mexico trip at Christmas, before booking my flights and even after I’d booked my ticket. I felt pain. I had moments when I didn’t want to go, when I thought I’d got it all wrong. And when I was there, I also felt pain – loneliness and fear – at times.
But by going to Mexico and travelling around there I did what Stutz and Michels advocate in their post and their book: I moved towards the fear. I took it on. I confronted it. I bought my flights and went to my friend’s wedding in stunning Acapulco. And once I was back in the capital, I dried my tears after days of indecision about where to spend Christmas – given my friends wouldn’t be around – and I booked a flight to the beach. And as I faced my fears, the universe or God (however you prefer to see it) responded.
I found someone to rent my flat in London (alleviating some of my financial worries), I made some amazing new friends, I danced salsa, learned to surf and had a lovely holiday romance. And when I got back, a magazine editor read my blog about the trip and commissioned a feature – perhaps the nicest, most stress-free commission I’ve ever received.
In other words, I moved towards the fear and doors opened, without me having to force my way through them. This is what Stutz and Michels call “living in forward motion”.
The opposite of living in forward motion is staying stuck in our comfort zone, in a pattern of avoidant behaviours. But staying in our comfort zone comes with its own pain, to quote Stutz and Michels:
It’s a shrunken world where ideas, opportunities, and new relationships can easily pass us by. Worst of all, procrastinators squander the most precious asset a human can have: time.
That’s why, in the words of Henry David Thoreau, most people “live lives of quiet desperation and die with their song unsung.” We want you to sing your song before you die.
I love that last line: “we want you to sing your song before you die”. I want to sing my song before I die. Don’t you?
As we live in forward motion, the universe brings us opportunities – people, places, things – that we never could have imagined. We encounter the wonder and beauty of serendipity, but only because we decided to step out on the windy path in the first place.
Of course, it takes courage and effort to live life in forward motion. Stutz and Michels offer a technique involving visualising the pain as a black cloud and then moving through it. Is it really that simple? I’m happy to give it a go. But I also think that just by recognising that we procrastinate because we’re afraid of feeling pain might be enough to propel us forward. I, for one, feel quite encouraged by reading their post.
I was also heartened to read that Stutz and Michels work in Los Angeles and come across lots of highly creative people:
Do you know when these people display the highest degree of creativity? It’s not when they perform, write, or sing; it’s when they make up excuses to postpone doing the things they should — even when those things are crucial to their future.
Extremely creative people, to make a sweeping generalisation (please forgive me), are perhaps more sensitive than others and therefore more susceptible to feeling pain and vulnerability. So it follows that creative types would also be more prone to procrastinate, which is certainly my experience, from my own life and after mixing with a lot of creative people in recent years. But then when creative people get their act together, the results can be astonishing.
But I also imagine our desire to avoid pain is linked to how much pain we recall or we carry in our subconscious from our childhoods or our past. If we felt unsafe, vulnerable, scared or unloved or if we were met with anger or disapproval when we took emotional or creative risks, then it’s not surprising we’ll want to keep ourselves wrapped in comfortable, cosy, cotton wool.
And if, at a young age, we developed addictive behaviours to cope with that pain – eating, drinking, drug taking, gambling, sex, obsessive thinking etc – we’ll be even less equipped to deal with our pain and therefore more terrified of it. Is it any surprise that creative people often struggle with addiction and with procrastination (another generalisation, but still)?
That’s why I feel very blessed to have found recovery from addiction and to be in therapy – I buried a lot of emotional pain and did my utmost over the years to avoid feeling any more of it and I need help to move forward in my life.
In fact, I need all the help I can get. And one thing that works for procrastinators – which I’m not taking advantage of right now – is having an accountability partner, someone who shares our struggles, can empathise with them but can gently nudge us in the right direction. This can be a friend, a fellow procrastinator, a life coach or perhaps a therapist. I know many people who have felt the benefits of being accountable to someone and I’d like that for myself. Perhaps that’s also why partnerships (professional and personal/romantic) can be so good for people. We can encourage each other, cheer each other on. When one feels weak, with a bit of luck the other will be feeling strong.
Stutz and Michels say our lives can change profoundly if we get into the habit of moving toward the pain all the time. We’re more able to take emotional and creative risks.
I hope that by visualising the pain I’m trying to avoid and by breaking through it, I can live life in forward motion and sing my song before it’s too late. And I have the same hope for you.