Three Big Reasons Why We Procrastinate
(And What to Do about Them)

Lego superhero figures

Photo by Julian Fong.

If it weren’t for procrastination, we’d all be superheroes.

When you think of the creativity, talent and energy in every human being, and what we achieve on the occasions when we’re working at full stretch, it’s almost scary to consider what we could do if we didn’t keep shying away from doing our great work.

I’ve done my fair share of procrastination, and I’ve lost count of the number of times the issue has come up with coaching clients. Reflecting on these pooled experiences, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are three big reasons that are responsible for most of the procrastination out there.

So here they are and what to do about them. I should warn you that once you’ve read them, the cat will be out of the bag – so if you want to keep hold of your excuses for procrastinating, don’t read the rest of this article! ;-)

1. You Don’t Know What to Do

There’s a world of possibilities out there. So many in fact, that you’re spoilt for choice. With so many things you could do, it’s hard to narrow the field down to one or two things you’re going to commit to.

And without a sense of purpose, it’s hard to summon up the energy to get anything much done. Sure, you could earn some money, get a job, maybe even make something you’re pleased with, but ultimately what’s the point? Where’s it all leading?

I was stuck here for years. I wandered from one interest, project and even profession to another, never satisfied that I’d found ‘the one’ I was ready to pursue wholeheartedly. Looking around at friends and colleagues who were working flat out on their career or their business, I scratched my head and wondered where they got their focus from.

It was only gradually that I started to fit my various interests and enthusiasms together, into a vision of a business – helping creative people make their dreams a reality – that really inspired me.

It took me a while to realise I was never going to find a profession that was the right fit for me, so that I’d have to create my own job description. But as I said last week, it turned out that (nearly) all of my weird, wonderful and apparently disconnected interests had a role to play in the business I created.

Takeaway: let your curiosity be your guide. Follow up on all your little interests and hunches, however impractical they may seem. Many of them will lead nowhere, but every so often you’ll find curiosity igniting into enthusiasm. Do this often enough, and the enthusiasm will start to pick up an unstoppable momentum …

And get into the habit of finishing things. You don’t have to finish every single project you start, but maybe one in three or four, push yourself to see it through to completion, just to show yourself you can do it.

2. You Don’t Know How to Do It

It’s great to have a vision, but what if you don’t know how to make it happen?

I’m not even talking about looking at a challenge and thinking it’s too difficult. I mean what do you do if you’ve got absolutely no idea how to even start?

In my case, curiosity came to the rescue, eventually. I had the core of my business worked out – providing coaching and training to creative-minded clients – but I realised I’d need to know a lot more about business, marketing and the creative industries if I wanted to make a success of it.

So I did a lot of sniffing around – reading books, websites, articles. As far as I could tell, there was no-one doing exactly what I wanted to do, so I looked for people doing things ‘next door’ to me. I read John Howkins’ book The Creative Economy, which explained why creativity is now critical to economic survival. Then I came across a Master’s program in creative business and promptly signed myself up.

The Master’s led me to Seth Godin’s ebook on using blogging to find an audience and customers. Then Dave Taylor’s book The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Growing Your Business with Google. I started to grasp the opportunity in front of me, and found myself reading more and more, compulsively.

I discovered the world of blogging, devouring the archives of Problogger and subscribing to all kinds of feeds. I felt I was getting close when I came across Steve Pavlina’s blog about ‘personal development for smart people’. I could see myself writing a blog about personal development for creative people…

Finally I took the plunge and got started, installing a blog on my website, writing posts and seeing what kind of response I got. It was hit-and-miss for a long time, but by then I was absorbed – even obsessed – in the learning process, trying different approaches, reading advice from different teachers, signing up for courses.

By this stage, the problem wasn’t procrastination – it was finding enough hours in the day to fit everything in and get everything done.

Takeaway: Keep following your curiosity, but narrow your focus to people who have done something similar to your dream. Look at how they did it, to see which parts you can emulate. Pay particular attention to teachers who can show you how it’s done.

Maybe no-one has done exactly what you’re setting out to do – but if you look in different areas, you can find examples in fields ‘next door’ to yours. It then becomes a creative challenge to fit the different pieces together into a new pattern.

And whatever you do, do something. Your first attempts may not be great, but they’ll be infinitely better than doing nothing. And when you see how they turn out, and start getting feedback, you’ll be on a learning curve to improving them.

3. Resistance

Now you know what you want to do, and how to do it.

So why aren’t you getting on with it?

Why are you still faffing around in your inbox, or Facebook, or surfing the web, or making another coffee, or goofing around with friends, or reorganising your bookshelves – or anything else but getting on with your real work?

I like Steven Pressfield‘s explanation: Resistance. An invisible, internal force that arises whenever we set ourselves a challenge that will take us outside our comfort zone. Resistance is what separates the amateur from the professional, since the former gives in and puts his dreams on hold; whereas the latter persists in spite of the fear, and pushes through to success.

Resistance is what stops you becoming a superhero.

Last year I wrote a piece about 7 Ways to Smash Procrastination that gives you a variety of ways through Resistance. I’d like to add one more here:

Enthusiasm melts Resistance.

When you’re in touch with your enthusiasm, Resistance dissolves, and all the frozen energy is released, for you to channel towards your goal.

Takeaway: Next time you find yourself procrastinating when you know what to do and how to do it, stop and look Resistance in the face. Notice how it affects you – how it makes you feel, what it makes you do. Get to know your enemy.

Then ask yourself whether getting stuck into your creative challenge is really as difficult and terrible as Resistance makes out. Remind yourself of the good times, when you were absorbed in the Joy of Work and didn’t want to stop. Don’t try to force it – wait until you feel the enthusiasm well up, and Resistance starting to melt…

Over to You?

Which of these reasons for procrastination has been the most difficult for you to overcome?

How have you overcome them?

Are there any other reasons (and solutions) you’d add to the list?

About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a Coach for Artists, Creatives and Entrepreneurs. For a free 26-week guide to success as a creative professional, sign up for Mark’s course The Creative Pathfinder.

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Responses to this Post

Comments

  1. Interesting, Mark. What do you think about the role of willpower in all of this? For example, you mention that enthusiasm melts Resistance. What about other emotions: fear, anger, envy? They are typically considered negative emotions, but I have found that both fear and anger have boosted my willpower to break through certain times of Resistance. Having said that, I don’t think they (negative emotions) are good long term solutions, although they occasionally provide a burst of energy…

    • Hi Mark, I generally ignore willpower, partly because it’s a vague concept, and partly because it runs out sooner or later. If you have to force yourself to do something from the outset, maybe it’s not that worthwhile after all?

      Fear, anger and envy on the other hand are all very useful emotions.

      Fear: tells you that you may be under threat, and you need to do something to negate the threat.

      Anger: tells you there’s an injustice that needs to be righted.

      Envy: a very useful clue to your own neglected desires. If you find yourself envying someone, it suggests you want to be doing what they’re doing. So maybe it’s time to start!

      • Well, let’s look at willpower, etc. from a different perspective. Every pleasurable project or process will almost always have parts that are less fun. For a writer, they may dislike research, or revision or editing. It would be a shame if those unpleasant parts stopped them cold and who knows what great work we’ve lost from that.

        The way that you describe the productive use of negative emotions, to me, would seem to be subject to the same limitations that some theories impose on willpower (also referred to as ego-depletion in some respects): they are temporary and can be used up quickly. Well, with the possible exception of fear…

        • Heh, you mean fear is permanent? I guess that’s just part of the human condition ;-)

          Seriously: I agree that nothing is 100% enjoyable, there’s always a bit of gristle or grouting, some task you’d rather avoid but it’s essential to achieving your goal. In that case, I find it helps to focus on the outcome:

          What do I get by persevering? Is that a big enough reward to make the pain of doing it a price worth paying?

          A bit like Seth Godin’s idea of persevering through the Dip.

          And coming back to emotions: if the emotion has disappeared, it’s usually because the situation that prompted it has been resolved.

          E.g. If someone verbally attacks one of my friends, I’m going to feel angry and want to defend him, and get the person to apologise or at least stop the attacks. I’m not likely to find the anger has been used up quickly if the attacks are ongoing. But if the attacker stops or apologises, or if I can see my friend is laughing it off and not upset, then the anger dissipates.

          • You bring up an excellent point. If willpower is real (my bias is that it is), goal setting and visualization are definitely ways to keep it intact. As you say, focus on the outcome. But as far as emotions go… doesn’t fatigue reduce the ability of a feeling or emotion to sustain itself?

            At any rate, we certainly have some common ground on this.

            • as far as emotions go… doesn’t fatigue reduce the ability of a feeling or emotion to sustain itself?

              I’m not sure. When I think about some of the insane feats of endurance or daring human beings push themselves to (running marathons, starting revolutions, tightrope-walking between the Twin Towers) I’m inclined to think emotions are some of the most durable and fatigue-resistant aspects of ourselves.

              At any rate, we certainly have some common ground on this.

              As always. :-)

  2. Lyndie Blevins says:

    Great post, while all 3 effect me, I am a pro at resistance, a very anit-BORG being so to speak.

  3. One force in this world that really overcomes resistance is love.

    Unfortunately, we don’t all get to experience that.

    • Michael, you are a softie at heart. :)

    • Very true, Michael.

    • Thinking of the relationship between procrastination and LOVE …

      I’ve read somewhere that when we are in love, we have in us a huge amount of DOPAMINE, a brain chemical which does many positive things including heightened artistic sensitivities, enthusiasm and creativity.

      But when we feel low or apathetic for some reason, then, the dopamine level may be low (I guess this is a chicken-egg situation?) and really hard to motivate ourselves. As a result, we might procrastinate.

      I’m no expert in this, but I observe myself as objectively as I can, that I’m procrastinating more than usual, with some impaired concentration, ever since the 3/11 Japan disaster.

      I’m not using it as an excuse for my procrastination, but I suspect that there may be a link between these feel-good brain chemicals and procrastination.

      If so, bringing back love and enthusiasm may restore motivation, concentration and procrastination problems.

      If only we could switch it on and off at will …

      • May I add a bit, about the USE of EMOTIONS to combat procrastination or plain sloth?

        I go for a run (training for half-marathons) and it occurred to me that whenever I see other runners (nice, dashing figures) coming towards me on the road, I kind of run faster and try to look focused and maximumly sharp, and return their ‘Hi!’ with an equally energetic ‘Hi’.

        But this is rather VAIN and pretentious of me, who normally run sloppily and absent-mindedly. But this act of PRETENDING to be a faster runner actually gives me unexpected energy and I end up running a bit faster.

        I think this is a positive use of seemingly negative VANITY and PRETENTIOUSNESS.

        And I’m wondering whether this could work for creative projects?
        In other words, I ‘pretend’ as if I’m wonderfully sharply focused, fast, efficient and 1000% execution-oriented.

        Or such pretentiousness does not work for creative activities? … all this sounds rather desperate, perhaps. But my MA project-deadline is coming up … and at least I’m not too vain to hide my desperation …

  4. I kind of agree with the first commenter but I’d narrow it down simply to fear, for most people. Fear of “doing it wrong”. I see my students afraid to write in case they get it wrong – this is the legacy of high school and they bring it with them.
    I think sometimes my biggest challenge is simply to get them to take risks, to write what they care about, and even more, to write what scares them. To simply, as you say, give it a go!

    • Fear of doing it wrong is indeed a great cause of procrastination. Here are some tips for dealing with it.

    • Indeed! Resistance is a big one for me, but Fear is huge. Fear of Failure. And so I procrastinate, knowing that while doing so, NOT doing anything is also failure. And round and round I go.

      I also suffer from depression and anxiety–something I suspect many, if not most, creatives fight. It doesn’t help. At all.

      I’m caught in a vicious cycle these days, but trying to get out of it. Slowly but surely, I’ll make things happen for myself.

  5. Procrastination is every entrepreneur’s hidden nightmare. We cannot deny that it is always there, lurking in the dark waiting to steal our greatest work. Thank you Mark for these 3 reasons.

    For me, I guess it is Resistance, that fug of creativity that makes it hard to get down to really doing it. Often, it is not what or how to do, but the getting to do that hinders what should be done.

    I do agree though, that enthusiasm is a good cure. When the excitement builds, I find myself gliding through the work rather than procrastinating.

    I will also think FEAR is a reason for procrastinating too, a much similar one to resistance. This is especially the case for what you have never done before.

    Thank you Mark for the simple break down.

  6. Great article…resistance is usual suspect for me, which can definitely be linked with fear at some level. But I am also getting more comfortable in accepting that *everything* works in cycles–and us humans are no exception. I find that the more I just go along with the peaks & troughs (while struggling to do my best not to beat myself up about what I “should” be doing every minute of the day)…the faster resistance slides away, or a great idea for the next step presents itself. Practicing meditation has really helped me with this over the last several months.

    p.s. I really enjoy getting the emails from LA, even though I hardly ever comment here on the blog. A hearty thanks to you, Mark!

  7. The third, combined with unexplainable will of the outcome, is what’s stopping me.

  8. Brian dorne says:

    Great article Mark, very insightul and well written. One to add to the list should be self doubt. I think we all believe we can do what we put our mind to but when it comes time to actually following through with our goals that little self doubt devil on our shoulder pops up telling us that maybe it’s more difficult than we thought or there’s a lot more work, or something better to spend the time on.

    Those are my two cents coming from someone with ADHD who struggles daily with procrastination. Thanks again for the article

    • Excellent addition to the list! How could we leave out that poor devil? ;-)

      • But self-doubt is just another word for Fear, isn’t it? And for me, that again boils down to Fear of Failure.

        Hallo, Brian! I have a bit of ADD myself, as well as depression and anxiety. (I’m a veritable Field Day for any psychoanalysts out there! Ha!) Procrastination is one of my biggest downfalls, and you’ve hit on some bits of it: more difficult, perhaps I should be spending time doing something else, etc.

        I hold myself to a higher standard than I hold everyone else in the world, and I constantly dissapoint myself because of it. It’s hard for me to finish any of the many projects I start. I’m learning to take things off my plate, to not say “yes” to everything, and to look deeper inside myself to see why I’m constantly Resisting against ME.

        It’s not easy. But it’s nice to know I’m not alone.

  9. Good point about resistance. Even if we have it all, there’s still something that blocks us from moving forward.
    I realised for myslef what was blocking me was guilt. Funny thing… Guilt of taking all the happiness and leave nothing for the restmaybe, guilt to live my greatness inside my own body…
    Really funny indeed. I figured out it came from some personal issues.
    I make music and my teacher told me to work on my voice. What i had to work on wasn’t actuly my voice, but my life.

  10. Is it ironic that I am here writing this because while procrastinating I decided to see what was new on your blog :-)? Perhaps. I haven’t really found a way to stop procrastinating, especially due to resistance, but I have discovered that often if I treat my creative self like a toddler “you can do A or you can do B” at least I can get SOME things done every time.
    I first discovered this when I had a studio to go to everyday, even if I had no idea what to work on, I made myself go to the studio for at least 3 hours — “you can create or you can clean brushes and rearrange the shelves” for example — inevitably the mundane task bored me and I started doing the creative thing — if not I had a cleaner studio ;-)
    It doesn’t work quite as well now that my workspace is in my living space (more distractions) but I still find it useful-especially when I am aware I’m procrastinating.

  11. I agree with all of your article. I only would like to stress the enthusiasm part to overcome resistance.

    If I have something on my plate that I decided in the past I should do, but now feel like I don’t *like* it anymore, I just drop it. It’s hard to do the first time, then you quickly get used to it. Life’s too short to force oneself to do things one doesn’t want to do.

    As for the things I’m required to do like “work”… well, I prefer to let the environment push me through than me pushing myself: the former is easier than the latter. Plus, it usually allows me to do things for which I’m enthusiast meanwhile. When I have no choice but do these things, I find it easier to do them!

  12. Procrastination is definitely one of the biggest challenges I faced last year. Working as a virtual assistant makes it even more difficult since work easily gets affected. For me, it was a sign of a burn out. I tend to procrastinate if I am no longer happy working with a client or working on a project. I no longer worry about it though. Ever since I enrolled in The VA Apprentice, I was able to conquer my procrastination issues.

  13. You don’t know what to do
    You don’t know how to do it

    I can’t recall a more honest reason for procrastination.

    I agree with a resounding yes to bt statements.

    If we knew what to do and how to do it, we certainly would do it, but the thought of plunging into the abyss without a compass, and investing tie energy, money, and resources leaves one in a state of numbing frozen desire.

    I will put it off to tomorrow, we say hoping tomorrow will provide a solution, that never seems to come.

  14. Hey Mark,

    I’m pretty sure I’ve experienced just about every one of these at some point or other. These days, I run into them a little bit less. See, my system runs something like this:

    - I (or rather we – my company and I) use Teamly.com to assign tasks to each other. I know what I need/want to get done, so I add those tasks and work through them assigning priorities to one or the other.

    Being a creative person, number 1 was the most challenging because I tend to get a new “brilliant” idea that keeps me from finishing something else. Teamly in this case and my colleagues help keep me focused and accountable.

    - I use a timer set in 12 minute intervals to get things done. This works particularly well when I’m writing or responding to Support Requests on our Community Forum (we use vBulletin for this at present similar to the StudioPress Forums that I think you’re familiar with). Anyway, I take a standing break at the end of every 12 minute interval to edit/review my writing before I hit the publish button.

    - When I don’t know what to do (number 2), I turn to forums (Third Tribe, StudioPress) or ask one of my followers or colleagues on GTalk (we use this to communicate internally at our offices but try and keep banter to a minimum). Luckily for me, when I don’t know how to do something, I’m motivated and bent on figuring it out :-)

    As for “the resistance”, I seem to run into this one a lot less. I experienced it a lot before I went into business for myself. But being in business for yourself teaches you some pretty big things. In my case, I learned to punch it in the face so I could get down to business, heh :-)

    • “But being in business for yourself teaches you some pretty big things.”

      Amen to that! :-)

      Sounds like you’ve built some great systems on the back of hard-won experience. Thanks for sharing. And see you around in Third Tribe / StudioPress.

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