Why we procrastinate, especially about the stuff that really matters

I had a lovely chat with a friend recently about applying to a school program she’s interested in. She confessed that even though she very much wanted to attend the school, she hadn’t yet completed the application.

Ah!

That familiar friend: Procrastination.

Why do we procrastinate about things that are important to us?

Why is that when it comes time to do the hard work, whether it’s taking action on our businesses, filing important paperwork, writing that longed for novel or script, or making time for our art, we stall?

I mean, sure, it’s hard, but we’ve also said how important it is to us. We’ve spent money on classes, books, training, and support. We’ve written it into our schedules. It’s clearly a priority for us, right?

So why so much talk and not so much action?

It’s the size of the dream that matters.

I’ll say that again: It’s the size of the dream that matters.

The more important something is to you, the more fear, procrastination, and resistance you experience. In fact, the level of fear you feel seems to be directly proportional to the size of the dream.

Perhaps even a little bigger, just for good measure.

“The more we care about something, the more we dream, the more fear shows up.”

 

~ Robert Maurer, author of One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way

 

The problem: We’re wired to shut down in the face of fear.

The fact that our brains are wired to shut down in the face of fear is what creates the entire conundrum in the first place.

As Robert Maurer describes in One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way, when our brains go into fight-or-flight mode, our frontal cortex — our thinking, rational brain — is automatically shut off so that we can respond appropriately and quickly to the threat at hand. This is a natural response to fear. Unfortunately, our mid-brains, home to the amygdala that governs the fight-or-flight response, can’t differentiate between the fear that comes up when we’re confronted with a tiger or when we’re contemplating completing the next great opus.

And so suddenly your thinking, rational and creative brain is completely turned off . . . which when you’re attempting to create and design new business ideas or a screenplay, isn’t so helpful.

The good news

The good news is that when you can learn to expect the fear to show up, you can normalize it and make it okay. Then it’s easier to be compassionate with yourself and coax yourself through the tasks at hand.

I’ve learned to recognize my own resistance routine and treat it like a familiar visitor I know how to handle.

I tell myself, “It’s okay, I know you’re scared, you can do this anyway.” And I do (as my Writer’s Circle members can attest).

It helps that I make a point to tackle things in small pieces, just the way Maurer recommends: “Small, easily achievable goals — such as picking up and storing just one paper clip on a chronically messy desk — let you tiptoe right past the amygdala, keeping it asleep and unable to set off alarm bells.”

This is why, even on really tough days, you’ll still find me writing at least 15 minutes a day on my screenplay, six days a week, no matter what.

The really good news?

The more work you do in small steps, the more your brain gets rewired with new neural pathways and new habits, making resistance so much easier to overcome.

Your turn

What’s your experience with procrastination? How do you deal with it? Have you experimented with small steps at all? You know I love to hear from you in the comments.

Warmly,

Jenna

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Comments

  1. Thank you Jenna, I needed to read this today. I am a well.known procrastinator in doing things especially when they are important. Always finding a reason to put off somehow. Hopefully I can take baby steps to getting my next book of poetry in order.. now.. thanks again. Ingrid

    • I’m glad this was helpful for you, Ingrid. It’s so scary to actually tackle the things that are important to us. Baby steps are the key!

  2. This article was helpful. I can attest to small steps and routine working. I push myself to get up at 5:30 a.m. every morning so I can get some writing done before I go to work. It was tough for the first few months, and I kept getting off track. But now, my body is so used to it that I can often get up without my alarm clock. And when I sit down to write, I start by freewriting to get myself going before I start on my actual project. I am a huge fan of baby steps. When I read about a famous author who wrote in 15 minute chunks and managed to publish several books that way, it let me know that it is possible to accomplish my writing goals in small chunks.

    • Cindy, I’m thrilled to hear about you writing every day! That happened for me too — once I was used to getting up early, I was waking up without the alarm clock. I loved it! I haven’t been getting up as early lately because of some personal stuff going on but I’m looking forward to getting back to that once things settle down. It’s surprising and gratifying to see what we can accomplish in as little as 15 minutes, isn’t it?

  3. Hi Jenna, I am from your highly sensitive person days – thank you SO much for this one today. I am taking my first internet marketing class right now – in order to take my relationship coaching to an internet-based practice. I went into a 3 week rabbithole – I care so much to take things to the next level of impact and income, so much that I just fell down completely. I want to get internet based group coaching going so I can have more freedom and also go back to school for my PhD. I care so much for long term goal, and I find marketing really really hard. I started the internet marketing course in August and have been in and out of the rabbithole consistently – I am exhausted from it. Is there a simple practice/inner game tip I could use to help me do what’s in front of me? Thanks as always,
    Mindy

    • Mindy, what a great question. Thanks for asking. My favorite way of staying focused on what’s right in front of me is to simply not allow myself to look at the big picture very often. If I spend a lot of time thinking about how BIG the project is, I will never take it on. If I think of a very small piece and just do that, I’m fine. I call it “keeping your head down.” (Learned from one of my early bosses back when I used to do 3D visual simulations). The fear kicks in when the big picture is looked at. It’s insurmountable when it’s so big. In small pieces, it’s doable. So it’s a decision you can make just to look at the small pieces once you decide where you’re going in the big picture.

      Example: Big picture/goal = writing my feature length script; small piece = write 15 minutes a day, completing 15 page increments every 2 to 3 weeks.

      For you it might look like: Big goal = launch, small piece = take action on one small piece of the launch every day.

      AND, all that said, check to see if you’re in alignment with the kind of marketing you’re being taught. Sometimes we rabbit because we’re afraid, and sometimes we rabbit because what we’re being told FEELS wrong.

      Good luck!

  4. I was going to leave a response. Maybe next week… Just kidding.

    And that’s generally my answer to procrastination. If I can find the humor in the writing situation it allows me to tap into my creativity. Simply asking what could be funny or how the scene could be funnier doesn’t necessarily make everything light and offbeat. I’ve created some of my darkest characters and situations from fun stuff that took a sudden turn.

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