At a workshop I attended recently, I learned a lot but I also got some interesting surprises from talking to several of the participants.
There was one guy (let’s call him Dan) who quickly, though not deliberately, drew attention to himself because he was so smart, really low key, gentle, not arrogant – and, as I said, smart.
Have you come across this sort of person in your life? Their brains are so logical and considered. You (if you’re like me) could be getting swept up in a new idea, a fabulous insight, a moment of clarity when suddenly, out of left field, comes this rational, logical, thoughtful, challenging question that makes you bolt upright and stop dead in your tracks thinking: ‘Why didn’t I think of that? Good point’ causing you to reconsider and evaluate and hopefully get even more out of the moment.
Dan asked those kinds of questions.
Smart people procrastinate
Later he and I were paired in an activity – and here came my surprise. Dan told me his biggest challenge was procrastination. He wanted to write on a subject that was a bit ‘out there’; a new approach to science fiction but he couldn’t quite get around to it. He’d start then walk away. He couldn’t stick at it.
He’d go to his study to write but then get side tracked into checking his email, following up a query from someone else, remember that he needed to do something else in the office, create a list of things to do, deviate off into checking something on a website etc etc and then suddenly the day was over and he’d got no further with his writing.
And this had been going on – not for months, but years.
I was really surprised. I had make this sub-conscious assumption that because Dan was smart, he was confident in his own abilities and would just go ahead and ‘put it out there’.
But as he talked about his situation, it became clear that Dan was concerned about putting ideas down on paper that he wasn’t convinced were 100% right.
So rather than go with a 90% conviction that his ideas were good, he didn’t do anything at all towards his dream goal.
Confident people procrastinate
Surprise number two was similar. Again paired up in an activity, another participant, someone who I knew as a confident successful colleague (let’s call him Liu), asked me to help him work through an issue – again it was procrastination.
In this case, Liu was completing some media work, creating three sets of CDs. Although he’d made several CDs before, he thought these were the best he’d done. They were all recorded and edited. The contents listed, the artwork almost completed but Liu couldn’t get around to finalizing the production details for the duplicator to generate the finished product.
He told me there was probably only about another 4 hours work in the project. But instead of completing it, he found himself watching replays of the rugby, working on other projects, playing with his son, simply finding plenty of other things to do rather than the very thing that he most wanted to do – or so he said.
The problem with these conversations were that they were too close for comfort! I recalled speaking with a friend from Western Australia many years ago about this very subject and she described it as neurotic perfectionism. And so I confess: I am a sufferer.
The conversations with Dan and Liu got me wondering again: what is it that holds us back from starting or finishing certain things? What is it that makes us knowingly procrastinate – and then, and here’s the worst part, beat ourselves up for doing it?
And why is it that so many people seem to share this predicament? The more people I talk to about my growing interest in this topic – the more people say to me: ‘when you find the answer – let me know!’
Is it perfect?
Well I wonder if no matter what excuses or reasons we use, the real answer comes down to this…fear of failure. If we set ourselves really high standards, a state of perfectionism, then if what we produce is not ‘perfect’ by our standards, then we see this as failure. And rather than risk failure and disappointment, we don’t do it at all.
Or perhaps we don’t know when to finish, to say that what we’ve been doing really is good enough now. We don’t have the courage to draw a line in the sand and say: OK that’s 85% of total perfection – it’s enough; I’ll now complete the project, tick the box and move on to the next one.
It’s our amygdala again
A wonderful friend gave me a book by Lafferty and Lafferty called “Perfectionism: A Sure Cure for Happiness” (1996 Human Synergistics, Inc). It’s an easy read and an insightful book on the subject. I recommend it.
Here’s one sentence that made me sit up and take notice:
“Perfectionism is a personal defense system that originates in overcompensation for an overall deep sense of not being worthwhile.”
“The origins of perfectionism rest in the perceived inability of the child to ever do well enough: to be acceptable, and to be seen as loved and important. Perfectionists believed they could not please some important figure in their life, and are symbolically still trying.”
Does this sound like The Almond Effect® to you? It did to me.
I don’t know what might have caused the proclivity for procrastination for Dan. But when Liu and I talked, he reflected on his early childhood as a “new Australian” in the days of the White Australia policy and people whispering about the ‘Yellow Peril”. (My grandmother spoke like that. She would never eat Chinese food and sadly, even rejected a gift from my brother when he was 10 years old because it had “Made in China’ stamped on the bottom. Decades on I still remember that.)
Liu recalled that as a young boy and even as a young man, he never felt he would be good enough, would never get the blond blue-eyed girl of his dreams (he did!) and always felt like a second class citizen.
I asked him whether this made him as afraid of success as he was of failure? His answer: “If the CDs are as successful as I believe they could be, I’ll probably feel like a fraud!”
This certainly got me thinking that procrastination could be as much about the fear of achievement, about feeling not worthy as about fear of failure.
I wish I’d said something then
And I wondered if the fear of looking stupid, looking foolish, not living up to someone else’s expectations, not being good enough carried through into our reluctance to speak up at work, to challenge our colleagues, our bosses, to ask questions in meetings, to put our hands up for projects and new roles?
I’ve come to the view that procrastination (if it’s not simply laziness and I doubt that it is for most people I’ve spoken with) really must stem from fear. And if we do procrastinate, then the one thing we mustn’t put off is trying to understand what we are afraid of, and assess whether the fear is warranted or not.
Be a STAR
I’m applying my STAR technique to unravel what’s going on.
- Stop and catch yourself allowing fear (new or old and habitual) preventing you from doing what it is to want to start, say or complete. Notice when it happens and what you do when it does. What do you feel when you ‘walk’ away, at the time? Later in the day?
What to do next: do this now
Choose just one thing: for example having the conversation about your workload with your manager, facing up to a difficult situation with a team member about the progress of a project, talking to your partner about something they say to the children, even a task as painful as sorting out the belongings of someone you’ve lost to cancer. It doesn’t matter whether it’s major or a minor thing – just choose something that you beat yourself up for not doing.
Then set yourself a deadline, decide on your reward for doing what you are going to do – and just do it. No more planning, no more being sidetracked, no more worrying about carrying out a little more research, consulting with another person, doing the ironing, preparing for next weekends BBQ, just do it.
They don’t have to be big steps – just one at a time. Work out who has been holding you back. Mentally thank them for helping you to achieve your best but let them know you can do it without them now and do even better things that they will (or would be) proud of.
And when you achieve that outcome that you have been procrastinating about – make sure you collect that reward you promised yourself. It’s not an indulgence – it’s the way the brain’s neurons learn that the new pathways are the better ones.
PS Help me with my research on this
If you have any examples of procrastination that you think may be due to fear of failure or fear of success or indeed some other reason, then I would love to hear from you. Happy to offer some thoughts about how to deal with it if I can – especially if you’re not sure where it’s coming from. Confidentiality 100% guaranteed. Click here.