Procrastination: Defense Mechanism or Sabotage

Part I*

Friday morning, with a clear schedule for the day, I found myself washing the dishes, clearing everything and dying to watch Netflix, rather than sitting down at the computer to write. The question that arose, once more – what’s behind the procrastination?

Admittedly – my free schedule Friday morning was supposed to be just that – free time. But at the same time, I thought – well, why not use this time to do some writing?

But I didn’t.

I did everything but write.

Is this some sense of misguided self-preservation? Or is it simply self-sabotage?

I’ve learnt, long ago, that will power has very little to do with procrastination. This is not what this is about – although it can be helpful to have some willpower along the way!

Procrastination is all about postponing and avoiding. Somehow protecting some sense of self-worth. Nonetheless, I have no doubt that my procrastination is a very irrational response! I know it’s going to have a negative consequence – I won’t complete what I want to do in the day, and then later on I will be berating myself and beating myself up about what I failed to get done.

So, why even allow myself to engage in procrastination?

5 reasons we procrastinate

A learned behaviour

Learned Behaviour Benefits Perfectionism Tall Poppy Syndrome Fear of Failure/ Fear of Success

Somewhat like a learned helplessness, I learned as a child that if I show others up – how good I am at doing something or how quickly I can do it – they won’t like me. Additionally, if I do this really well, there will be a general expectation, in the future, that I will do everything well. And I don’t like that kind of pressure!

So, in order to avoid the pressure of expectations – and give myself a “get out of jail free card” – I procrastinated. I procrastinated through high school – always studying at the last moment for exams. Sure that I would always pass.

I remember at law school being up at 2.00 a.m. or 3.00 a.m. in the computer lab, when the assignment had to be in that day! And I would be cutting a fine line! I allow myself to do a half-assed job “because I ran out of time”. Procrastinating allowed me to lie to myself – I didn’t do better because I didn’t have enough time to do it well.

Another reason for procrastination – and learning the behaviour – is that we don’t like to admit ignorance, ask for help or talk to people that we don’t know. How many times, throughout my business life, have I found myself frozen – not acting – because I needed to ask someone (especially someone I didn’t know well) for help. Especially if it involved making a phone call.

Unfortunately, procrastination is a self-replicating cycle. We seem to get addicted to the excuse – to the temporary relief that we feel when we procrastinate. Because of this temporary relief – we feel that we have gained something.

Benefits of Procrastination

Like I just said – the reason I procrastinate is because I feel I just gained something – a benefit.

What benefit do you get when you procrastinate?

For me – one of the biggest benefits – perhaps the principal one – is the preservation of self-worth. If I can downplay (in my mind) my limitations (intellectual or creative) and find an external factor (time) that represents the reason that I could not do a stellar job – then my self-worth is preserved. I am not a failure because I don’t have the capacity – I am a failure because there wasn’t enough time.

I get to save face – usually with myself. I still managed to scrape into first class honors at law school in spite of all my self-sabotage! But I literally scraped in.

I probably could have sailed in, if I had been able to overcome the procrastination!

Another benefit of waiting until the last possible moment – and doing something else in the meantime – is that this is a powerful coping mechanism. It allows us to avoid certain emotions or states. As I already said – a temporary relief. We feel better in the short term, even though in the long term we feel worse for it!

The emotions we get to avoid are typically:

  • boredom
  • anxiety
  • insecurity
  • frustration
  • self-doubt

And there are probably many more.

But we take the benefit of temporary aleviation, rather than facing these emotions head on.

The inner perfectionist

Closely tied to our feelings of self-worth is our inner perfectionist – “it’s not worth doing if I cannot do it perfectly”. You can’t judge me on having done it imperfectly, because it was done at the very last moment. I ran out of time – otherwise it could have been better.

Most of us who have learned procratination (and hopefully unlearned it as well!) have linked our self-worth and value as a person to our performance. This creates self-esteem issues.

Rather than seeing the benefit of doing a good job, our inner perfectionist develops a certain pessimism. “I can’t do this perfectly”.

I see this in my life when I look at my writing – especially trying my hand at writing short-stories. The only short story writing I have even attempted so far have been ones with the following set limitations:

  • a timer – 60-minutes total time
  • a random topic – chosen either from an image or another type of title generator.

So – I set myself up – in writing short stories almost under the limitations that guarantee that I can say “see, it was the time frame” – that’s why I couldn’t do a better job. (You can see more here: https://panutopia.blog/)

When I’m writing a typical blog post, rather than a short story – one of two things happens:

  1. I hammer it out in a single sitting, and just come back to edit it a day or two later, in case there are any glaring typos or grammatical errors
  2. It days days, sometimes weeks, to go from an idea to a full-fledged blog post.

My experience is that there has been no in between. No starting today, working on it tomorrow, and finishing it up on Wednesday. Somehow – I am either hammering it all out in a single sitting — or it takes a week or more to get it done (just like this blog post!). I’ve hammered out blog posts this week in single sittings. And I’ve had this one taking about 10 days!

Don’t be the tall poppy

Tall poppy syndrome, The problem was that I was comparing myself to other people - rather than comparing myself to my potential

Once again – a self-esteem issue – too scared to stand out of the crowd. I can remember when I didn’t want to be mediocre. When I wanted to stand out and above the crowd. And then I remember feeling crushed. Hurt.

Attacked because I made others “look bad” by being better them. Accused by others “do you think you’re better than me?”.

And actually – to be honest – that was perhaps my mistake. I did think I was better than them!

But see – the problem was that I was comparing myself to other people – rather than comparing myself to my potential! It took me crashing and burning to realise my mistake. The real lesson to be learned was humility and comparing myself only to my potential and who I might be, rather than comparing myself to others!

When your tribe insists that you if you stand out from the crowd you are no longer accepted – perhaps it’s time to find a new tribe!

When this changes, when I allow my self-esteem to be based on the inward measurement of being all that I can be – then I can stand out in my field – because I am being the best version of myself that I can be.

Fear of Failure? or Fear of Success?

This is one of the hardest issues that I have had to face and overcome in my personal journey. Admittedly, I have been through both – and both have caused me to procrastinate!

It’s safer to do nothing, than take the risk and fail.

Really? Failure is simply a reflection, once again, of my lack of self-worth. Self doubt – that imposes that imposter syndrome! And I know I’ve already blogged about that before! Procrastination in the face of the fear of failure is guaranteed to leave you smack-dab in the center of mediocrity!

If I am no longer in the gam, then I can’t lose. Right?

Wrong.

You are losing simply by not being on the playing field!

And what might happen if you were successful in your endeavour? How might things change? What relationships would have to change and grow? How would you have to grow once you reached this peak? Are you afraid of failure? Or are you afraid of success?

Leaving your comfort zone

procrastination, leaving your comfort zone, Whatever you are not changing, you are choosing.

Like I said – procrastination is a powerful emotional coping mechanism. It allows us to avoid the discomfort of leaving our comfort zone and venturing into the unknown that lies beyond our comfort zone.

When you leave your comfort zone, you will have to learn how to make new decisions. Address the question:

How would life change if I successed and were successful?

The reality is that my aversion to pain and discomfort is in the shortterm – and if I want to grow and change, I need to look into the benefits and pleasure that I will obtain in the longterm. My comfort zone is only comfortable – in the sense that I can foresee the outcomes of my decisions. X always leads to Y. But the comfort zone is not really safe – it’s already uncomfortable! So – my choice is the known discomfort or the unknown.

The devil I know – or the unknown?

Do I choose to stay where I am, or do I choose to change? Because whatever I don’t change – that’s what I am choosing!

Rewriting my Identity

At the bottom of the barrel – the real crux of procrastination – is the preservation of “me” – that identity of all that I have been to this moment. The subconscious mind believes that it is helping, when it chooses procrastination. The defense mechanism of “let’s just forget about this” questions “who will I be if I succeed?”

procrastination, identity crisis, My future self: the one that solves the problems that I fail to solve today

This is – once again – that devil I know. I know my past self. I have so many points of references. I don’t yet know who my future self is developing and transforming into. So, my present self – the subconscious – chooses in favour of the status quo.

The worst part is – my future self will have be the one that solves the problems that I fail to solve today! I am banking on my future self being able to handle these problems better than I can at this moment. How do I know that I am not setting my future self up for failure?

We go to great lengths to protect ourselves from criticism – especially from self-evaluation! Procrastination allows us to deflect the attention away from “self” and “identity”, and onto the strategy used. It allows us to say “I ran out of time”, rather than “I wasn’t good enough”. Failure, when we procrastinate, is a poor strategy choice, rather than a reflection on my ability.

But ask yourself this – how do I want to see myself? When I look in the mirror – what would I like to see?

Keep reading – part 2

13 comments

  1. I have always had confidence in myself and what I for but sadly, some close people around enjoy pushing me down and ridicule my work. It’s tough but I have learned to fight back by doing what I love!

  2. Great post, as a fellow 2:00am law school panicker and ‘all or nothing’ blog drafter I 100% feel this post! I had never thought about why I procrastinate and this makes a lot of sense. Thanks

  3. I love this post and all the points you made and the information you’ve provided.
    I find myself constantly trying to battle myself with procrastination and I never gave any of these a thought!
    Such a great post!

  4. I am awful at procrastination and often have to pull myself back into line. My focus just shifts and I find myself spending too much time reading other peoples blogs!

    This is a great post. Personally I think I use procrastination as a type of avoidance.

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