Throw Away the Carrot, Burn the Stick: Rethinking Procrastination, Part One

Procrastination is a big thing. We often joke about it, but it can do a lot of damage to our life if we let it, or we worry about it too much. And it can certainly eat away at our reserves – our time AND our energy – to do things like writing and designing, things we often put last on our list, but also feel most pressured to do, as we are constantly told THEY ARE THE MOST IMPORTANT. There is a lot of advice out there on dealing with procrastination, and a lot of it is bullshit. Or rather, a lot of it is just what worked for one guy or a few people. But procrastination and the issues that make it up are a big, big thing, and it is wired into fundamental aspects of how we approach ourselves and everything we do in life. Which means there are multiple ways to attack it, and everyone has to do what works for them and their mind. What’s more, we’re all on our own journey to untangle ourselves, and you don’t only need to have the right idea for your brain, but the right idea AT THE RIGHT TIME. So my advice might be useless to you. I’m sharing it anyway, because only by getting lots of ideas can we all find the best way for us to untangle things.

I’m certainly not an expert on breaking procrastination, but I am an expert on procrastinating. It’s something that’s played an enormous part of my life, in many different arenas. Indeed, it is fairly true to say that my particular mental disorder, depression/anxiety, is an extremely heightened form of procrastination. You become so afraid of certain thoughts, emotions, feelings and situations you lock your body into a perpetual state of numbness (or panic, in the case of anxiety) to avoid those things. I’ve been on a long journey to work some of these things out, so in that context, my advice has some experience.

The first point to deal with is this: how we think about procrastination is typically very wrong.

Let’s imagine for this discussion that there are three activities. There’s W, the work we don’t want to do. Like say writing your RPG. There’s P, the procrastinating activity. Maybe it’s surfing the internet. Then there’s F, the fun activity, like maybe playing Civilization 5. To pick entirely random examples that certainly don’t reflect my life at all. Now, a lot of the time, people don’t have P and F as separate activities. Sometimes they are the same activity done in different ways or experienced in different ways – for example, when you can’t really enjoy yourself when you go out for a drink because in the back of your mind you feel you should be studying. Or you don’t get really into playing X-box because you’re just looking for a low-level distraction to keep your mind busy. This still might not be you, but go with me here.

Generally, our thinking about procrastination is this: I keep doing distracting thing P because I don’t want to do hard, painful, difficult thing W.

This is false.

Most of the time, what is stopping us from doing W has little to do with W at all. Don’t get me wrong, the anxiety curve is a big deal, especially with big, hard to grasp projects (go read up about the curve, it is also part of this subject). But what keeps us doing P is less about fear of W and more about our shame and guilt at doing P. And the more P we do, the worse we feel, and the worse we feel, the less we are able to act.

This is pretty obvious when you think about it.  When our body is injured, it stops doing things. It wants to fall over and lie still because then it can concentrate on getting better. Likewise, when we feel upset, we don’t want to go out and do things, we want to crawl into a foetal ball, hide in our room and eat candy. Our mind is just like our body: when it feels hurt, it devotes all its resources to healing itself, and devotes no resources to going out and doing things.

So the more you do the P activity, the more your brain feels attacked by feelings of guilt and shame, and thus the weaker you become. Your body now has no strength to do W, or to do F, or to do P even. You become less and less engaged with F and P, so the bad feelings work stronger and do more damage, so you become weaker and weaker. We wait for motivation to strike, but it now has an enormous uphill battle, because unhappy people are difficult to motivate. Sometimes impossible.

I’m going to say that again because it’s very important: the worse you feel, the harder it is to motivate yourself, or be motivated by others.

It’s important because so much of our mindset and culture are wrapped up in a very different idea of motivating. We believe in the carrot and the stick. And the carrot and the stick are all about suffering and being unhappy, or at best, fearing more unhappiness. We must do the hard task W, lest we feel pain from the stick, or so we can deserve the carrot. This point of view is burned into us at a primal level, and we accept it instinctively.

But everything we know about the human mind and human motivation tells us it is not only a poor model, it is a model inherently destructive to our health and our happiness.

Don’t get me wrong, the carrot and the stick are not entirely without merit, in very specific situations, at very specific times. It teaches us about cause and effect when we are children. But now we see through a glass darkly, and if we keep trying to walk as a child, we make everything worse.

That’s a big idea and I’m already at 1000 words, so there’s more in part 2.

4 thoughts on “Throw Away the Carrot, Burn the Stick: Rethinking Procrastination, Part One

  1. Pingback: The Struggle or the Victory? | D-Constructions

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s