Procrastination and Pain

Ever noticed that they can be a yawning gap between knowing precisely what you should do and actually doing it?  Sometimes, we may have spent a great deal of time, energy and angst understanding what is important to us and what truly motivates us, we know the next action we need to take to succeed in that area, we’ve even whittled it down to a doable, small, baby step, yet we just can’t take the step.

A lot of the reason for the failure to make a move is pain – usually pain remembered from the past that has somehow become attached to your goal, like some kind of parasitic leach.  The pain may have been a momentary critical comment from somebody you respected, which may have even had a grain of truth about it, but because of lack of self-confidence, uncertainty or a million other self-undermining thought patterns, you amped up the painful idea, at the time, and now it has grown into a Godzilla, ruling over your life and making you unconsciously afraid of doing anything at all toward reaching your goal – even though you know you should, you know you want to and you know you must.

Pain is a stronger motivator than pleasure, we are told.  We all know the story about eating the frog first.  We all know that, as uncertain as we may be about our capabilities, when a boss tells you to just do something, you do it, because your fear of losing your job is more powerful than your fear of not being adequate.  If you are an artist, you have no such boss (usually) and so there is no strong fear that comes immediately to mind, when you are too afraid or too inhibited to act.  That’s when it becomes ridiculously easy to procrastinate and leave the action for some indefinite time in the future.

The motivation gurus, like Anthony Robbins, say you should start to imagine the future pain of not taking action toward your goal (ever noticed how similar the words “goal” and “gaol” are?)  and that if you imagine enough of the opportunity cost pain, then eventually it will outweigh pain that is stopping you from moving forward and you will begin to take action.  That’s the theory, anyway.

This Rambo style of addressing your pain might work for some commando-minded individuals, but I bet it fails for gentler folk.  For them, the added pain of imagining a future where they don’t reach their goal is doubly demotivating.  They have enough pain already.  They’re starving artists, for heaven’s sake.  Adding more pain to the pot just adds more stress, makes the goal seem even more unreachable and this is the worst part:  it adds permanent pain to the process of trying to make progress.  How self-defeating is that?  When the actual act of trying to address past pain becomes painful, you will take powerful avoidance steps to even address your own procrastination.  Anyway, who the hell needs more stress and pain?  I think it’s not only ineffective to try the Rambo cure; it’s also unethical to suggest it.  Stress is a killer.

I think there must be a different, better way.  In the first place, it is important to work out which pain is stopping you from acting.  That process takes a great deal of introspection and self-honesty.  It can be extraordinarily painful to do, as well.  However, if it is something you can get through, eventually you can point to comments, events, thoughts and experiences that all conspired, at some point in time, to associate your heart’s desire and goal with negative feelings which are painful.  Just revisiting those can be excruciating to relive.  However, there is a purpose to putting yourself through that ordeal and that is that you sincerely wish to make progress toward your dream and you have decided (yes decided) that you will no longer live under the control of these monsters and demons that force you into procrastination.

Having identified the incidents that have anchored themselves to your goal, the next thing to do, in my opinion (and I have no proof, just a hunch) is to re-examine how you responded to those negative events, words, thoughts or actions, but this time from your current, more mature perspective.  Would you react the same way, if the same thing happened to you today?  Probably not.  You’re bound to be wiser, as well as older, so you may well pick up the root cause of your monster and discover that it shouldn’t have grown into the size it has anyway, or that it wouldn’t and couldn’t do that to you today.

For more stubborn stains on your psyche, the only advice I can offer is to begin to associate much more pleasure to the goal and try to attach the positives as anchors to your feelings of achieving your goal.  The idea is that eventually the positives outweigh the negatives and you can move forward.  Those associations can be by play, or by the joy of just messing with the things associated with reaching your goal, in a mind set of thinking the quality of the results are not important.  Enjoying what you need to do to reach your goal is very important and so doing something enjoyable that would help you reach your goal, but not necessarily directed at reaching your goal, can be a good way to build positive, anchoring emotions to the process.

Another powerful thing to do is to bring back the feelings of successes you experienced way back when, which may have been inadequately acknowledged by yourself and others.  If you can re-examine the negatives, you can re-examine the positives.  Maybe you didn’t celebrate your triumphs as thoroughly as you would, could and should these days.  You might have felt really good about what you were doing before the pain stopped you long ago, but were too modest of self-effacing to really recognise and internalise it.  Those keys might unlock your procrastination.

So that’s my approach.  1) Take the past negatives and re-examine, in the hopes of minimizing the impact that has grown out of all control.  2)  Take the past positives and re-examine, in the hopes of amping up the good feelings and associations.  3)  Do things that are similar to the step you need to take toward your goal, but do that step against some other minor goal that isn’t important or doesn’t matter, so that you can rehearse the step you need to take toward your ultimate goal without so much fear of failure, but more importantly, so that you begin to simply enjoy the process and can draw positive feelings and emotions from the very act of doing (beware of displacement activity, however).

I don’t know if this works.  I’m still trying it out and it’s a work in progress, but I think it shows more promise than loading up on additional, imaginary pain.

About tropicaltheartist

You can find out more about me here: There aren’t many people that exist in that conjunction of art, design, science and engineering, but this is where I live. I am an artist, a musician, a designer, a creator, a scientist, a technologist, an innovator and an engineer and I have a genuine, deep passion for each field. Most importantly, I am able to see the connections and similarities between each field of intellectual endeavour and apply the lessons I learn in one discipline to my other disciplines. To me, they are all part of the same continuum of creativity. I write about what I know, through my blogs, in the hope that something I write will resonate with a reader and help them enjoy their own creative life more fully. I am, in summary, a highly creative individual, but with the ability to get things done efficiently. Not all of these skills are valued by the world at large, but I am who I am and this is me. The opinions stated here are my own and not necessarily the opinion or position of my employer.
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