July 13, 2023

Motivation vanishes like a fart in the wind


Procrastination is complicated because humans are complicated.

Let’s consider the social, cultural, biological and intrapersonal elements that are in play when people can’t get things done.

First, we live in a culture that penalizes tardiness, but doesn’t reward earliness. Even if a task would be easy to knock out in a few minutes or a few seconds, there’s rarely any incentive to taking action right now.

You’ve probably heard the saying, I’m not doing this for my health.

It’s funny, because that’s exactly why we should take action. Because it virtually always makes us feel better. Other people may not applaud us, but our minds and bodies will.

Two, we live in a culture that’s hardwired to seek pleasure. The average person’s frustration tolerance is shockingly low. Most of us can’t handle mild hardship and trivial inconvenience.

Even if an outstanding task is urgent and important, we are still going to put off whatever is unpleasant or requires effort. For as long as we possibly can. Until that thing either goes away, becomes irrelevant, or the cost of inaction finally becomes more painful than doing nothing.

Here’s one more productivity killer.

Human beings are creatures of momentum. Bodies at rest will remain at rest until outside forces act on them. And the longer a body has been at rest, the harder it’s going to be to initiate change.

The person who’s been avoiding paying their taxes for two months has significantly less gravity to push against than the person’s been procrastinating for three years. Good luck battling that accumulation of negative momentum.

It’s going to feel like a kite flying against a hurricane.

Next, let’s explore the shame spiral. When you’ve been avoiding tasks, whether small or large, easy or difficult, being unkind to yourself inhibits momentum. Instead of having compassion for the fact that you’re human and imperfect and forgetful, you pile on unnecessary criticism.

Which generates additional negative feelings about what you’re avoiding. Which makes you want to avoid it even more. And then the spiral just keeps on repeating. To the point that you’re ruminating about your procrastination itself, rather than focusing your energies towards the task at hand.

Shame is the suffering that we layer on top of the pain. The sense of unworthiness we inflict upon ourselves keeps us stuck.

Here’s another aspect of procrastination to consider.

Few of us will put things off because of the task itself, but because of the negative moods we associated with that task. Filling out paperwork and cleaning the house and doing car maintenance and unpacking after a trip, all of these things are objectively simple and eminently doable tasks for the vast majority of able bodied human beings.

The difficult part is all of the anxiety, insecurity, frustration and resentment we accumulate around those tasks. If we had the will and the skill to notice, name, tame and reframe those feelings, then physically taking action wouldn’t seem so daunting.

Let’s do one more.

Procrastination is a bitch because we live in a world where complaining has officially become society’s number one pastime. Everybody hates everything now. The negativity bias is stronger than ever, and people can actually earn more attention, approval and belonging from their peer group by announcing how unproductive they’re being.

Think about it. If you post on your favorite social media platform that you’re feeling lazy, unproductive and can’t drag your tired bones out of bed, you will be glorified for your honesty, authenticity, vulnerability and humanity.

People will call you a hero for keeping it real, and they’ll relate to you more since you’re just like them.

Compare that to the person who publishes their essay about healthy emotional regulation, getting their homework done early and going to bed sober.

All that’s going to do is trigger people’s resentment. Because healthy, relaxed people aren’t interesting or rewarded. They’re just annoying. Modern society is in the dopamine business, and this trend of public procrastination is only enabling our addiction.

In light of this collection of social, cultural, biological and intrapersonal elements that undergird our procrastination issues, you might be wondering what my solutions are.

But I’m sorry to say, I don’t have any. Even if I did, I would not dare share them. I resigned from the job of fixing people years ago.

In my experience, there is not a damn thing I can say to someone who suffers from chronic procrastination that will somehow help them turn the productivity ship around. Most tools and advice give people a quick boost of motivation, but it vanishes like a fart in the wind as soon as the second wave of resistance hits.

Look, I don’t have the answers. Nobody does. Feeling paralyzed to take action sucks, and if you’re struggling with that right now, consider me sending you a big virtual hug.

I’d love to say that one day you will figure it out, but the reality is, you might not. Some people never do. I know I’m supposed to say that you’re not alone and it gets better, but sometimes it doesn’t.

Trust me, I’m an optimist by nature and by nurture, and even I can admit that the downward spiral comes for us all, and some of us don’t make it out alive.

Hell, by the time you read this, I might be trapped in one of my own shame spirals, beating myself into a bloody pulp for not finishing my taxes, on the verge of suicide by autoerotic asphyxiation.

Then again, procrastination is such a fickle mistress, that I probably wouldn’t have the energy to go buy my rope.

Point being, procrastination is complicated because humans are complicated. If our society was smart enough to fix itself, we would have done it by now.

There’s a reason we have literally ten thousand books with procrastination in the title.

Are you stressing about doing what needs to be done, or aiming your energies at repairing your mood?