We get better at everything we practice.
From learning a musical instrument or new language, to getting onto the right subway car so that it lines up closest to the nearest exit or staircase, to navigating a city without maps, or driving to destinations without the aid of a GPS.
Every time we repeat a behavior, we are “practicing” that behavior, and we get better at everything we practice. Literally, everything—including our bad habits, too.
When we finally want to end a bad habit, it’s often harder than we think because we tend to underestimate how deeply habitual we’ve become. We often fail because we only see the tip of the iceberg and think that’s all there is to our bad habit, so when we attempt to end these behaviors, we are, at best, only shaving off the tip of the iceberg.
Procrastination has been this iceberg for me. For years, I’ve read and applied the tricks in whatever time management books are on the market. The iceberg was visibly gone (from sea-level up) several times, but it always came back. Until only recently.
I picked up procrastination at the same time I was introduced to MSN—the first ever messaging platform I’d used. I was 13 and, prior to MSN, had always been the first to finish a project and did my schoolwork first before anything else, which there wasn’t all that much time for after daily piano practice hours. The point is, I didn’t know what procrastination even meant before MSN, and then it all started to change.
Miraculously, I still graduated with the highest average, and a full scholarship for university, which, of course, only encouraged my bad habit.
I never installed MSN on the laptop I used for university, and I had little interest in anything online, so you may think that I was saved after my teenage craze over MSN, but my new obsession was becoming a concert pianist. So I spent hours after hours on the piano instead of writing essays or reading my hundreds of pages of material for my political science degree. In my senior year, I was juggling seven different jobs and contracts, and my International Political Economy textbook was still in its plastic wrapping 24 hours before the final exam.
I procrastinated for all of my teens and all of my 20s, and, aside from my own anxiety, I managed to remain somewhat unscathed, finding ways to get around my bad habits. Ending procrastination has been an annual goal for the last seven years, during which I only got better at it. My professional output, both in quality and quantity, hasn’t triggered any alarms, so why did I become obsessed with ending procrastination?
Procrastination is like a diet that is simultaneously malnourishing and overindulging; even if you eat well and hit the gym once a week, but you treat your body like garbage the rest of the week, ill health will catch up with you. You can’t fight the natural energy laws.
Most people would treat procrastination as a time management issue (and it sure seems that way), so I started logging my work and realized that a typical week, I would have one or two days of extreme output while the rest of the week was withered away. I was wasting 3/4 of my life away, and no one on the outside could tell.
It’s not a time management issue; it’s a pain issue. Time management is the most superficial diagnosis because, externally, that’s how it’s spelled out. Acquiring methods and “hacks” on how to effectively manage time could, for a short amount of time and on a shallow level, help us curb the negative effects of procrastination. New routines can be exciting to try. New workspace setups could be so cute to show off. Having a “reward” at the end of a mini goal could be so nice. That is, until we realize we’re just lying to ourselves and can reach for the reward, really, anytime we want.
Time management solutions are not sustainable. Because whether we are early birds or night owls, it’s not about how we structure our day, it’s about how we manage our emotions, notably the darker ones.
Procrastination is most definitely a poor choice to handle time, which most of us cognitively acknowledge, but our behaviors easily slip into habit. We eat junk food that’s not healthy for us and call it comfort; we buy things we don’t need and call it retail therapy; we waste time scrolling through nothingness even when we know we should probably sleep—because of comfort. We do all of these things because of comfort.
The greatest myth about us is that we are rational beings. You don’t have to agree with me, but just think about how you made your last 10 decisions. Were they rational? Or emotional? “I feel like…” is the most obvious indicator. We do things or don’t do things because we feel like it or don’t feel like it.
How often do you order from the menu based on nutritional facts and what is best for your health versus what you simply “feel like” at the moment? When we “feel like” getting ice cream, is it ever a wise choice to gobble down frozen dairy, fat, and sugar? Don’t feel guilty. The “feel-good factor” fuels multibillion-dollar industries.
So, procrastination isn’t so much a failure to effectively ration time, it’s powerful because it’s our ice cream, our feel-good factor. It delivers comfort. We put off things that we “don’t feel like” doing, to do the things “we feel like” doing. Procrastination is a sort of emotional disorder. It’s not really about what we do versus what we don’t do or what we “should” do. And it’s not about the “what,” which most self-help books focus on, it’s about our “whys,” at a deep level.
Procrastination is avoiding what brings us pain. It’s what we do when we don’t know how to correctly deal with our emotions. No time management workbook digs into our emotional life—but that’s where we need to go, to kill off this bad habit.
My success was purely accidental; it was side effect rather than the annual goal. After intense therapy for over a year, I strangely managed to rid procrastination. There is never a single factor that contributes to big change, but the biggest factor which started to change things for me was how I handled discomfort and pain.
Instead of running and reaching for what’s easy—what feels good—I started to confront my pain points and, slowly, locate them as I analyzed them and asked the “why” and “where” questions.
Pain comes from many sources and colors our relationships with events that change the course of our lives. If earlier on in life, we have a painful experience with a certain event, then later on in life every time that painful experience is triggered, we put off the things we are “supposed to do.”
We may never run that errand that’s located in a part of town where we have been traumatized. We may never pick up that thing from that place where we’ve been attacked. Every story of procrastination has a deeply rooted “why” that is built on this structure.
We’ve all bought into the myth that procrastination is about time management, but after years of believing as much, I now stand firmly against it and urge you to turn your attention somewhere else, somewhere less rational and more painful.
Because it’s not about having “the perfect workstation setup,” or “the morning routine that wins your day,” or an “accountability buddy”—I’ve tried all of them, and they all failed—it’s about understanding what makes us uneasy, why it makes us uneasy, and locating our pain points that, when triggered, make us run and choose what’s easy.
The first step to ending procrastination is having a clear blueprint of where we stop. This is like running diagnostics on something that isn’t performing the way it should. Make a point to write down every moment you are putting off a task; logging our stopping points will help us identify, over time, the architecture of our pain.
To get a more thorough diagnosis, make a deliberate practice to log all of the following points:
>> Where do you stop?
>> What halts you?
>> What paralyzes you?
>> What are you resisting?
>> What is triggering stress?
>> What is standing in your way?
>> What do you need to restart?
The length of this exercise will vary for all of us, but since habits take between 28-60 days to form, according to various sources, I recommend at least a month of observation. The process of logging these answers will allow us to see a picture we perhaps have never confronted.
Ending procrastination is not a mechanical solve, but a truly profound emotional reckoning that will force us to confront parts of us that we may not like, and take us to memories that we’ve spent our lifetimes suppressing. The benefit of treating procrastination this way is that we acquire a better understanding of who we are, and knowing ourselves is the first step to enjoying a more fulfilling life.
On the surface, we all exhibit common procrastination characteristics and patterns, but we all have different “whys” that fuel their growth underneath.
Procrastination really is letting pain run our lives. I picked up procrastination at 13 because, fortunately, I hadn’t experienced much pain before that. Procrastination became such a force in my life afterward, not only because I practiced it more, but because there were increasingly more and more layers of pain.
Being told to love our goals more than our distractions sounds nice in an Instagram post, but between love and pain, our nature compels us to choose what’s easy, so most of us choose love. Until we do the hard and dirty work that is critical to figuring out what is blocking us from doing the things we are meant to do, we will never really be fulfilled.
There are no shortcuts. But once we understand what our mental and emotional barriers are, where they are located, and how they are triggered, we will realize that our life has all of a sudden become free of the blockages that have made it heavy, for all those years.
Take the dive. Do the log. See you on the other side.