The 3 Powerful Forces Behind Procrastination and How to Overcome Them

Psychology and Mental Health Self Help

If I had to pick the main culprit behind every broken dream, it would usually be procrastination. When I was in my 20’s, fresh out of college and newly married, my favorite word was “someday.” When you’re young, you feel like you have all the time in the world. As the years pass and the weight of life bears down on you, those someday’s tend to fall by the wayside into “never will’s.”

Most of us know exactly what we need to do to be happy. Most of us know exactly what we need to do to accomplish our goals. Sure, there are many things we are ignorant about. When you jump into new territory, there is always a learning curve. I’m currently trying to break into the world of freelance writing. It’s a new avenue for me, and I know little about the nuts and bolts. In some ways, I find this incredibly intimidating. What if I do something wrong? What if the people I query see my amateur mistakes and decide to go elsewhere? New roads can be scary.

However, as I continue to take action towards this goal, the less intimidating it becomes. We can read and read and read about a subject, but until we experience it, no amount of book learning can prepare us for what is to come. Every person blazes their own path, and those paths are often littered with many mistakes. But what do you do when you find yourself stuck at the starting line?The trick is to understand that the same forces that cause you to procrastinate are the same forces that apply in a situation that you perceive to be dangerous. Imagine that you are hiking through the woods and you come upon a bear. What do you do? What’s the first gut feeling you have when you are standing there staring at this wild beast? Basic psychology will dictate that you’ll do one of three things: fight, flight, or freeze.

When you are put into a stressful situation, you will trigger one of these responses automatically. Some may argue that procrastination is actually the freeze response. However, I believe that procrastination is bigger than that. Procrastination is the response to perceived stress. The event you are putting off is the source of the stress, and procrastination is the mechanism that is used to shield you from that stress. If you read this article about procrastination, you’ll see that the overall consensus is that procrastination is more than just a response to a single situation. It’s a lifestyle.

This means that there are different ways in which we procrastinate. In this article, I want to look at three of those ways through the lens of the fight, flight, or freeze response.

Procrastination Force # 1: You Resist Change

This weekend I read an amazing book called Split Second. If you’re a sci-fi geek like me, you’ll love every minute of this thriller. The book focused on time travel, but did so in a very unique way. I won’t spoil the details of the book here, but it made me think about time travel. When I was younger, I was obsessed with the idea of time travel. In fact, until maybe a year or so ago, I would have given anything to be able to go back in time and relive the 80’s and the 90’s. I’d still love to do that, but the pull to do it isn’t nearly as strong as it used to be.

The reason for that is because my desire to relive those times was rooted in my resistance to change. Last year I faced some major changes in my life, and it forced me to come to terms with the fact that the past is the past and that there was nothing I could do to change it. So many of us live in the past. We live in a time that exists only in our heads. We glorify the past. In fact, I’ve realized that some of the WORST times of my life were during the 90’s, but when I look back on it, I only see the good times.

When you look back on the past, you recreate the memory in your head from scratch. So, instead of thinking about all those negative moments, you only think about the highlights. This paints the past in a much brighter light than it really was. You resist change because you fail to see how the present moment is no different with its challenges than the past was. You only perceive it that way because things look easier and clearer in hindsight. It’s a trick your mind is playing on you.

So, how do we overcome the resistance to change? You take your focus from your past (or your future) and you put it in the present moment. All you will ever have is a perpetual now. This moment is the only moment that you can take action. You can’t live in the past or worry about your future or you will find yourself in a state of depression and/or anxiety. Mindfulness and meditation help center you. Take some time to be alone with your thoughts, to clear your mind, and be in the present moment.

Procrastination Force #2: You Avoid Your Problems

When I was on the brink of bankruptcy, living paycheck to paycheck with a perpetual negative balance in my checking account, I fell victim to this force. I remember many times being scared to check my bank balance because I was afraid it was going to show another overdraft. There were many times when I’d have a negative balance of up to $400. Instead of checking my balance and knowing where I was financially, I buried my head in the sand and avoided checking it all costs. Out of sight, out of mind.

I didn’t realize that by avoiding my problems, I was actually making them worse. Imagine if, instead, I had been diligent about checking my balance every day. I would have known exactly what kind of money I had and could have used that information to inform my decision making. Instead, I avoided checking the balance so that I didn’t have to face one very real and cold truth: I was living beyond my means. I didn’t want to make the sacrifices necessary to get my fiances under control. My financial habits became so bad that my only option was bankruptcy.

There is only one way to overcome this force: YOU HAVE TO BE WILLING TO LOOK AT THE THINGS THAT MAKE YOU UNCOMFORTABLE. The truth about ourselves hurts, but there’s no way to fix a problem if we don’t face the truth about our problem. We are the source of our issues. We are responsible for the hand we’ve been dealt. There is no other way beyond this force than to face it with the totality of your strength, accept your role in it, and then take steps to change it.

Procrastination Force # 3: You are a Slave to Momentum

Here’s a truth about life: things change whether you want them to or not. Life goes on. Over time you are going to find yourself in a different place than you are today. And there is nothing you can do to stop it. I call this the “momentum of life.”

More specifically, however, there is a momentum to your habits. If you aren’t consciously trying to change your habits, then you fall back on your default programming. And most people’s default programming sucks. It usually involves spending hours in front of the TV or computer and eating processed garbage. It usually means spending money without thinking about where it’s going. It usually means trying to do the same thing over and over again so that you can feel like you’ve mastered the chaos that exists in the world. It’s the illusion of control, that you are able to control your life and the people in it.

This year I’ve made the conscious decision to cut out processed sugar (as much of it as I can) and to go to the gym at least four times a week. My first day back on the treadmill after putting it off for a few months was BRUTAL. I was out of breath. My leg muscles screamed in pain. You see, when you are a victim of momentum, any change you make occurs as pain. Since we try to avoid pain as much as possible, we avoid potentially good things that can make our lives better (such as going to the gym).

The only way to overcome this momentum is to embrace the mightiest commercial tagline in history: JUST DO IT. Don’t give yourself time to talk yourself out of it. Don’t sit around and think about it too long. Don’t dwell on the negative thoughts that arise when you think of the changes you need to make. Just focus on the solution, drag your butt out of your chair, and go do something. Action, pure unadulterated action, is the only way to overcome momentum.

Here is the beauty of it: when you take action, and you repeat that new action enough, it creates a new momentum in your life. It’s been two weeks since that first day on the treadmill, and I’m finding that not only do I feel better, but it’s getting easier to just go and do it. There are so many sources from self help books and blogs that blow smoke up your ass and try to get you to get in the right mindset before you take action. But, at the end of the day, you have to summon the grit to get up and start working on the thing you’ve been putting off. No excuses. No bullshit. Just do it.

A great mindset for accomplishing this is to use your imagination and make a game out of it. Pretend like you’re the protagonist in a video game and that the goals you have for your life are missions that you’ve been assigned. You can even go crazy and make game sheets, whiteboards in your house, etc. As you achieve your goals, you level up and take on new powers. You’ll see that that actually becomes true as action becomes your default state of being. This is your life. Are you really living it to the fullest? There is only now. And if not now, when?