Procrastinate Much?

John F. Abess

Recently, a writer asked me if I could help her understand what is keeping her from completing a book. She didn't understand why, after all the time and work she'd invested in the project, she was having difficulty completing the task. But her dilemma is common—I've been asked that same question several times, and you could apply it to most any task. People know they should do something, but there’s something holding them back.


In order to cure procrastination, you first have to understand it. 


At the core of procrastination is emotional conflict—this can either motivate us or paralyze us. Meaning, sometimes we can respond to strife positively, and other times, rather lethargically. But why? Well, it depends on what’s going on around us and how this interacts with existing internalized emotional conflicts.


Where do these conflicts arise? For most of us, they develop in childhood due to a) fear we won’t survive without the loving intervention of our parental God-like figures; b) an immature central nervous system that cannot engage in abstract reasoning and judgment; and 3) a lack of awareness of what is normal, simply because (as a child) we know little about the real world in which we are developing. 


This affects our feelings of loveability and adequacy, often in the form of a fear or a wish. For example, a fear of not being loveable amounts to a wish to experience emotional intimacy. Or a fear of being inadequate amounts to a wish to demonstrate being capable, successful, or powerful.  


These erroneous or irrational assumptions that we make about ourselves are too scary to keep in our conscious awareness, so they remain in our pre- or subconscious awareness, oloring our perception of reality. For example, if a person with an abandonment issue sees someone they know walking away, they might easily think, “Is that person attempting to avoid me?” In such a case, this real-life event actually intensifies the person’s fear of abandonment. Conversely, a person without abandonment issues experiencing the same event might think, “Thank goodness that person did not see me as I don’t have time to chew the fat just now.”


But these conflicts don’t only have bad consequences. They often spur us on to substantial achievements. To excel at some task generally requires some amount of self-discipline and ability to defer immediate gratification.  Our internal emotional conflicts can motivate us to “prove” to ourselves and to others that we are lovable or capable or (fill in your own conflict here  Indeed, most successful people are “driven” by their conflicts.  


Let’s return to the writer who is having difficulty completing her first book. Is the problem a lack of imagination, laziness, or inability to coordinate responsibilities and structure time?  Nope. A person’s first book is likely to symbolize something emotionally important to that person. It could represent acceptance and love or it could represent rejection. It could represent adequacy and competence or it could represent failure. Whatever the conflict, the outcome is emotionally important to the individual.  Procrastination is delaying a task because the outcome from performing (or not performing) the task is emotionally very important.  


Tips? Yes. If I were to provide any guidance for people who procrastinate, it would be to utilize your will to decide to do what needs to be done. Once started, usually our mind becomes consumed with the task and it worries less about the outcome.  


The process of negotiating conflict is ongoing and over time, it helps establish our own identity. Regardless of experiencing good or bad outcomes from our choices, we hopefully end up understanding ourselves better, knowing what it is we stand for, what we believe, and hopefully, we end up learning that our fears are essentially just fears!