Why discipline isn’t the answer to procrastination

We tend to look at procrastination as a lack of discipline, which causes us to try to push ourselves harder. But as you do that you might find to your surprise that you’re procrastinating even more after a short period of sticking to your guns. So what the hell is going on? Why does applying discipline to procrastination make it worse?

You probably intuitively know this already, but you discipline and will power have a limit. If you apply too much of it, you’re going to run out. This is called Ego Depletion in research1Many readers pointed out the research on this is quite controversial. Still, you may have a personal experience of having a limit to your willpower which makes it a useful construct to consider. and it’s the reason why if you’ve skipped the cake, you’re going to have a hard time skipping the beer. And if you’ve been pushing yourself to study all day, the cake, the beer and the Netflix show will have an irresistable appeal even if you’ve firmly decided you’re going to limit all three.

The real reason we procrastinate (and keep procrastinating) is that we are running away from discomfort. In particualr we’re running away from the discomfort of feeling a negative emotion. That emotions is guilt, and guess what emotion comes up when you’re procrastinating? Yep, guilt, and a lot of it.

Let’s roll that back for a moment. Let’s say you’re looking at the stack of books you need to go through to prep for an exam and it triggers a subtle fear in you. Maybe you don’t believe you can go through all this in time, may you doubt if you can absorb all that knowledege – it doesn’t matter. What matters is that fear sets in, and fear is really uncomfortable to feel. The physical experience of tightness in the chest and throat, and the mental images of doom that accompany it are so unplesant we want to run away. This of course all happens subconciously. The only concious response is a thought: “I’m just going to watch a couple of videos and then get to it.”

And so, the need to study caused fear, and the fear caused the first bit of procrastination. And now we’re back with guilt, caused by our procrastination. Since guilt is even more unpleasant than fear, the incentive to run away from it is even more intense. So we get into a perpetual cycle of procrastination reinforcing guilt and guilt reinforcing procrastination and we aren’t even enjoying the f’ing funny cat videos anymore!

We’re always going to have fear, anger, sadness and shame causing discomfort and causing us to reach for our vices. And our vices will always create more shame and guilt and anger at ourselves, reinforcing the need to reach for the vices even more. The only way to properly deal with this cycle is to face the discomfort of our emotions directly. We need to feel our guilt, our shame, our fear – fully, without reservation, without running away. It’s going to hurt like hell, but luckily it won’t last forever. In fact, when we are able to fully feel an emotion, it usually only lasts for a few minutes and then dissipates.

And that is the measure of true courage – facing our fear, our anger, our self-doubt and in particular our shame. Face them, feel them fully, and you’ll be free of them.

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@finereli