How to Overcome Severe Procrastination – My Personal Story
Pssst... I published a book on how to overcome procrastination. Check it out here: Stop Procrastinating: A Simple Guide to Hacking Laziness, Building Self Discipline, and Overcoming Procrastination.
I’ve been a procrastinator all my life.
I don’t know when it started, but I remember instances of procrastination when I was a little kid. I started playing football at age five or six. When I got back from training, I always just threw my training bag – full of sweaty and stinking clothes – into the middle of the hallway and left it there for hours or days depending on when my mother finally freaked out on me.
Same with my school bag. For whatever reason, I was just too lazy to carry it upstairs into my room. And so I left it in the hallway, again, until my mother finally lost it and put enough stress on me to get it done.
I remember a fun incident that happened around Easter time. As kids, we all got a small Easter nest with chocolate bunnies and beautifully painted boiled eggs. My three brothers and I all kept the nests in our private rooms. A few days after Easter, our mother told us to put the remaining boiled eggs from our nests into the fridge. I have no idea why, but I just didn’t do it. Even when the egg started stinking up my room, I just left it there. It must have been lying around for weeks until my mother finally found it. She wasn’t happy.
How School Drove My Procrastination Habit
At school, things didn’t look different. I was naturally smart so I received good grades in spite of my lack of studying. Until 6th class, I barely ever studied at all and yet, I was still one of the best pupils.
This continued in the same way during high school and university. Over all those years, I was just lucky enough to be gifted with an above-average IQ. If it were for my self-discipline, I would have failed miserably. Heck, I could scarcely manage to register for university classes and exams on time. In fact, I often missed deadlines and was forced to wait until the next semester.
Looking back, I believe school was a major driver of my procrastination and lack of discipline. Just think about the conditioning that happened through all those years: “Oh, I get good grades by being lazy? Neat! Why should I bother about working hard or being more disciplined?”
I was learning (through constant reinforcement) that being lazy led to good outcomes. Even worse, I never had to develop any self-discipline because many things came so easy to me.
If you’re a fellow procrastinator, you can probably relate. One of the reasons so many of us are struggling with willpower issues is that we never had to develop any willpower in the first place. Then, all of a sudden, you’re a grown up and enter the real world – without any proper self-control skills whatsoever. Ouch!
“Uh Oh… How Did I End Up Here?”
I really started becoming aware of this dilemma when I was 20 years old. I was still at university at the time, but had just decided to learn about internet marketing to earn some money online. For the first time in my life, I had to get things done on my own watch without anyone helping or pressuring me from outside.
It was at this point that I became painfully aware of how undisciplined I was and just how much suffering that caused. I realized there were so many things I wanted to do, but that I just couldn’t get myself to follow through with. More importantly, I realized that not being able to follow through always ended up causing me massive pain in the form of shame, guilt, and disappointment.
One common scenario was waking up in the morning, hitting the snooze button, getting up 2-3 hours late, already feeling guilty and unmotivated, unable to follow through with my morning ritual, feeling even worse, and then numbing myself for the entire rest of the day.
Once this procrastination cycle had started, it became almost impossible for me to get out again. After an initial act of procrastination, I couldn’t help but distract and numb myself with video games, YouTube clips, or the TV. Why? Well, because otherwise I would have had to face the self-criticism and guilt that was bubbling up within me.
The cycle looked something like this: Lack of self-discipline (among other things) led to procrastination, which led to feelings of shame, guilt, and disappointment, which felt incredibly painful, which led to numbing and distracting myself, which meant even more procrastination, which meant even harsher self-criticism and more negative emotions, which meant even more pain, which meant even more numbing and distracting myself, and so on.
This madness kept repeating itself over and over again. After a while, I knew exactly how it worked. When I was able to follow through with my plans, I felt good and everything was fine. When I didn’t find the strength to follow through, I ended up beating myself up and feeling terrible about myself.
After witnessing and suffering from this phenomenon for weeks and months, I started asking myself if I was supposed to live like this for the rest of my life – constantly in fear of what would happen if I procrastinated? Constantly struggling to follow through with even the tiniest things like waking up on time, doing the dishes, cleaning my room, paying the bills on time, or going to the doctor when it’s necessary?
As you can imagine, this was an incredibly stressful and painful period of my life. Sometimes it was so bad that I was literally crying in my bed. I was afraid of never finding a way out of this.
The good news is, I did find a way out of it.
The Way Out: 4 Strategies That Made All the Difference For Me
And that brings us to today – a much brighter world. Am I completely free of procrastination? I wish… but of course not. I still procrastinate occasionally and I still struggle with following through on my lofty aspirations. Compared to the old days, however, it’s a night and day difference.
Nowadays, I’m one of the most disciplined people I know. I wake up early, exercise regularly, meditate daily, stick to my morning ritual, eat healthy, take cold showers, go to bed early, pay my bills on time, keep my room tidy, and so on. Best of all, I finally feel in control of my life.
So, how did I do it?
Looking back, there are four core strategies that made all the difference for me. We’ll now discuss them one after another.
1. Becoming a Learning Machine
Once I realized the severity of my procrastination, I made a commitment to fix it no matter what. The first thing I did was order a bunch of books from Amazon. Over the course of a few months, I read and implemented information from many of them: The Now Habit, Getting Things Done, The Procrastination Equation, Eat That Frog, Solving The Procrastination Puzzle, and so on.
Getting into the habit of reading books was tough in the beginning. My mind kept telling me, “Why not watch TV instead? This is useless. You’re a last cause. I want to play video games!” But I persisted, and nowadays I read around 100 books a year. To say that reading completely changed my life would be an understatement.
So, how exactly did reading help me overcome my severe procrastination? Well, it’s the things that I learned, which helped me overcome it.
I learned about the importance of effort and hard work. I learned that talent is overrated. I learned about self-compassion. I learned about meditation and mindfulness. I learned about strategies for improving my energy levels. I learned about time management. I learned about emotion regulation. I learned about the importance of perseverance.
All these bits of information – and there are many more! – help me improve on my procrastination tendencies in one way or another. You’re about to learn exactly how mindfulness, self-compassion, and something else I learned from books have helped and still help me to this day.
“Knowledge always liberates.” – OSHO
2. No More Running Away From Myself
The most important lesson I learned from the countless books I read is that I need to stop running away from myself. More precisely, that I need to stop avoiding my thoughts and emotions.
Escaping is the wrong way for dealing with negativity; mindfulness the right one.
Mindfulness teaches us to face our reality, to allow our thoughts and emotions to be just as they are, to watch them with detachment, without judging or trying to change them in any way. If we nonjudgmentally observe positive emotions, they blossom. If we watch negative emotions, they go away – first temporarily, then forever. That’s the alchemy of mindfulness.
And so I started practicing. When I felt guilty for being unproductive, I watched that guilt. When I felt ashamed after sleeping until 1pm, I watched that shame. When I wallowed in self-pity after procrastinating for days, I watched that self-pity.
In the beginning, this was unbearable. After all, there’s a reason so many of us dread even a moment of being alone with ourselves. Facing the emotional garbage bubbling up within us is tough, painful, and nerve-wrecking at times. For days and weeks and months I just kept watching myself in this way. I had no clue whether I was doing it right, and I often thought that I was wasting my time or making things worse by focusing on the negative.
After a while, however, I started noticing changes in my life. While I could barely stay with negative emotions for a minute or two in the beginning, I could easily do it for extended periods of time once a few weeks of practice had passed. During the very early days of this experiment, I often cried out of despair. After a few weeks, the crying mostly stopped. I was able to watch my emotions from a larger distance. I was less involved, less identified with them. There was a gap emerging between “me” and “my thoughts and emotions.”
Instead of buying into the negativity of my mind, I started just being aware of it. “Oh, there’s anger.” “Oh, here’s guilt.” “Oh, I’m feeling a bit depressed today.” I wasn’t so much at the mercy of my inner experience anymore. Sometimes I felt good about myself; other times I didn’t. And I was okay with it.
Since then, I don’t experience the negative emotions as strongly anymore. They’re there, but in a soft rather than hard way. They don’t overwhelm me anymore. An unproductive day in the past piled on so much guilt that I couldn’t help but run away. Today, an unproductive day still makes me feel a bit guilty, but it doesn’t bother me as much anymore. It’s much more manageable. And because of that, I don’t need to start the whole procrastination cycle all over again. I don’t need to numb myself with video games or watching TV.
Even better, I can actually be productive in spite of feeling guilty, disappointed, ashamed, or whatever. I can follow through with my plans and do the right thing whether I feel like it or not. “So what if I’m feeling unmotivated today? Let’s just get it over with. Otherwise I’ll feel guilty again, which puts me at the risk of starting the whole procrastination cycle. No thanks!”
So, in the past, negative emotions made me run away and consistently led to the procrastination cycle (e.g., procrastinate à feel guilty à escape negative feelings and numb myself with video games à feel even worse à need to keep escaping in order to not face bad feelings). Nowadays, I am not at the mercy of negative emotions anymore. I don’t feel the need to run away from them. Plus, I can do what needs to get done in spite of them.
That’s all thanks to mindfulness. Like I said so many times before, mindfulness is the #1 most important skill we can ever learn.
(For more on mindfulness and overcoming procrastination, go here.)
3. Choosing Self-Compassion Over Self-Criticism
I’ve talked about the importance of self-compassion at length in previous articles. I’ve even written an article on how it helps you overcome procrastination. So, I’ll keep this short.
As it relates to procrastination, recall that negative emotions are always the main cause. When we feel bad – for whatever reason! – we lose self-control, get driven by impulse, and frankly, start doing stupid things. (I explain this in detail in my Kindle book.)
Our natural response to negative emotions is self-criticism. This is especially true when the negative emotions stem from a recent failure, such as an act of procrastination. “Why do I keep procrastinating?! Why am I wasting my time? Can’t I just be more disciplined. Grrrrr, I’m such an idiot!”
The problem is, self-criticism makes things even worse by adding more negative emotions into the mix – e.g., anger, shame, or self-pity. All this painful negativity, plus the fear of another mental beating, leads to the avoidance and procrastination cycle mentioned earlier. And that’s just one reason why self-criticism leads to more procrastination.
Self-compassion is a totally different response to failure and negativity. Instead of creating even more negative emotions, self-compassion adds positive feelings of warmth, care, kindness, and understanding to the mix. This effectively soothes the pain and drastically lowers the impact of the negative emotions. As a result, you’re a lot less likely to go down the avoidance and procrastination cycle. That’s one reason why self-compassion leads to less procrastination.
Like I said before, this has made a massive difference not only in regards to procrastination, but to all areas of my life. Self-compassion is easily one of the most transformative tools I’ve encountered in my life so far. Highly recommend you give it a try.
4. Never Giving Up
The last crucial piece of my recovery puzzle was perseverance. I fell down over and over again on my path. I felt miserable and hopeless many, many times.
But no matter what, I always got back up. Somehow I found the strength to give it another try, and another, and another. Even if I felt like I was making seemingly zero progress whatsoever, I didn’t give up.
Slowly but steadily I improved over weeks, months, and years of working hard on myself. There were no quantum leaps or magic breakthroughs. I was just grinding it out day by day, getting a tiny bit better over a long period of time.
If I had given up, I wouldn’t be where I was today.
So, how did I know it was essential to keep going? Well, I had learned about its importance in the countless books I mentioned earlier. Here are just some examples of the kind of advice that helped me keep going:
Victor Frankl: “What is to give light must endure burning.”
Maya Angelou: “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”
Og Mandino: “I will persist until I succeed. Always will I take another step. If that is of no avail I will take another, and yet another. In truth, one step at a time is not too difficult. I know that small attempts, repeated, will complete any undertaking.”
Winston Churchill: “If you are going through hell, keep going.”
Confucius: “It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.”
Without my habit of reading, I would’ve never made it. I would have lost motivation and just given up. But quotes like the ones above inspired me and pushed me to continue. I didn’t know whether it would pay off in the beginning. But slowly, after countless small improvements, I developed trust – and I’ve been at it ever since.
If you’re serious about overcoming procrastination and building real self-discipline, this is it. This is your roadmap.
It’s no quick fix, magic pill, or sexy solution by any means. It’s a long and arduous path that promises hard work, frequent setbacks, misery along the way, and only small and slow improvements. But it’s a path that works.
It’s like the great Charlie Munger says, “Step by step you get ahead, but not necessarily in fast spurts. But you build discipline by preparing for fast spurts.... Slug it out one inch at a time, day by day. At the end of the day – if you live long enough – most people get what they deserve.”
Got questions or feedback? Please let me know in the comments below, and thanks for reading!
P.S. Want More?
The strategies mentioned in this article are without a doubt the ones that helped me the most. However, there are many more...
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