Irrational Optimism, Wishful Thinking, and The Hard Truth About Overcoming Severe Procrastination
Here’s what overcoming severe procrastination is not about: Time management, better to-do lists, seeing a therapist, getting organized, setting goals, creating deadlines, ridding yourself of distractions, using rewards, or finding an accountability buddy.
While useful, none of them will make a big difference unless you understand the one underlying principle every consistent improvement in any behavior or skill is built upon.
Improvement results from time and effort.
Reducing your procrastination tendencies is the result of putting in time and effort. The exact strategies and tactics don’t matter that much. What matters is working hard on improving yourself – putting in the time and effort –, consistently over an extended period of months and years.
As Darren Hardy explains in The Compound Effect, “There is no magic bullet, secret formula, or quick fix. You don’t make $200,000 a year spending two hours a day on the Internet, lose 30 pounds in a week, rub 20 years off your face with a cream, fix your love life with a pill, or find lasting success with any other scheme that is too good to be true. It would be great if you could buy your success, fame, self-esteem, good relationships, and health and well-being in a nicely clam-shelled package at the local Walmart. But, that’s not how it works.”
“We are constantly bombarded with increasingly sensational claims to get rich, get fit, get younger, get sexier… all overnight with little effort for only three easy payments of $39.95. These repetitive marketing messages have distorted our sense of what it really takes to succeed. We’ve lost sight of the simple but profound fundamentals of what it takes to be successful.”
Or as Coach Wooden put it: “There are no shortcuts. If you’re working on finding a shortcut, the easy way, you’re not working hard enough on the fundamentals. You may get away with it for a spell, but there is no substitute for the basics. And the first basic is good, old-fashioned hard work… Hard work is the difference. Very hard work.”
Hard work doesn’t mean burning yourself out, sacrificing your health, neglecting your family, or subjecting your body to copious amounts of amphetamines. It means investing time and effort into continuous self-improvement. It’s about getting a wee bit better, consistently, every day.
Charlie Munger puts it well: “Spend each day trying to be a little wiser than you were when you woke up. Discharge your duties faithfully and well. 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.”
The key to overcoming procrastination is good ol’ hard work. As Wooden said: “Hard work is the difference. Very hard work.”
Case in Point
You can read about my own recovery from extreme procrastination here. To sum it up, though, it was a case study in putting in years and years of hard work – reading hundreds of books in the process, going on meditation retreats, spending hours writing down and challenging irrational beliefs, building productive habits and routines, and much more.
“A crucial piece of my recovery was perseverance. I fell down over and over, and felt miserable and hopeless many times. But no matter what, I always got back up, somehow finding the strength to give it another try, and another, and another. Slowly but steadily I improved over weeks, months, and years of working hard on myself. There were no quantum leaps or magic breakthroughs. I just kept at it day by day, getting a tiny bit better over a long period.”
Wishful Thinking is Keeping You Stuck
Quick: Is your mind refusing what you’ve just read? Perhaps denying it? Or downplaying its importance, telling you the message is relevant for others, but not for you?
If you’re a chronic procrastinator, you probably don’t feel any rush or urgency to take action right now. You’ll be able to change easily in the future, you tell yourself. No need to panic. Your natural talent and dormant potential will somehow handle everything.
While the tendency to imagine our future selves as having more time, energy, willpower, and motivation than our current selves is common to all of us, it may be too pronounced among procrastinators. “When confidence becomes supersized and unearned,” explains Dr. Piers Steel in The Procrastination Equation, “it fuels procrastination because the overconfident tend to discount serious problems and subsequently delay responding to them.”
“Unbridled optimism may cause people to sit and wait for good things to happen, thereby decreasing the chance of success,” explain Michael Scheier and Charles Carver, psychologists studying optimism.
In one fascinating experiment, women who imagined the process of losing weight to be easy, lost a whopping twenty-four pounds less than those who imagined having a harder time resisting distractions, eating healthier, or exercising regularly.
Change is hard. It takes time and effort, and requires sacrifices. If we’re not prepared for that, we’re likely to fail. In fact, most of us fail multiple times before succeeding at a long-term change.
“Very few succeed in major life reforms on the first try,” explains Dr. Piers Steel. “Most of us need multiple attempts. Take New Year’s resolutions, for example: it often takes five attempts before vows last for more than six months. I myself sweated out several attempts to quit smoking before I successfully put cigarettes aside. For more serious alcohol or drug problems, the same need for repetition applies. Whatever you do, don’t wallpaper over this painful and repetitive process; wishful thinking will only increase your procrastination.”
Unbridled optimism. Overconfidence. Wishful thinking. If that sounds familiar, it’s perhaps time to leave fantasy land, prepare yourself for an uphill battle, and begin now with setting in motion the changes you wish to make.
“Then Make a Plan to Get There. Act on it.”
“People are always asking me about the secrets and tricks I use to get results. Sorry if this disappoints you: There are no secrets. There are no tricks. If anything, it’s the opposite: Whether you’re a pro athlete or a guy running a business or driving a truck or going to school, it’s simple,” explains Tim Grover in Relentless.
“Ask yourself where you are now, and where you want to be instead. Ask yourself what you’re willing to do to get there. Then make a plan to get there. Act on it.”
If you’re struggling with severe procrastination, you know where you are – displeased with your self-discipline, productivity, effectiveness, and personal responsibility. And you probably know where you want to be instead – you want to be the person others can count on and look up to: productive, responsible, in control, confident, optimistic, on top of things, proud.
Make a plan to get there. Will you read a book on overcoming procrastination? Take an online course? Attend a seminar? Start a meditation practice? Keep a procrastination log? Get a coach? Find an accountability partner? (Remember, the specifics don’t matter that much. What matters is putting in the time and effort, continuously, over months and years.)
Get your house in order, Jordan Peterson might say. Begin by cleaning your room.
P.S. Further reading:
- How to Overcome Severe Procrastination – My Personal Story
- Lessons on “Hard Work” by Michael Phelps, Elon Musk, Oprah Winfrey, and co.