Why do we procrastinate? What’s driving us to organize the sock drawer one more time instead of focusing on the creative project (or projects) that are calling us?
We hope you’ll enjoy this excerpt from the book, and we’d love to hear from you — what project has been in a holding pattern in your life, and how did you take the procrastination monster by the horns to see a project through to completion?
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Have you ever noticed that procrastination causes you pain? It hurts your heart, it hurts your self-esteem, it hurts your relationships, it hurts your career, and it hurts your income. And just as a pain in your body alerts you to something that needs healing, the psychic pain of procrastination can serve as an important wake-up call. That is why I call procrastination genius in disguise.
If procrastination didn’t hurt, then you could put stuff off and then just la-di-da around all carefree and happy. But that’s not the way it works — when you put off your projects, they become a weight on your mind and your heart.
So why is that genius?
Because the pain caused by procrastination reminds you that your projects are important to you. Procrastination is your friend, tapping you on the shoulder and saying, “Hey, remember that idea you had? Remember how much you cared about it?” And pretty soon that voice is not just gently urging — it’s nagging. Loudly.
So now you have a project that you know matters to you, and I’m going to guess it’s mattered to you for a long time. After all this time, you are still thinking about it. It hasn’t fallen away like some things do — which is great news. The truth is, procrastination is persistent desire.
When your desire for a project stands the test of time, you can take that as a sign that your project truly is part of your life’s calling.
What’s Kept You from Moving Forward?
You’ve got a great idea that you know would make a difference in the world and it’s stood the test of time so...what’s the holdup? Why haven’t you moved forward?
In my experience, there are three main reasons for getting stuck in procrastination.
Got Stuckified Reason 1: You Genuinely Don’t Care about It
Maybe this project is really someone else’s dream — a dream that your family or community placed on you — or maybe it’s an old dream that you’ve outgrown.
Or perhaps it’s something you think you should do. I call these “shadow goals.” They look like goals, they sound like goals, but when you think about them they make you glum. Good goals are filled with energy and purpose — they may not always be fun, but they always contain some sense of joy. Shadow goals contain no joy but rather are burdened with guilt, ill feeling, futility, and even a bit of hopelessness.
For example, maybe you’re telling yourself something like, “I should really go and get my master’s degree.” Chances are that if you have this idea and are not acting on it, you don’t really care about a master’s; you care about whatever you think having a master’s will gain you: “If I got my master’s in film I could write that screenplay I’ve had in my head.” I say skip the master’s and go directly to writing the screenplay.
It’s also possible that you have outgrown this dream. It may be that while the fourteen-year-old version of you really wanted to be a rock star, the forty-four-year-old version doesn’t actually care that much for the spotlight. If you are a sentimental person, you may feel it’s unduly harsh to give up this particular project, because it may feel as though you are giving up on your dream. Allowing your old dreams to grow and change to better suit your true, current self is both practical and wise. Or to think of it another way, you wouldn’t put your fourteen-year-old self in charge of your other life decisions now, would you?
Got Stuckified Reason 2: It Just Hasn’t Been the Right Time
Maybe it hasn’t been the right time because of life circumstances, such as a new baby in the family or a health issue or a financial crisis. Or maybe it hasn’t been the right time because you haven’t been ready. Maybe you’ve had life lessons to learn or some spiritual maturity to attain.
Or maybe it’s that mysterious right-moment thing that people bring up when you’re looking for the perfect life partner. “When the time is right, he/she will show up,” those well-meaning people say. Irritating. Even more irritating, they are often correct.
Or maybe you’ve needed to wait for some technology to be invented, or you’ve needed to wait for the right people or the right partner. But whatever the reason: it just hasn’t been the right time. And I know that for a fact because if it had been the right time, you would have done it.
After all, look at all the things you’ve accomplished. You’re no slacker. You work hard, and you’re so tenacious that others have probably expressed concern about your tenacity.
Got Stuckified Reason 3: You’re a Little Bit Scared
Or a lot scared. To which I say, “Well, of course you’re scared!”
Creating art is scary. Starting any new venture is scary. And putting your heartfelt work out into the world is downright terrifying. Anybody who claims otherwise is a big, fat liar. People tell me every day about the projects they’re stuck on, and they are doozies. Here’s a sample of some of the projects people have told me about:
• Writing a memoir
• Clearing up personal financials
• Relearning quantum physics
• Getting certified in a healing modality, such as massage, Reiki, Emotional Freedom Technique, or spiritual psychology
• Balancing parenthood and art
• Orchestrating a live event or conference
• Getting a pilot’s license
• Living one’s highest purpose
• Doing stand-up comedy
• Clearing out a parent’s house
• Staying in touch with friends and colleagues
• Growing a business
Finding true happiness
Writing a book proposal
This is some big, life-changing stuff, and it’s no surprise that it hits your panic button and makes you want to run and hide like a little kid.
I Know What I Need to Do — I Just Can’t Make Myself Do It
Here’s an example of the kind of letter I frequently receive from my clients:
I know what I need to do, I just can’t make myself do it. I watch endless YouTube videos, I play computer solitaire, I fool around on Facebook — I even scrub my kitchen floors — all just to avoid the work that I know is my destiny. I get so mad at myself. Am I chasing a shadow goal? What do I do? — Elizabeth
Here’s what I would say to Elizabeth, and to you, since chances are fairly high you are dealing with the same concerns:
Rest easy, honey — you are merely suffering from a biological imperative called “displacement activity.” Displacement activity is what happens when an animal is in the grip of two conflicting instincts, and so it enacts a third, seemingly inappropriate behavior.
For example, you’ve probably seen a chimpanzee being challenged by another chimpanzee. When the first chimp doesn’t know whether to run away or fight, he might scratch his head...yawn...look away...start grooming himself. Seems like a very passive response to aggression, but that chimp will do anything to deflect the energy, avoid making a decision, and otherwise make himself as invisible as possible.
When you have the instinct to create and you simultaneously have the instinct not to create, your fear says, “Don’t do it!” And so, confused by these two equally strong instincts, you shut down and get stuck playing an online word game for hours on end.
It doesn’t mean you have low self-esteem, and it doesn’t mean your dream is impossible, and it certainly doesn’t mean you’re lazy. So the next time this happens, just recognize the dynamic without yelling at yourself. “Ah,” you might say instead, “I appear to be having the instinct to create something. And I also find myself feeling afraid of what will happen if I create that thing. Perfectly natural. But my fear does not get to make my decisions for me. So I will now set my kitchen timer for fifteen minutes and just play around with my creative idea in a light, fun, beta-testing sort of a way and then see what happens.”
And that’s what this book is all about — giving you the loving encouragement you need to move forward. And maybe a little loving thwack upside the head.
We’ll talk more in the next chapter about how to choose the right project, but here’s a good shorthand tip: If you have lots and lots of ideas, you may want to pick one using the same method some people use to pay off their credit cards. That is, either pick the one that’s closest to being done and finish that one, or pick the one that has the highest “interest” rate and finish that one.
Fifty years from now, the details that you are worrying about will not matter one whit. But the art you create, the novel you write, the doll you sew, the dance you perform, the photograph you take — that will still be making a difference in the world.
Spend fifteen minutes right now playing around with your favorite project.
worked at the renowned Second City Theatre in Chicago alongside comics Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert. In addition to her multifaceted writing and performance work, she specializes in personal branding and career strategies. She lives in Los Angeles. Her website is TheOrganizedArtistCompany.com.
Excerpted from the book Get It Done by Sam Bennett. Copyright © 2014 by Samantha Bennett.