March 31st, 2021 12:00am
Why do we put off things that we need to get done? Actually, the answer is simple. Our brain—our automatic brain (AB)—detects those tasks as posing a threat to us. And for those who know what I write about, our AB fights and flees threats. Putting off or avoiding essential tasks is a flight reaction. And that is procrastination. But as most procrastinators have come to know, the act of fleeing provides a short-term relief; or, as I say, a short-term gain. This type of gain, unfortunately, quickly leads to disappointment, dissatisfaction, and emotional pain.
When I was in high school, I was a mediocre student. This was partly the result of many deep insecurities I harbored but also stemmed from my procrastination. One clear memory I have is returning from summer vacation and continually thinking about how great I felt when school ended. Those thoughts stayed with me and led to me falling behind as I put off necessary work. When I enrolled in college with a dream to become a doctor, I stopped procrastinating. From the very first day, I studied daily and was always well prepared for exams. Yet, some forty years later, I still have nightmares of me going into an exam ill-prepared!
Facing responsibilities can be uncomfortable. Our AB fights and flees the uncomfortable. Over twenty years ago, I needed to address an individual regarding some discrepancies in our business. I was sick to my stomach, and the thought of approaching him made it worse. My AB wanted me to flee that situation and avoid the conflict. But that’s when I gained clarity regarding procrastination. Facing this situation would cause me emotional pain. Not facing it would also cause me pain. If I were to avoid it, I would experience resentment and harbor ill feelings forever; thus, it would cause long-term pain. It hit me: procrastination provided short-term gain but resulted in long-term pain. If I were to address the issue, it would be uncomfortable—short-term pain—but would potentially lead to long-term gain. I chose the latter, and it worked out precisely that way.
You must recognize procrastination in your life. If not, it will place all dreams on hold and essentially guarantee that those dreams will never come true. To achieve anything worthwhile, you must attend to details that often are uncomfortable. When every fiber of your AB says “No, no, no; put off, put off, put off,” you must not believe, trust, or be guided by it. Your AB is a primitive driver and cares nothing about your life satisfaction. It simply wants to make you fight and flee situations that are uncomfortable, unfamiliar, or potentially dangerous. For example, these situations may expose your insecurities and thus cause embarrassment.
The fact is, though, that anything worth achieving in life is worth the short-term pain of addressing situations head-on. I would never be where I am today if I continued approaching my high school years. If I procrastinated with the critical business issue, I would have ultimately placed my family in a difficult position while harboring unhealthy resentment.
To be sure, we all need downtime and relaxation; however, it can never come at the expense of dealing with priorities and responsibilities. Procrastination quickly becomes a habit, because of the short-term gain it provides, like any drug. To break the pattern, and it does not matter how long you have harbored it, you need to assign it as more painful, as I did in my business dealing. Understanding that it causes long-term pain, you will begin to train your AB to fight and flee it.
The one constant in life is change, and with that comes many ups and downs. One of the habits that so many of us hold on to is procrastination. It is one habit that will almost guarantee that there are more downs than ups. Understanding what procrastination is and why it is crucial to stop is the first step to making significant changes in your life.
© Dr. Charles F. Glassman, CoachMD