When Self-Empowerment Leads to Procrastination

Is there a correlation between the drive for self-empowerment and procrastination? It seems counter-intuitive, but this just may be the case.

I wanted to make some pancakes last night, but this wasn’t going to happen unless I cleaned up the kitched. I felt the familiar surge of resistance rise in me as I contemplated the oily sheen on the half-dozen plates heaped in the sink. As I’ve been mindful of resistance in myself this week (see here and here), I acknowledged the resistance and then proceeded to ignoredit. Pancakes were soon frying on the skillet just a few minutes later.

As I watched the bubbles form in frying batter, I facetiously wondered why I bothered with having resistance in the first place if I was just going to ignore it later. Wouldn’t it save time to just NOT have the resistance? Why did I even have it in the first place?

The Journey of the Meek

I wasn’t always excited enough about the world to be outgoing. As a child I was quite shy, and even now I tend to withdraw from anything loud and boisterous. However, I eventually came to the conclusion that if I wanted things to be better, it was up to me to do something about it. My specific challenges, however, were related to feelings that I wasn’t smart or skilled enough to deserve any help. I lacked a sense of entitlement to my own wishes and desires, thinking that they had to be bestowed on me by others who I thought knew better.

I eventually did develop the ability to pursue what I wanted, allowing myself to set my own yardstick. In essence, I now indulge my own preferences and desires, and this has helped me establish a stronger sense of my own individualism. To butcher Descartes: I want, therefore I am.

When you are indulging yourself, you are saying I will do what I want to do. The premise is that by pursuing my bliss, I’ll become more and more in alignment with my destiny, and will achieve happiness through productive work that has been focused by my desires.

Here’s where it gets problematic: There are different kinds of desires, and they do not all deserve the same level of indulgence. It’s easy to mistake “I don’t think this chore will be fun” with “this is not what I desire”, when in fact the chore is a necessary step to achieving your larger aim. If you are not mindful of this, you’ll be a slave of “I don’t feel like doing this right now, maybe tomorrow” procrastination. We legitimize the negative feeling because so closely tied to the “I should do what I want to do” ethic. In other words, we give our negative feelings too much decision-making power, because we subconsciously assume that our feelings are legitimizing forces. We don’t question what we want for ourselves, presuming that it’s not somehow evil. That allows a whole host of procrastinatory thoughts to wreak havoc with our productivity.

Deprogramming the Response

As I watched my pancakes cook, I thought of Little House on the Prairie, Saving Private Ryan and other idyllic stereotypes of hardworking second-generation Americans from the 1800s through World War II. The stereotype is that there are people that just do what needs doing without a lot of bellyaching about it. My own parents generation is like that too, and it occurred to me that this might be correlated with a lack of overt self-interest; instead, their motivations lay with the larger family and community units bound by a common moral code. Individualism that operated within this context was admired and respected.

These days, Individualism that exists within the context of a community code has been replaced by the raw worship of the Individual. It is very much OK to want something just because you want it, without any justification or context at all. Our consumer culture encourages it by offering us a bewildering array of choices. The media rewards people who are the craziest and most extreme in their deviation from the norm, showcasing them on the Internet and reality television. And, if something doesn’t interest, it’s entirely OK to just ignore it and choose to do something else. We are a culture of institutionalized, individualized choice-making, and we don’t have to answer to anyone if we don’t want to. “It’s my choice” is enough of a rationale in these days.

The difference between myself and the idealized mid-western farmer is this: I automatically make choices based on how much I want them. I automatically indulge myself by allowing myself to judge whether “I want to” or not. Since it’s my CHOICE, I don’t think of questioning it and autopilot through a set of assumptions:

  • I indulge my choices which are based on wishes.
  • My wishes are the product of my personal whims.
  • My whims are shaped by the desire to feel good.
  • FALLACY: Because I am entitled to my choices as an individual, I am entitled to feel good through my choice.
  • COROLLARY FALLACY: If I don’t feel like doing something, then not doing something is a half-indulgence that is also an earned entitlement.

It’s those latter two assumptions produce the automatic resistance I feel when faced with the drudgery of chores. In the blink of an eye, I judge whether I feel that I want it or not. More often than not, chores get put in the DO NOT WANT KTHX BAI pile, and because I’m conditioned to believe I should feel good as much as possible in the proper pursuit of my personal happiness, I end up giving that negative feeling POWER. And that power goes directly into opposing me in getting the chore done in the first place. It’s quite stupid in hindsight.

My idealized mid-western farmer, I suspect, never even go down this path of reasoning. The important things must get done…it’s not about “individualism” or “choice” at all. Seeing past that might be something that helps procrastinators break the cycle of procrastination. Like working out at the gym, one must accept that there will be discomfort and stress, and that this is not a sign that you should stop (as I used to think). Your body is quite capable of going much further past the initial discomfort, and our mind is quite capable of observing the positive benefits of pushing past that discomfort. It is the same with personal creative work.

Takeaway

When I’ve felt that resistance come up to starting something, I’ve been able to stare it in the face and ask whether it’s a question of avoiding discomfort or not. If it is, then I remind myself that the real rewards are somewhere in the blackness of the unknown. The only stuff on this side of the unknown are low-hanging fruit of very marginal utility. The feeling of discomfort is just not legitimate enough to prevent me from doing it.