zen habits : breathe

Beating the Fears that Cause Procrastination

By Leo Babauta

At its root, procrastination is almost always based on some kind of fear. And figuring out how to beat that fear is the key to unprocrastination, in the long run.

Quick fixes are fine, but if the fears remain unabated, they will continue to act on you, causing you to want to procrastinate despite your best intentions.

So how do you beat fear? One of the reasons fear can be so powerful is because it lurks in the dark — unnoticed, in the recesses of our minds, it acts without us knowing it. So the first step is to shine some light on it — fear hates light. The light is our attention, our examining of the fears, our taking a close look at them to see if they’re rational or baseless.

Once we’ve shined a light on the fears, we can beat them with information. For example, if you’re afraid you’re going to fail, well, do a small test and see. If you don’t fail, that’s information — you now know that, at least with a small test, you won’t necessarily fail. Keep repeating the tests and you’ll gather a lot of information that is contrary to the fear, beating the fear because you now know with good certainty that it’s baseless.

Shine a light on the fear, run small tests, and beat it with information.

Let’s first look at some of the fears that cause procrastination, and then talk about shining a light on fears.

Some Procrastination Fears

A number of fears contribute to procrastination, including but not limited to:

These are all obviously related, and they can be summed up as “fear of failure or not being good enough”. Let’s take a look at how to beat these related fears.

Shining a Light

Fear runs in the background — like a background process on a computer, unseen by the common user. Unfortunately, because we are aware that the fear is running in the background, lurking in the dark, and acting on us, it has great power over us.

You can’t beat it if you don’t know it’s there.

So the first step is to pause, and shine a light on the lurking fear. We avoid this, but don’t. Take a look at the fear, and be honest with yourself: why are you avoiding this task? What are you afraid of?

If you don’t know, just ask this: are you afraid you’ll fail or do badly, or won’t be good at it? Are you afraid of not being good enough?

The answer is likely to be yes, if you’re honest. If you still aren’t sure, that’s OK — you might not be good at recognizing your fears yet, and that’s perfectly fine. Just assume that it’s a version of these fears, and practice examining your fears more often so you’ll get good at recognizing them.

Now ask: Is there a reason you think you’ll fail or do badly, or that you’re not good enough? Have you failed at this kind of task a lot before? Or is it that you fail or do badly at things in general?

It’s possible that the fear is groundless, and that you normally do well on tasks like this, or on things in general. In that case, it’s probably based on some incident in your past (perhaps childhood) where you didn’t do well and there was a bad consequence. This incident created a fear in the back of your mind that’s still operating today, even if doing badly on things today probably wouldn’t have the same consequence (fears are irrational).

It’s also possible that you might do badly or fail, because you don’t know how to do the task. In that case, is it rational to put the task off, or learn by getting information and training, and practicing? Take the rational route — don’t let the fear, even if it has some basis in reality, stop you from acting.

Run Small Tests

How do you know if the fear is rational or not? There’s only one way to find out: test it. Run a tiny test at first: do a little of the task, and see what happens. Was it horrible?

Most likely, a small test will give you decent results, but you still won’t trust that your fear is groundless. So run another small test, then another. By doing small tests, you aren’t risking anything really bad, and you can quickly get results.

So how do you run small tests? Some examples might include doing just 5-10 minutes of a scary task, practicing just the most absolute basic skill of a group of skills you don’t know, or doing a very easy, non-public project that doesn’t take long before tackling a similar but harder or more public project.

Win With Information

Once you’ve run some small tests, you now have some information you didn’t have before. Before, you were afraid of a bad outcome but didn’t really know if the bad outcome would happen or not. Now you can say with more certainty whether the bad outcome is likely or not.

Let’s say you were afraid of failing or looking bad at a task, but you did some small tests and it turned out fine each time. Now you can say, “Well, it’s not very likely that I’ll fail, as I didn’t fail the other times … maybe my fear isn’t very grounded in reality, isn’t very rational.”

Use this rational process to beat the fear. It’s irrational and doesn’t make much sense, and if you look at it rationally you’ll see that. Gradually, through this process, the fear will lose its power.

It takes a bit of time to beat fear through shining a light on it, running small tests, and using information and rationality to finally banish it … but it’s worth the effort. We allow fear to control us too much, allow it to cause us to procrastinate. Let’s take back that control.

Join two million breath-taking readers: rss | email | twitter