Procrastination. We’ve all done it and we tell ourselves we’ll never do it again. So we come up with an elaborate time management system to get us on track only to find ourselves continuing to put things off. While some procrastination can be mildly infuriating, chronic procrastination can be financially, professionally, and personally devastating — overdue bills result in calls from collection agencies, late reports result in getting fired, and undone chores turn your house into a dump.
Why do we procrastinate despite our best intentions not to?
My guests today are clinical psychologists who have spent their career working with procrastinators. Their names are Jane Burka and Lenora Yuen. They’re the co-authors of the book Procrastination: Why You Do It, What to Do About It Now. We begin our conversation discussing the difference between procrastination and strategically postponing things. They then take us through the cycle of procrastination that we’ve all been through and explain why it’s such a vicious loop.
We then transition to talk about why we procrastinate and why faulty time management isn’t the real root cause of it. Jane and Lenora argue that if you don’t tackle the true origins of procrastination — which range from the fear of failure to the fear of success — no amount of time management or planning will help you. We finally dig into how to tackle these roots so you can exit the procrastinator’s cycle and get stuff done.
This podcast is filled with great insights and actionable advice. Don’t put off listening to it!
- How Jane and Lenora came together and ended up researching and writing about procrastination
- The research on procrastination that was available back in 1983 when the book was first written
- Why procrastination isn’t always a problem
- The serious consequences that can arise from chronic procrastination
- How procrastination and perfectionism are actually related
- The different between just tabling something and procrastination
- The self-perpetuating cycle of procrastination
- The 3 fears that ultimately drive procrastination
- Why would anyone be afraid of success? How does that perpetuate procrastination?
- Executive functioning in the brain and procrastination
- Subjective time vs. objective time — how people experience time differently
- The compartmentalization of procrastination
- Why basic time management and goal-setting techniques don’t necessarily work with procrastinators
- Why self-compassion tends to work better than self-criticism
- Concrete tips on finally slaying the procrastination beast
- Why you need to give yourself permission to do bad work
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- Our in-depth guide on how to stop procrastinating.
- How to Quit Surfing the Internet and Actually Get Stuff Done
- Get More Done With the Rule of 3
- Podcast: Building Your Self-Discipline
- 10 Overlooked Truths About Action
- Taking Advantage of the Unique Powers of the Twentysomething Brain
- Track Your Time to Get More Done
- 116 Meditations on the Wisdom of Action
- How to Create Habits That Stick
Procrastination is filled with great insights on why we procrastinate, but more importantly provides actionable steps beyond just to-do lists to help you beat your procrastination habit.
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
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Recorded with ClearCast.io.
Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness Podcast. Procrastination. We’ve all done it and we tell ourselves we’ll never do it again, so we come up with elaborate time management systems to get us back on track, only to find ourselves continuing to put things off. While some procrastination can be mildly infuriating, chronic procrastination can be financially, professionally, and personally devastating. Overdue bills result in calls from collection agencies, late reports result in getting fired and undone chores turn your house into a dump. Why do we procrastinate despite our best intentions not to and despite knowing the fact that it hurts us?
Well, my guests today are clinical psychologists who have spent their career working with procrastinators. Their names are Jane Burka and Lenora Yuen. They’re the co-authors of the Procrastination: Why You Do It and What to Do About It Now? Today on the show we begin our conversation discussing the difference between procrastination and strategically putting things off, postponing things. They then take us through the cycle of procrastination that we’ve all been through and explain why it’s such a vicious loop. We then transition to talk about why we procrastinate and why faulty time management isn’t the actual root cause of those procrastination?
Jane and Lenora argue if we don’t tackle the true origin of procrastination, which can range from fear of failure to perfectionism to fear of success, no matter of time management or planning will help you. We dig into how to tackle these roots so you can exit the procrastinator cycle and get stuff done. This podcast is filled with great insights and actual advice. Don’t put off listening to it. Do it today. After the show is over check out the show notes at aom.is/procrastination. Jane Burka, Lenora Yuen, welcome to the show.
Lenora Yuen: Thank you Brett.
Jane Burka: Hi. Nice to be here.
Brett McKay: All right. You two are psychologists who have specialized in procrastination, which I think is interesting. It’s an interesting topic to decide … that’s what you’re going to go in deep. I’m curious, how did you two get interested in studying that particular experience and how did you two connect and start working together to write this book back in 1983 and then doing a second edition, updated edition almost 20 years later.
Lenora Yuen: 25. It was a 25 anniversary.
Brett McKay: 25, okay.
Lenora Yuen: Yes. Well, we met when we were both on the staff at the counseling center at the University of California, Berkeley and decided to offer a procrastination group for students. As you might imagine, procrastination is pretty much rampant on every college campus. So, it was a very popular group, but why procrastination? Well, Jane and I each had a lifetime of experience, of personal insider experience of procrastinating.
Jane Burka: Yes. For example, when I went to graduate school in New York it took me 10 years to finish, to get my dissertation done. I span through classes and then, when it came time for the dissertation, I just couldn’t do it. It was a very painful experience, actually, because people who started after me you were finishing. I had a job. I was working in my field, but I didn’t have my PhD. I couldn’t be licensed. I couldn’t hang out my shingle. It was a very difficult struggle and it got to the point where I didn’t want to talk to my advisor, then I didn’t want to go to the building where my advisor was, then I didn’t want to get off bus near the building where my advisor was. I was really in major avoidance. Both Lenora and I know what it is to suffer when you put things off and we also know, I’m happy to say, what it is to mostly overcome that problem, because both of us now are really pretty good.
Brett McKay: Were there a lot of people researching procrastination back when you originally published your book?
Lenora Yuen: No, not at all. There were a couple of books about procrastination that basically said, “Okay, just do it. Be rational. Be reasonable. It’s very simple, just manage your time and set goals and just do it.” There was no research to speak of at that time.
Jane Burka: None at all really.
Lenora Yuen: Yeah. And now there are probably well over a 1,000 research studies, maybe many more than that and many people around the world who are actually studying this. We feel very proud, actually, to have had a part in highlighting a problem that really can plague people. On the surface it can look like not a big deal or a something to joke about. I can’t tell you how many procrastination jokes have we heard. People try to find a way to make light of it, but really, as Jane was saying, people can suffer really significant consequences. Let me also say that procrastination in and of itself isn’t good or bad, it’s not even always a problem.
We all procrastinate on little things or things that don’t really matter to us, but what we’re talking about here is the procrastination that we do in addressing things that are really important to us, that we really want to do or that we need to do and then when we don’t do them we end up suffering consequences in the world or consequences within ourselves and feeling just awful that really end up being self-defeating. One of the things that we’ve said for decades now is that we are not anti-procrastination, but we are anti self-defeat.
Jane Burka: Because procrastination is self-sabotage and people think that … Especially people who don’t procrastinate, they don’t understand it at all. Like, “I can get my work done, why can’t you?” But procrastination, when it has this self-sabotaging function is much more psychological than it is about being rational or getting things done in a timely way, being behavioral, but the research, now, around procrastination is interesting because we always talk about procrastination being related to perfectionism and some of the research has indicated that procrastination and perfectionism are not related, but we challenged that because those research studies use self-report. They ask people, “Are you a perfectionist?” And then the people say yes or no.
Well, most procrastinators don’t notice that they’re perfectionists. In fact, they say, “I’m not a perfectionist. I don’t get my work done on time.” But perfectionism is an attitude. We are clinicians and that means that we have seen perfectionism in most of the people we see who have a problem with procrastination. Even the research that has come out isn’t always clinically accurate, in our opinion.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I’d love to get into some of what you guys see as the root cause of this. The idea is procrastination means self-sabotage, but let’s go back to this idea of what is procrastination? And you mentioned, sort of you gave a good definition, but I’m curious. Whenever I’m looking at my to-do lists and I put something off I’m wondering, “Is this procrastination or am I tabling this because it’s just not the right time to do this?” How do you all differentiate between like tabling an item and okay, you’re now officially procrastinating.
Lenora Yuen: As I said earlier, sometimes procrastination is not a problem and sometimes tabling something is really the very best thing for you to do. Let’s face it, we’re all way too busy these days. We all have too much to do. You can do it all. Something’s gotta give. So, if you tabled something because you have more important issues to deal with or actions to take that may be a good thing. If you table something because you really need to take a little more time to think it through and weigh your options, that may be a good thing. I think the way to tell whether you are entering this territory of self-sabotage or self-defeat with procrastination is to look at the consequences.
Are you getting yourself into trouble? Are you being passed over for promotions? Is your partner getting pissed off at you all the time because you’re late all the time or your partner asks you to do something you don’t and then they feel thwarted and they’re mad. Are you having to pay penalties to the IRS because you didn’t file your taxes or maybe even not collecting refunds that are due to you because you haven’t filed your taxes? You’d be surprised how many people don’t file their taxes even when they have money coming back.
Jane Burka: Lenora is talking about the external consequences, the consequences in the world, in your job or in your relationships, but then there are also internal consequences and those are the kind of feelings and upset, anxiety, shame, humiliation, the feeling that you’re a fraud. If you managed to pull it out in the last minute and it’s good enough then you feel like, “Well, I fooled them.” You can get it done, but you have a feeling of fraudulence. There’s so much anxiety connected to procrastination as the deadline approaches and you haven’t done it. There’s a lot of shame in feeling like you’re behind again.
The internal consequences of bad feelings, that’s part of it and then there are also physical consequences sometimes. If you build up a lot of anxiety you can get an ulcer, you can get headaches, you can get high blood pressure. I think that if you look at the consequences on a continuum the more serious the consequences, internal and external, the more likely procrastination really is a problem.
Lenora Yuen: You know Brett, I also would like to say that sometimes people don’t think of it as procrastinating, but it was very much avoidance. For me one of the forms that took was math anxiety. My father was an engineer and math was easy for him and it was not easy for me and I avoided every complicated math class that I could because I only wanted to get A’s and I knew that I wouldn’t get an A in math. That is a more subtle form of procrastination, but it’s avoidance nonetheless.
Brett McKay: Gotcha. In the book you talk about this idea of the cycle procrastination. When you’ve described the cycle it’s like, “I’ve been there.” Can you kind of walk us through that cycle and how does the cycle perpetuate itself?
Jane Burka: The cycle of procrastination is this typical pattern of a feeling in the beginning like, “Well, I know I’m supposed to do something, but I don’t have to do it yet and there’s more time and maybe the deadline is not really very firm.” And you don’t really take it seriously and then as time passes and you realize that really it is something you should be doing then there’s the buildup of anxiety like, “Ah, I better get going.” And some people at that point go to the movies and some people at that point actually might start, but maybe they haven’t really allowed enough time.
As the deadline approaches there’s this terrible buildup feeling of, “Well, I just have to get it done now and I’m going to pull an all-nighter, I’m going to spend all weekend, I’m going to do whatever it takes.” When somebody finally gets started most of the time there’s a feeling like, “This isn’t so bad. I don’t know why I waited so long to do this. Then, when the time comes that the thing is over, if you have achieved it you feel like, “Ah, thank goodness. I finally made it and I’m never going to do this again. I’m never going to procrastinate again.”
And then it’s also possible that the deadline passes, you haven’t done what you needed to do. You didn’t turn in the application for the job. You didn’t pay on time and then you feel terrible about yourself, “I’m such an idiot. Why did I do this to myself again?” So, that’s the cycle and it perpetuates itself because there’s a kind of a magical feeling that next time is going to be different and if you don’t do anything different or think through things differently it’s not going to be different next time. That’s wishful thinking.
Brett McKay: You all talked about earlier how when you first started with your research most of the books about procrastination out there were about like, “Well, you procrastinate, just do it. Get a better time management system. Prioritize your tasks etc., etc.” But you all argue that the problem runs deeper than that. You can do those things and it’s probably not going to help you. So, let’s dig into the root causes of procrastination. We can go into specifics later on, but what is generally the big overarching reasons why people procrastinate?
Lenora Yuen: Well, I think that probably what we would say is that the big issue is a feeling of unworthiness. That takes the form of feeling afraid, of feeling vulnerable, of feeling, as Jane mentioned earlier, a sense of shame about who you really are or what you really can do and what you really think. So, procrastination becomes a way of managing very vulnerable feelings and fears that you’re really not good enough. A fear of insufficiency of one sort or another and I think for men, there is a lot of fear about being weak or are about somehow not being big enough, strong enough-
Jane Burka: Not measuring up.
Lenora Yuen: Not measuring up. Procrastination can be a way not to quite feel those feelings directly and to retreat and avoid those difficult feelings.
Jane Burka: What we’re saying is that procrastination, oddly enough, it’s kind of paradoxical, it’s a lesser of evils because you get upset with yourself for procrastinating and that’s something that very ordinary and that people can accept about themselves, “I waited too long. I should have started sooner. I didn’t leave enough time.” Those are acceptable self-criticisms whereas, “I’m afraid. I’m afraid I’m not good enough. I’m afraid if I give all the time I have and try my best and it’s still not good enough.” That’s something they don’t have to face when you procrastinate. It’s kind of a paradoxical solution to a problem of self-esteem.
Brett McKay: There’s a fear of failure, is one of those things. I think that’s where the perfection comes in, right? Perfectionists, they’re afraid of failing, afraid of being less than perfect and so to protect themselves from that feeling of failure they put things off.
Jane Burka: Right. You bring up fear and failure. The main three fears that we have on earth are a fear of failure, fears of success and fear of feeling controlled. So, fear of failure, as you say, is really rooted in that basic feeling that you’re not good enough and the anxiety that that is going to be known, that you’re going to be exposed as not good enough. You feel like everything you do has your whole worth riding on it. So, if you wait until the last minute and then you do something and it’s okay, you can feel like, “Oh well, I’m really terrific and then I’m not a failure.” But if you wait a long time and it’s not good enough, that’s a terrible, terrible feeling. People delay in order not to do their best, in order never to test whether their best is good enough.
Brett McKay: Because they can say, “Well, if I had more time, if I got started earlier, it would have been better, but I did good enough for the amount of time I had.”
Lenora Yuen: That’s right. So, paradoxically, procrastination allows you to relax that standard of perfectionism because when you wait till the last minute you can’t do it perfectly anymore. All that you can do is just get the darn thing done. So, what’s being evaluated really is your skill of brinksmanship rather than what is your best effort. Your best effort stays hidden and unknown to other people, and sadly, to yourself.
Brett McKay: I thought the interesting thing was the fear of success because like you’re thinking, “Oh, it’s success. Why would anyone be afraid of success?” First of all, why are people afraid of success and how does that perpetuate procrastination?
Jane Burka: Well, everybody makes the assumption that we all want to be successful and more successful and more successful, but actually success is like a rose with a lot of thorns on it. There are real dangers to success for some people. For example, if you are the first person in your family to go to college and you do well in college the consequence of that is that it puts you at a much greater distance from your family. They don’t know what your life is like. They haven’t been through this experience. You can’t talk to them, get advice from them. So, the farther you move away and become more successful than people in your own family, the more difficult that is. It feels like a threat to relationship.
Lenora Yuen: In other relationships, for many people there’s an experience of competition. Now, the competition may not be overt, it might just be in your own mind, but it feels like there are winners or losers and theoretically you’d want to win, but what if you do what? What if you end up being at the top? For some people being the winner brings with it worries about being envied or having other people want to really compete with you and they want to be at the top and they want to get you out of the number one position. So, there is, again, a sense of exposure and a kind of vulnerability in being at the top that some people avoid with procrastination. One young man we talked to many years ago said, “Success is kind of like an escalator, you take a step on and there’s no place off until you get to the top.” And what if you don’t want to be at the top? What if it makes you anxious to think about being at the top? Procrastination can be a way not to get on that escalator to success.
Brett McKay: Another fear of success could be the fear of like added responsibility.
Lenora Yuen: Added responsibility.
Jane Burka: Exactly, and also then being closer to the decision makers and sometimes you might want to be a person who carries out decisions, but you don’t want to the decision maker. I worked for someone who took the job, really liked his boss, didn’t very much blank the guy who was above this boss and after about six months on the job his boss left and went to a different position. He was now moved into that slot so that he had to deal directly with the guy at the top and it was not an easy relationship and it really affected his feelings about his job and he slowed down his work. He didn’t really want to be in that position. He started procrastinating on his work. The guy, his boss, got irritated, he got in trouble. His job went from being a pleasure to be miserable. So, even though he got a promotion it was not a promotion that he wanted or enjoyed or did well in it.
Brett McKay: I think connected to this fear of success is like the fear of control because as you get more successful yes, you gain some freedom, but you also become more constricted in a lot of ways because you have these added responsibilities. Let’s talk about that, that fear of loss of control.
Lenora Yuen: Well, for some people … I mean, we all need to feel like we can control some of the aspects of our lives. If we don’t it’s a very kind of hopeless, helpless feeling, to feel that you have to be passive, but there are some people who have a lot of sensitivity to the issues of control and who define their own sense of their self in terms of their capacity not to be controlled or they’re feeling that they are autonomous, nobody can tell them what to do, the rules don’t apply to them. For these people procrastination can be a way to assert autonomy and preserve a sense of strength and power. Now, it’s all indirect. It’s not directly saying, “I’ve got control.” But indirectly you say, “You can’t make me do what you want to do I’m going to. I’m the boss and I’m only going to do what I want to do and at the time I want to do it.”
Brett McKay: Right, it’s passive-aggressive.
Jane Burka: Yes, that’s right because you don’t say to your supervisor, “I don’t like the way you’re talking to me. I don’t like the way you’re treating me. I think you’re giving me too much work in too little time.” Which, of course, is very common nowadays, but you don’t have the conversation, you just don’t do the work.
Lenora Yuen: Or the same may happen with a spouse. That happens a lot of the time, that people, rather than having direct conversations about negotiating, tasks in the household or priorities that may be different between the two spouses and trying to work out those differences simply go into this mode of saying, “Yes.” But not doing what you’ve agreed to do. If you are someone for whom cooperation feels like capitulation, then working out differences is going to be really difficult because it ends up feeling like you lose every time, that if you go along with the other person, that, again, that you are diminished, you are disempowered, you are weak.
Brett McKay: And what are these fears like? Where do they originate? Is it like a childhood thing? Is it that you’re rearing? Are there different things that cause maybe a fear of failure or fear of success or a fear of control?
Jane Burka: Well, you’re right that these things do start in the family. I think there’s no direct correlation that will create one or the other of these anxieties, but there’s a general feeling in your family, as you’re growing up, that your value is not just because you’re a great kid, that you as a person are not what makes you worthwhile, that what makes you worthwhile is something else, like dis you get an A, did you get an A plus, a lot of pressure to succeed.
Lenora Yuen: Did you hit a home run?
Jane Burka: Right.
Lenora Yuen: Or strike out.
Jane Burka: If you feel like your value is based on your performance then there’s a lot of anxiety about how well you’re going to do and that can lead to a fear of failure. Then it’s possible that growing up there were people who were envious of your talents. So, maybe you were successful, but you got mocked for your success or you were told not to brag too much because it would upset one of your siblings or you were given opportunities that your family hadn’t had and even if they want you to do well on some level they’re also envious and you can sense that. That’s where you learn that success can be dangerous. When you’re successful you can be a target.
Of course, the issue of control. In many families kids grew up in a very controlling environment. They feel controlled rather than guided and when you have grown up feeling like you are just fitting into someone else’s system and you don’t get to make a lot of choices for yourself then that’s where your autonomy feels compromised and preserving your autonomy, your freedom, your sense of individuality becomes way more important than getting things done on time.
Brett McKay: Besides these psychoanalytical reasons for procrastination, this like, I guess, the nurture part, you also highlight research that biology or nature might play a role and interact with our environment to create the habit of procrastination. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Lenora Yuen: Sure. We all have different genes. We have different brains. The way our brains work is different. Most of us have what we call a neurotypical brains, kind of everyday capacities to manage our workflow, to plan, to organize, to monitor ourselves, but some of us have real difficulty. We talk about this executive function. A lot of the organizational capacity of our brain to get ourselves to work toward goals. People who have executive function problems with the way their brains work well often have trouble with time. People with attention deficit disorder are notorious for being blindsided by time. They’re popping along, getting distracted by this and that and having an immersive experience in whatever present moment shiny thing is captivating their attention and they forget the deadline is coming up and boom, all of a sudden they’re hit by something that feels like it’s coming completely out of the blue. When you have trouble being aware of time and monitoring time procrastination is going to be a much more likely part of your experience.
Jane Burka: It’s also true that there’s a difference between objective time and subjective time. Objective time is clock time, calendar time, inexorable, it just keeps moving whereas subjective time is a person’s experience of time and that’s another sort of biological contribution because your experience of time varies based on your emotion, your arousal, your own circadian rhythm. Time can seem to go really fast in the morning and then at night it feels like it goes on forever. When you have a subjective sense of time that is off from clock time, different from clock time you can think to yourself, “Well, it’s only 15 minutes. It doesn’t matter if I’m 15 minutes late.” Because to you that’s true and to somebody else if you’re 15 minutes buddy, you’re late.
Lenora Yuen: One of the things that’s really complicated with this issue of procrastination is that there are many, many underpinnings for it and many different pathways to the position of struggling with getting things done. Most all procrastinators, I think, are unrealistic about time in one way or another. They often tend to either overestimate how long things will take so that the task looks so horrible and so unapproachable they just feel overwhelmed and they won’t do it or they tend to underestimate how long things will take and so they expect to breeze through like, as Jane was saying, “Oh, that’ll just … 15 minutes, that’s all I need.” And then it takes them three hours.
There can be psychological aspects to being unrealistic about time as well as some of these biological components that make it very hard to monitor time and then that issue of control that we were talking about earlier. Some people want to say, “Time has no control over me. I’m not limited by time. I’m not defined by time.” I mean, it’s a grand illusion that gets them into trouble, but that sense of being autonomous and powerful is so important that even facing the reality of the inexorability of time is unbearable.
Jane Burka: I just want to add to what Lenora’s saying about reality because that is a theme for underlies a lot of what we’re talking about, that procrastinators are really not good at accepting certain realities. They may be very well oriented to reality in a 100 ways, but not oriented to reality in very specific ways like the reality of time passing, the reality of how long things take, the reality of limitations. We all have limitations. We’re better in some things than others. We can only go so far, and yet a procrastinator really does not want to accept limitations.
That’s part of avoiding doing your best and having it evaluated because you don’t want to know where your limitations are. And also there’s the reality that people don’t accept that different brains work differently, like Lenora said. If I think that I have to be good at everything, but my brain isn’t going to let me I personally, Jane, I’m terrible at spatial relations. I’m in the bottom three percentile on spatial relations. If I’m trying to do something that involves spatial relations-
Lenora Yuen: Like find her way to a location.
Jane Burka: Yeah, exactly. North, south, east, west, what’s that? So, I can’t do it and that makes me want to avoid having to deal with anything that is going to demonstrate how bad I am at spatial relations. So, you procrastinate on things that you’re not good at, but if you can accept that there’s some things you’re better at than others, that my brain works very well in terms of vocabulary, but not very well in terms of spatial relations, if I can accept that that’s my weakness I can compensate for it, I can have maps. Now, thank God, they have Siri. I can find my way, but I can do that now without getting mad at myself for being so bad at spatial relations.
Lenora Yuen: You can hear in what Jane was talking about the way in which shame complicates this whole kitchen because if facing reality means to you that you’re having to face your own insufficiency in some way, with some way in which you are less than you should be, then in feeling so badly about yourself and feeling that you’re not a good person or you’re not really lovable because of having these “defects”, then facing the reality is unbearable, but if you can connect to … Really, it’s a common humanity, the fact that everybody has limitations, that having limitations is not something you need to be ashamed of and that you can still have a lot to offer, you can still be loved, you can still be respected, you can still be strong, even with limitations, then, in that kind of acceptance there’s the possibility of being kind to yourself rather than, as Jane was saying, completely denigrating yourself and being really harsh and self-critical. It’s possible to then find ways to make life work really well for you and to be full of all kinds of pleasures and satisfactions.
Brett McKay: Just to make sure I understand what you guys are saying. What you’re saying is that you might be a procrastinator, but only in certain aspects of your life?
Lenora Yuen: That’s true. People usually don’t procrastinate on everything. Usually there are some areas that they procrastinate on and not others and sometimes that can be a real entry way into understanding what it is that is at stake for you emotionally and psychologically.
Jane Burka: So, if you find that you put off things that other people ask you to do versus if you put off things that are just for you, those are two very different psychological pictures. So, it’s likely that those have different psychological routes. If you put off what other people ask you to do we’re now dealing with the area probably of control and if you put off doing just things that are for you then we have to look at perfectionism, fear of failure, fear of success. It’s very important to identify the areas where procrastination causes you the most trouble and that is, as Lenora said, an entry way into understanding what’s underneath.
Brett McKay: I think that’s an important distinction to make. I think often what you’ll see procrastinators do, not all, but they’ll see themselves procrastinating in one area of their life and then they universalize it, like, “Oh, I’m a procrastinator in all aspects of my life.” Well, no, not really. It’s just that one part. So, you end up feeling worse, which perpetuates the cycle of procrastination.
Jane Burka: Right, exactly.
Lenora Yuen: You feel less and less of a person really and then feeling worse you’re more likely to keep avoiding more things.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Lenora, were you going to say something?
Lenora Yuen: Well, I was just thinking about a time in my life that was really revelatory for me. It was a specific moment. I, like Jane, struggled with the writing of my dissertation and I also started avoiding my advisor. I wouldn’t call him and I wouldn’t … He was there to help me, but it didn’t feel that way to me. It felt like he was there to judge me and scold me. So, I was walking around in quite a conundrum and I remember walking down the street in San Francisco and suddenly having this realization that I felt scared and I’d never really thought about that before and I hadn’t started doing procrastination groups with Jane so we hadn’t been talking about that before, but it was just like, “Oh my gosh, I’m afraid to call this guy.”
And suddenly, when I had a name for this sort of agitated feeling of dread and anxiety and whatnot I felt freer. It was sort of unexpected, but once I actually was able to say to myself, “I’m scared and I’m afraid that he’s not going to like me anymore and he’s going to think that I’m stupid instead of thinking that I’m a really smart student.” I suddenly could think to myself, “Well, you know what? Everybody is scared. Being scared is actually a very human experience and you can do this anyway. You can do this even though you are afraid.” It touches on another aspect of the perfectionism. A lot of times people feel like they cannot take action unless they feel a certain way. They feel completely confident, completely certain about what they’re going to do-
Jane Burka: Waiting for all the stars to align.
Lenora Yuen: Absolutely. For me it was feeling certain about what grade I was going to get in a class ahead of time, before I even enrolled in the class I wanted to feel certain about the grade. If you can let go of the idea that you have to feel a certain way then if you’re feeling scared or anxious or guilty or whatever you can still take action. So, that moment was an important moment for me because when I thought about that I actually then went and called my advisor and we set up an appointment and he was really glad to hear from me and he said, “How can I help you?”
I think one of the things I also have realized since then, I didn’t think about it at the time, but since then I’ve really come to understand that in terms of my own family background my parents were very good parents in many, many ways. They loved me a lot. They did expect me to be the star, which was quite a burden, but when it came to feelings of vulnerability they were really uncomfortable with those feelings. So, if I was scared about something or anxious about something, usually those kinds of feelings were met with either dismissiveness, something like, “Oh, there’s nothing to be afraid about.” Or, “Oh, you’re not afraid. You’re not really afraid. You can do … ” Or something worse, contempt, like, “Don’t be ridiculous. Why would you ever feel that?” Or those feelings were simply ignored.
So, fear in my family, it wasn’t acknowledged, it didn’t exist as a feeling that was valid or understandable or normal and I actually learned not to turn to my parents for comfort when I was afraid and feeling afraid was something I was ashamed of. It was easier to feel anxious and guilty about being late or frenzied at the last minute, I’d feel a little ditsy or something like that rather than to feel afraid and become the object of scorn. I didn’t even let myself know that I was afraid until that moment that I was walking on the streets of San Francisco and had that realization that I just plain old was scared and that that was okay.
Jane Burka: I think that a lot of people … When we talk about these fears, fear of failure, fear success, fear of feeling controlled. They don’t necessarily recognize fear. It’s like they think that we’re overstating it, but people don’t recognize fear partly because of what Lenora is saying, that they are not allowed to know they’re afraid. It’s not a language on the emotions that has become part of their vocabulary. When we say fear of failure we don’t mean that you’re shaking in your boot, we mean that there is some deep level of anxiety or uncertainty about your worth. It’s important to know that sometimes you’re afraid, but you don’t recognize it, just like Lenora was saying.
Brett McKay: It sounds like the first step of beating procrastination and getting to the root of these psychological causes is recognize the fear, name it, but what else can you do after that? I mean, I guess there’s probably different things you need to be doing in those different fears, the fear of failure.
Lenora Yuen: I would take issue with the question of is it the first step. For many people the first step is actually to set up some action items, some to-do steps. The problem, and all of those time management techniques, all of the goal setting techniques, kinds of things we do talk about all the time with people is to set your goal, to break it down into small steps, to use small bits of time, 10 minutes, 15 minutes, all those kinds of techniques. They really are valuable and they work, but they only work if you use them. The thing about procrastination is that as people take action what they’re moving into, what they are going to confront are these fears and anxieties that they’ve been avoiding when they’ve avoided the action.
Jane Burka: This is why simple time management techniques or symposia don’t really work, because we tried this when we first did our procrastination groups we well, we’ll just have people set goals and we’ll try to make the goals very specific and something very observable and concrete-
Lenora Yuen: And realistic.
Jane Burka: Yeah, not vague and off in the clouds and, “I’m going to change my life tomorrow.” So, people would set goals and they would say, “Here’s what I’m going to do for next week.” And almost all the time they didn’t do it and they were surprised. They sort of thought, “Well, if you tell me how to go about this that’ll take care of it.” But it almost never happened. There are a few people who can really take these techniques and apply them and use them and I think for them time management and goal setting books are really extremely valuable, but for the people where procrastination has gotten them in trouble that’s not sufficient. So, we would find out that people couldn’t do these rather simple, I mean on the surface simple steps.
In a way it’s important to try to do these technical things. You make a goal for yourself that makes sense, it’s realistic, you can do it in a limited amount of time, you figure out what your first step is, you spend 15 minutes on the first step and then see what happens. We view goal setting as an experiment. It’s not like homework. It’s an experiment. You try it and you see what happens and that’s going to give you a clue about how much of the stranglehold procrastination has.
Lenora Yuen: Seeing what happens includes trying to pay attention to what your own inner experience is because most people don’t really reflect on what are they thinking about, what are they feeling? Part of the experiment is trying to get to know yourself and we really see the behavioral techniques as something that need to work hand in hand with self-understanding and ultimately an attitude of self-compassion because procrastinators are really judgemental of themselves, they’re putting themselves down all the time and actually in the recent years there’s been a body of research that has demonstrated that being self-critical actually does not help you achieve goals that you want. In fact, it makes you want to avoid tasks more than keep working at tasks.
Even though a lot of times people think that by being self-critical they’re being tough and they’re pushing themselves ahead and they’re really going to keep themselves on track and they’re going to really beat this thing. It turns out that being self-critical works more often against you and being compassionate toward yourself, being accepting and forgiving of mistakes you make or ways in which you don’t quite achieve the goal that you set exactly the way you thought you would, that will help you keep going and really this is a long-term process. It’s not glamorous. It’s not magical. It’s not instantaneous. It’s daily work of taking one step at a time and valuing every step that you make.
Jane Burka: Lenora mentioned getting to know yourself better and there are some of the techniques that we recommend in our book that encourage people to get to know themselves better. For example, we talk about looking at your calendar for the coming week and take note of all the things that you already know you’re going to do. If you fill in your calendar with all the things that happen every day and the meetings you have and when you take the kids to school and when you go out for a drink after work or everything that you do, then the time that’s left over, that’s the most amount of time you have to work on something that needs to be done and that’s one of those things that comes as a surprise to people, how little time they actually have that isn’t already accounted for. That’s a way of getting to know yourself to know how your time and actually is spent.
Lenora Yuen: And you can get to know yourself also in terms of your tendency to either overestimate or underestimate time by picking a goal, making a guess as to how long it will take you to do it, especially a small, modest steps and people are often surprised because their estimates are way off base. So, that is another way to get to know something about who you are and the way that you are likely to distort reality.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I love that what you all said earlier, about treating this all as an experiment, because experiment, like there’s no stakes. If you fail there’s information in it that’s useful, if you’re a success, great. I’ve noticed when I’ve gotten stuck on something, the really small experiment that I do is like okay, I’m just going to let … Like if I have the big article to write or when I was in law school and I had my law review rhetoric and like just thinking about writing the law review articles, like oh my gosh, this fills you with dread. Sort of like that dissertation, but not as bad.
Lenora Yuen: Oh, it could be as bad, trust me.
Brett McKay: Yeah, but I was just like, “Okay, I’m just going to write for 10 minutes. That’s it.”
Lenora Yuen: Exactly.
Brett McKay: I would free write and it was just complete garbage I would give myself permission to write garbage. It was interesting, after 10 minutes, I put a timer on, I was like, “Oh, this actually feels pretty good. I’m in a groove here. I’ll keep going.”
Jane Burka: That’s actually one of the things we recommend to people, is to set a timer for a small amount of time just to get started. What you were able to do was just get started and very often when you do that you find, like you said, you were in a groove, you can keep going. People put off getting started, but actually it’s very helpful and the other thing you did that was so useful is you said, “I gave myself permission to write garbage.” You maybe would be surprised, as a professional writer, how many people cannot bear to write garbage. They can’t stand to have the first paragraph anything but perfect and so they’re writing the first paragraph over and over and over again.
Lenora Yuen: In fact, that makes me think about a woman in one of our very first procrastination groups who was suffering terrible writer’s block on a paper and what she said was, “I feel that the first draft has to be of Nobel prize winning quality.” When you’ve got that kind of demand who can write anything, and you got yourself out of that dilemma.
Jane Burka: A lot of people don’t realize that a first attempt is not what is going to be visible. When you procrastinate, then yes, your first attempt often is what’s visible because you waited so long, but Lenora and I have both published and I can have people say to me, “Well, I can’t write anything that comes out well. When I write it’s terrible.” And I say, “My writing is terrible. I’m a bad writer, but I’m a good editor.” I know that my first draft is going to be boring and then Lenora or somebody else can help make it better or I often go back and make it better, but I have to tolerate writing something that I know is bad in order to get to the point of doing it better and if you don’t allow enough time, not just in writing, but in any project, to give yourself a chance to mess around with it, to do it in a messy way, in an imperfect way, in an approximate way and then have the confidence that you can make it better, the procrastination doesn’t allow you to do any of that.
Brett McKay: Jane, Lenora, this has been a fascinating conversation, a great one. We covered a lot of ground, I feel like.
Jane Burka: Yes, we did.
Lenora Yuen: This is a very complex topic and there is a lot of ground to cover.
Brett McKay: And there’s a lot more to cover. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Jane Burka: Yeah, that’s what I was going to say. In our book we elaborate on all these themes. The book is called Procrastination: Why You Do It, What to Do About It Now and it’s available on Amazon, it’s available in Kindle form, there’s an audiotape. There’s a blog on the Psychology Today website about procrastination. Our book has a website. So, those are all the way you can find out more.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Jane, Lenora, thank you guys for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Jane Burka: Thank you.
Lenora Yuen: Pleasure for us too.
Jane Burka: You’re a really good interviewer. We appreciate it.
Brett McKay: Thank you so much. My guests today were Jane Burke and Lenora Yuen. They are the authors of the book Procrastination: Why You Do It, What to Do About It Now. It’s available on Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can find out more information about their work at ProcrastinationWhyYouDoIt.com. Also check our show notes at aom.is/procrastination, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips advice make sure to check out The Art of Manliness website at ArtOfManliness.com. You enjoy this show, have gotten something out of it, I’d appreciate if you’ve taken one minute to give us review on iTunes or Stitcher. Helps us out a lot. If you’ve done that already please share this show with your friends, the more the merrier around here. As always, thank you for your continued support. Until next time this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.