Fun fact: this book by psychotherapist Neil Fiore on “Overcoming Procrastination” has sat on my bookshelf for well over ten years.
I probably stumbled across it closer to fifteen years ago or so.
Here’s how long this book has been around: in the examples of how someone might procrastinate, not once is social media mentioned.
I might have procrastinated reading it. Just a bit.
Fiore seeks to establish procrastination not just as a self-defeating habit; he wants to understand the emotional drives that underlie the tendency to procrastinate.
What he proposes is that chronic procrastinators are not trying to frustrate the people around them or harm their own careers or lives; they’re actually responding to feeling overwhelmed, intimidated, shamed, or scared.
Fiore goes on to suggest that procrastinators have a tendency to strongly identify their worth with their work. Thus, if they do a job poorly and receive criticism, it’s as if their very person is being shamed and rejected.
This leads a procrastinator to put off starting a project, because they fear that potential for rejection and judgment.
They’ve raised the stakes so high in their own mind that even getting started on a project feels like a risk to their very sense of self.
Fiore goes on to explain that procrastinators tend to think of projects in terms of what will eventually be required to complete the ENTIRE thing, and to conceptualize these tasks as monumental undertakings that will rob them of any opportunities to play, connect with friends, or otherwise experience relaxation or pleasure.
Is it any wonder, then, that viewing the world through such lenses would result in anything BUT a chronic proclivity to procrastinate?
Procrastinators may fear failure, because if their work equals their worth, failing at work means failing at life.
Procrastinators may fear success, because the reward for good work is often more work, and they don’t feel they can handle the extra burden successfully completing a project may bring.
Procrastinators may even use the habit as a passive way of asserting some sort of control over a situation— or a life— over which they feel very little control.
Procrastinators tend to talk to themselves in “shoulds” and “have to’s”, language that can’t help but reinforce the idea that they’re being forced to perform tasks that they’d prefer not to, given their druthers.
In other words, if someone is procrastinating, it’s likely because they feel powerless, intimidated, and anxious— not because they’re trying to inconvenience or infuriate anybody.
So what’s to be done about any of it?
Fiore has a few ideas.
Among the most important parts of his “Now Habit” system of combatting procrastination is the purposeful scheduling of “guilt free play.”
Fiore states that overcoming procrastination hinges upon the procrastinator being assured that the project in front of them will not eat up every spare moment available for pleasure and non-work activities. In devising a time management system, Fiore advises one to first pencil in non-negotiable blocks for non-work activities, to set one’s mind at ease that their projects are not about to take over their lives.
Next, Fiore emphasizes breaking down the projects one has on one’s plate, deemphasizing the ultimate deadlines, and instead working backwards from those deadlines to figure out a series of potential starting points.
Fiore says that, by emphasizing where, when, and how to START a project encourages what he calls “3D thinking” about them, putting the emphasis on the practical, do-able here-and-now/near future, rather than the intimidating end result existing out there in distant deadline-land.
Fiore emphasizes the necessity of the procrastinator talking to themselves in terms of choice and commitment, rather than obligation. He says that, even if we’re going to make the choice to procrastinate, we need to do so consciously and like adults: we need to either choose to do the thing, or choose to not do the thing and accept the consequences of not dong the thing.
If we want to avoid doing the thing, that’s okay— but we need to own it as a choice we’re making (that comes with a price tag)…not a position we’re being forced into.
Fiore advances an interesting notion of “doing the work of worrying.” What he means by this is, if we’re going to worry (a frequent driver of procrastination), let’s at least make it PRODUCTIVE worrying: let’s ask ourselves what the very worst is that might happen, and let’s come up with action plans to actually HANDLE the worst that might happen, if it does happen.
Fiore also follows in the tradition of last week’s book, Karen Pryor’s “Don’t Shoot the Dog,” by emphasizing the need to associate positive experiences with getting in productive periods of work— i.e., make pleasurable experiences rewards for making progress and putting in good periods of work…as opposed to DELAYING pleasurable experiences until the ENTIRE thing is done.
(If you delay pleasurable experiences until after the entire project is done, you’re far, far more likely to say “screw it” and indulge in the pleasant experience as a means of procrastination, as opposed to using it as a reward for having made a little progress.)
Fiore advocates a time management system he cheekily calls the “Unschedule,” which has us fitting 30 minute increments of quality work between pre-scheduled periods of play and recreation. In effect, the “Unschedule” challenges us to “fit in” our work. It’s almost a reverse psychology thing: instead of work being the set in stone thing and play being the thing we’re trying to squeeze in, make PLAY the priority and SEE IF you can fit in the work, thirty minutes at a time.
Fiore also discusses the usefulness of entering the “flow state,” which is essentially using relaxation exercises to take the focus away from past frustrations or future anxieties and focus on the practical, do-able task right here, in front of you, right now.
Overall, Fiore’s approach to managing procrastination focuses on identifying the cognitions— self-talk and beliefs— that fuel procrastination, and hacking away at those cognitions in cognitive-behavioral fashion.
In the end, his technique is ultimately all about managing anxiety, which he more or less views as the main culprit behind procrastination— i.e, we procrastinate because we’re anxious that work will take over our life, we’re anxious about failure, we’re anxious about success, we’re anxious about our ability to do it in the first place.
I think Fiore hits it on the nose when he talks about how unhealthily and unhelpfully we frequently talk to ourselves. Many, many people have come to the conclusion that the only way they can motivate themselves to take action is through pressure and threats, and it just ain’t so— pressure and threats, either from the outside or from our own minds tend to have the opposite effect of motivation, i.e., procrastination and immobilization.
I think Fiore’s ideas are all sound, and learning to communicate with yourself more compassionately and effectively is definitely a place to start when combatting procrastination.
The only glitch I find with his system is that he conceptualizes procrastination almost exclusively as an anxiety-driven defensive behavior…and while that’s true for a lot of people, I think there is a subset of people for whom that might be only partially true.
I know I, for example, procrastinate not only out of anxiety— for me procrastination is also, in large part, borne out of my difficulty managing time; which, in turn, is a difficulty associated with my ADHD.
“Time” is simply a concept I have a hard time wrapping my brain around; thus, there are plenty of instances in which I’m not (consciously, at least) emotionally blocked from doing the thing, or intimidated about doing the thing, or equating my worth with my ability to do the thing…I’m just not appreciating the practical steps that need to be taken in order to realistically get the thing done.
Procrastination might be emotionally driven a lot of the time; but there’s also a skill component to time management that a lot of people just have a practical problem with.
That said, I think Fiore’s book really hits the nail on the head in many ways.
Understanding our emotional blocks to doing things that are within our capability to do is incredibly important to our ability to succeed and achieve.
I think focusing on starting, rather than finishing; prioritizing play; and learning how to talk to ourselves in the language of choice and commitment, are all incredibly useful real-world skills for almost everybody.