Procrastination, Ignorance and Life-long Learning

Procrastination kills more than time.  At a deeper level, it kills confidence, drains energy, and squelches innovation.  Oh, we may all need to take a little time to gather our thoughts, to replenish our emotional reserves, or just to noodle through a problem.  But those are actually tactics we’re using to ready ourselves in order to dig in and progress again.  While they can be seen as procrastination if viewed in isolation, they aren’t.  Procrastination is something else entirely.  It’s passive.  It’s avoidant.  It robs us of our potential.  It’s the state of being frozen, like an insect trapped in amber, in the face of a problem which has us stumped.  It’s a symptom of a more serious malady, and unless we address it at its root cause, we’ll continue to suffer.

The root cause of procrastination is ignorance, as in a state of not knowing.  Not ignorance deep and profound, but certainly situation specific ignorance, a certain lack of applicable knowledge.  Like all symptoms, procrastination is a signal.  In this case, it’s a signal that we don’t know how to do something, solve something, or perhaps not to know how to address something.  The cure lies in gaining new knowledge.  Although, people in the midst of a procrastinating episode, don’t often make that connection.  (That’s why they stay stuck.)  We lull ourselves into inactivity with the idea that we’re waiting for insight or inspiration.  On first blush, we may attribute our inactivity to a lack of confidence, a lack of self-awareness, or we may explain our reluctance to a fear of dealing with something unpleasant.   Look more deeply, however, and you’ll find that underlying all of them is a state of not knowing how to deal with something well.

Diagnosing the problem:

When faced with a bothersome procrastinating episode, the first step out of our dilemma is to identify the precipitating area of ignorance.  We have to identify the cause of our passivity.  What are we avoiding?  What underlies our apparent lack of motivation?  The simple fact of the matter is that people solve the problems that they know how to solve.  Even if they’re ultimately wrong, they act to solve them in the ways which they believe are right.  In these situations, people don’t procrastinate, they act.  Over time, what’s left to us are an accumulation of the things that we don’t know how to solve.  Of course, these come back to trouble us again and again.  When we don’t have confidence in how to get started, or in our basic ability to generate a successful outcome, we become stalled.  We often try to avoid these situations. We might tell ourselves, “This isn’t my strong suit”.  Sometimes we wait to be rescued.  But the bottom line is that procrastination, as a coping mechanism, doesn’t lead to acquiring new knowledge.  It simply perpetuates your familiar patterns.

An effective diagnosis requires making the time to take inventory of ourselves.  Some helpful questions are as follow:

  • Do I really understand the nature of the issue facing me?
  • Can I break this problem down into more manageable parts?
  • What information would free me to take action?
  • Do I lack a skill that’s necessary for success?
  • What’s the internal dialogue that keeps me stuck?

Understanding the nature of our barriers (real or perceived) frees us to begin to act on a constructive solution.  The good news is that this diagnosis doesn’t cost money.  It usually requires little more than a bit of honest self assessment.  Of course, that’s something easier said than done.  One of the reasons we fall into procrastination is to avoid the uncomfortable feelings that we feel when contemplating the problem facing. Often those feelings come from confusing stupidity and ignorance, but not always.  We blur the difference between those ideas, that the roots of not knowing lie in an enduring character trait as opposed to a deficit that can be changed.  This is why, occasionally, a conversation with a confidant or mentor can help if we can’t make progress on our own.  The fix comes from figuring out how to resolve the dilemma.

Getting out of your rut:

My experience has taught me that the fix is simple although it isn’t necessarily easy.  The solution lies in a simple commitment to learn what you need to learn to change the situation.  At this stage, you’re probably aren’t yet ready to take direct action on the precipitating issue.  Rather, your action should be focused on learning what you need to know in order to take that direct action.  The solution may be fairly straight forward, but getting to it from where you are can require a good deal of effort.  It can be daunting.  If it was easy you probably would have done it already.

There are a lot of reasons why people hesitate before committing to tackle new learning.  Usually those reasons are based on beliefs that are erroneous at worst or over-exaggerated at best.  They’re often based on faulty lessons we’ve drawn from past experience, or occasionally they come from a lack of confidence in our ability to learn new things.  Sometimes, people simply don’t want to do the work required. These people tell themselves that it just isn’t worth the effort.  While that can be an accurate assessment in a few cases, it is more often fed by a lack of confidence in ourselves.  We all know older people who can’t access the internet or know how to use e-mail.  They say the same things that you probably say to yourself when you’re stuck.  “It’s too hard.”  “I just don’t understand all that technical stuff.”  Or, best of all, “I just don’t see a use for it.”  They say these things with all seriousness even in the face of their kids or grandchildren being computer literate before they start school.  Fear of learning typically isn’t rational; it’s emotional and simply needs an act of courage to begin to change the equation.

There are three kinds of learning necessary to beat procrastination.  One or all three might be operating in any specific situation.

  1. Acquiring new information
  2. Acquiring a new skill
  3. Removing an emotional roadblock

Acquiring new information:

Most people haven’t done much rigorous thinking since they left school.  School is where we learn and after that we expect ourselves to know!  We don’t.  It’s a life-long commitment to learning that keeps us vital and growing. Stopping when we don’t know what to do simply isn’t adaptive.  Investigate, explore, read, or ask questions.  Follow your curiosity or, if you aren’t really curious, then your sense of duty.  Children start out in school with a love of learning.  Human beings begin life with a drive for mastery over their environments.  We never lose those traits, they are an inherent part of our nature, but we can learn to stifle them.  If we are to progress we need to find and nurture those parts of ourselves again.  Rest assured that whatever it is that you learn you are better off than choosing to stay ignorant.  A friend, a teacher, or a mentor can be valuable in making progress, but all that you basically need is the will to learn something you don’t presently know.

Acquiring a new skill:

Acquiring a new skill is different than acquiring new information.  You can’t read a book or listen to a lecture and gain a skill.  Developing a skill requires practice and rehearsal.  The value of practicing and rehearsing is helped tremendously by feedback, especially if it is near in time to when you practice and if it is specific.  Good and bad, or right and wrong, aren’t nearly as helpful as comments like harder, softer, left, right, more detailed or less detailed and the like.  If we are working alone, especially in the beginning stages our self-feedback is usually evaluative rather than specific.  Especially early on, it tends to be negative, for we haven’t gotten to the point where we are good at it yet.  At that stage negative assessments are discouraging and, if frequent enough, cause us to quit.  Once again, a friend, a seasoned coach, or a wise mentor can be a great learning aid.  If you are on your own, avoid the harsh judgments rather identify the specific steps you can take to make improvements.  Find the good in what you’ve done and build on it.

Removing an emotional roadblock:

The best way to beat a fear is to face it.  Avoiding a fear makes it grow.  Facing it gives us data on what to do better or what to do instead the next time we are in a similar situation.  Dwelling on all the things that could go wrong is simply rehearsing failure.  Avoiding emotionally unpleasant tasks simply prolongs the pain.  On the other hand, facing those tasks gives us experience that can lead to new knowledge that moves us closer to realizing our potential.  Developing a plan and working it is building for success.  Our self-talk, when faced with something that makes us anxious, often makes the situation more frightening.  When we tell ourselves that we can’t do something we ensure failure.  When we acknowledge our fear, but tell ourselves we must do it anyway, we find a way.  Be your own ally.  Place your bet on yourself.  You can be rigorous and demanding in your evaluation of your performance but you must also be kind if you are going to grow.

Beating procrastination:

It is in these ways that we can overcome debilitating procrastination.  Recognize that procrastination is a symptom of an area of ignorance on your part.  Seek to understand what it is that you need to learn.  Attack the problem by acquiring new information, new skills, or by facing the emotional roadblocks that stand in the way of what you have to do.  When you turn an episode of procrastination into an opportunity to learn, you win.  Perhaps not all at once, but definitely you’ll win in the end.

© 2009 – 2015, Daniel D. Elash, PhD. All rights reserved.