Procrastination is caused by emotions
How emotions can cause us problems is something you can probably understand. How unconscious feelings can cause deep systemic and lasting problems is a bit more difficult to understand. Have you ever, for example, asked yourself what could cause procrastination? It may seem far fetched, but procrastination is caused by emotions.
Emotions versus states
Most of our daily lives we do not ‘suffer’ from big emotions like fear, anger, sadness. And if we do (especially if it lasts) we know that we suffer from some kind of emotional imbalance.
Our everyday experiences are not expressed in emotions but in states. A state is your way of being in the moment. For example you could feel ‘open’, ‘connected’, ‘curious’ and so on. No big emotions here but just states of mind. And as you register your day to day life you will notice that your state fluctuates throughout your day.
Stress and procrastination
Procrastination is the state people experience when they need to do a task at hand, but they postpone the actual doing of that task. To procrastinate is a very common problem, and sometimes, with very big consequences.
When the postponed task is finally performed it is often done at the very last moment. As if some sort of pressure or time constrain is needed to finally do that what needs to be done.
Stress is a very common consequence of procrastination. This is easy to understand. Because when you know you need to do a task, and postpone it all the time, till you have no other option because you are running out of time, stress seems a logical experience.
Postponing the solution
A lot has been written about what could be the cause of procrastination in the hope this could lead to some sort of ‘solution’ for this problem.
For example it has been written that procrastination can be caused by poor planning skills, or a lack of motivation, even some form of attention deficit, and perhaps a learning disability and so on. I have learned through the years that most of these ‘causes’ are challenging to solve. People have a really hard time implementing the solutions prescribed and the solutions are quite often postponed in themselves. Even people who are highly motivated to change their procrastinating behavior get stuck regularly. It’s not for a lack of wanting to change, the solutions for these causes just don’t seem to do the trick.
College students procrastinating
I have worked with quite a few college students that have this particular problem. There are a variety of behaviors that can lead to procrastination.
A common way of behaving might go as followed: A test is coming up and a certain amount of time for preparation is essential to be able to make the test. The student knows that, and understand the urgency of this deadline. However every day when the notion comes up to study for the test, some other more appealing thing pops up. Things like: playing video games; hanging out with friends; watching Netflix; smoke some pot or any other thing that seems more appealing than studying. And even though the deadline draws nearer, with all consequence in sight, picking up a book just does not seem to make the priority list. Even when the consequences can be serious.
Almost kicked out of college
I worked with a physics student who is bright and self-aware, but he managed to get almost kicked out of university. Why? Because he managed to exceed every timetable the school had set for him. He did not do his tests on time but managed to get a second chance most of the times. When that second chance came along, he still managed to just do just the bear minimum. The consequence? He almost failed every test.
But this was not the only thing he postponed. To be able to live his daily life he had to apply for a scholarship so he would have the required funding. You guessed it, he also postponed that to that very last moment.
Now this had been going on for some years until I got an email from him saying: “You got to help me, I am going to be kicked out of school”.
As this seemed like an urgent situation, we planned a first appointment within days of that email.
A procrastination nightmare
“It’s a nightmare”, he said when he walked through the door. “I normally do my studying in the library, but it’s closed, and I have to work in my student flat, it’s just a nightmare, everything is a nightmare.”
We talked for a while about what was going on for him and how long he had been experiencing this ‘nightmare’. He recalled many situations where he just “missed the strength to start studying”. This ‘lack of strength’ led to postponing almost anything related to studying.
As he summarized all his experiences he gasped, “I feel so much frustration, why can’t I succeed?” He seemed to get more and more emotional and I asked him: “When you feel all that, what are you predicting that’s is going to happen?”
He immediately responded. “That I won’t make it and I have to give up”.
This shook him. The awareness of the unconscious prediction he was making about his own experience changed the look on his face. He spontaneously started to recall experiences in the past where he just couldn’t put his mind to it. I could tell he was getting anxious. I asked him: “what do you experience?”
He replied: “It’s like a huge mountain in front of me, it feels awful, I just want to run away.” By the way he was looking I could tell he was almost about too.
Light in the dark
“How big is that mountain?” I replied.
His hands reach up to the ceiling, “It is huge, no way around it and it is dark, pitch-black.”
As he is gazing up to this enormous mountain in his inner landscape* I propose the following. “Let’s do a little experiment.”
“Imagine you have a remote control in your hand, and this remote only has one function, it can turn the darkness of the mountain in front of you into a lighter shade.” “Are you up for that?”
“Yeah I am willing to give that a try.” As he is concentrating a couple of minutes pass by and he starts to relax.
“The mountain is brighter now”, he tells me, “but what’s is funny if that the mountain seems to be shrinking at the same time.”
“What difference would it make for you if the mountain remains like this when you have a deadline for something?”
“My whole life would be different!” “I would feel no frustration anymore and could actually be productive.”
“Would you want to give that a try for the next two weeks?”
“Sure” he says. As he walks out of the door, he stops and says: “I cannot believe what I am feeling in my body right now. I feel content with myself, as if I am free, and what is even stranger, I cannot feel the frustration anymore.” “All these heavy emotions, it is as if they are gone, just gone!”
Feelings create your behavior
The way we feel determines how we behave. Many times we are not aware of this at all. We just notice our behavior, and feel frustration when we want to do something but postpone doing it. It is almost impossible to get a sense of what is going on at a more fundamental level by ourselves. Unconscious emotions arise from the unconscious predictions we make. And all of this is outside our conscious awareness. The only thing you notice is the end state that all of this creates: procrastination!
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