February 6, 2016

You're Not Afraid of What You Think You Are

You're Not Afraid of What You Think You Are:
Procrastination is a Fear of Inaction

A while ago I made a rule that I'm not allowed to sit at my desk unless I'm working. It's my strategy to defend my work space from distraction. If I want to browse online I have to go sit somewhere else. A side-effect of my rule is that I no longer have to 'get to work', 'read a book', or 'write a post or essay'; I only have to sit at my desk. Once I'm there I'm working by definition. But I discovered that my rule has a reciprocal effect. I don't avoid work anymore, I just avoid sitting down. Avoiding my chair has become a symbol of my work avoidance in general. So I had to ask myself, "Why am I afraid to sit in my desk chair? Why am I afraid to work hard?"

Almost everyone can empathize with the burden of procrastination, but I'll wager that almost no one knows why they do it. I'll be so bold as to say that not even the psychologists and productivity experts know why. Consequently they only compound the problem.

I'm usually told that I procrastinate because I'm afraid of failure, or rejection, or my own high standards. Conventional wisdom tells me that my neurotic perfectionism overburdens me: I've spent too much time studying history and now in my heart-of-hearts I've become convinced that either I'll be remembered for greatness or I'll evaporate into the oblivion of historical irrelevance. Conventional wisdom tells me that my fear of failure and rejection paralyzes me. Both are devastating to the ego, and if I never try then I'll never fail.

Inaction is the only way to fail
The conventional answers aren't only wrong, they're destructive. They convince me that I'm afraid to try or to work hard but the opposite is actually true.

I've spent hours hovering over my desk, my books, and my notebooks thinking about working but not quite committing. I've told myself that because my ambitions are daunting the prospect of beginning is too intimidating. But I've told myself a lie. In fact, at its core procrastination is the false belief that I'm afraid to act. The truth is, procrastination is an extreme fear of inaction.

I'm not afraid of merely failing, I'm afraid of not achieving. The two are completely and radically different. Success or failure is not a binary state, we always fail and succeed by degrees. In simple quantitative terms it's indisputable: if a score of 50% is failure, it's only partial failure; it's still better than 0%. There's no world where 0% is anything but absolute failure, and 0% is only the consequence of not acting. If my standards are perfection — and it's well, they should be — then I fear non-achievement, inactivity, and nothingness. When I try and fail, when I work hard and I'm rejected, then I've achieve something, just not enough. Not-good-enough is better than not-at-all because it's a first and necessary step toward real success.

The great self-deception
I'll use a concrete example: one of my goals this year is to write 100 pages of a novel. If I write 50 pages I haven't completely succeeded but I'd be a fool to think that I've completely failed. I only genuinely fail if I don't write at all. The fear I have to face in the pursuit of my goal is the fear of not trying.

In fact, I fear the failure of inaction so much, my mind comes up with a defense mechanism to deal with it: denial. The idea that I'm overburdened by the weight of perfection and accomplishment is one of my mind's most destructive denial strategies. When I avoid sitting at my desk to write, it's not the thought of getting to work that weighs on my mind. Instead, I'm afraid to admit that I've been wasting my life by not working, so I don't do anything that will force me to admit it. I avoid starting because starting confronts me with my past and present inactivity. It's just too difficult to face the fact that I'm already living in the midst of my fear. It's easier to say, "I actually fear that other thing, action." What a lie.

Run from fear
Of course, this is entirely irrational. Instead of avoiding my desk, I need to recognize that if not sitting at my desk is what I'm afraid of, then the solution is to sit down as fast as I can.

Our fear is not always destructive (though I won't deny that it can be). As a basic instinct it keeps us alive. But why not manipulate that feeling when we can? In the case of procrastination, I don't need to learn to live with my fears, I need to run from them. I fear inaction, I'm afraid of kicking back on the couch and watching TV; so I need to escape the situation, I need to retreat to the only place I'm not afraid to be: at my desk, working. The more time I spend working, the less I have to live in a world of fearful inaction and destitute failure. And action has the added incentive of being enormously rewarding.

I fear a blank page. So what have I done? I've refused to open the notebook. As long as the cover remained closed I didn't have to face the blank space that I fear. I'm afraid to acknowledge the fact that as I stand and ponder writing, I'm not writing. But the page is still there. Leaving my notebook closed only avoids the fact that the page remains blank, but it doesn't do anything to solve the problem. In this case the only way to avoid my fear is to eliminate the blank page by filling it with words.

And now, as soon as I submit my final period I'll be faced with the renewed terror of inaction. There's only one escape: I need to find something else to write.
Post script: This is only a concrete application of a theory of phobia that I believe is very general. I plan on working out this notion of fear to help understand a myriad of human behaviors and phenomena from relationships to addiction to death.