Procrastinators, Rejoice! We Are Not The Problem

10/22/2017 02:42 pm ET

Are you deadline driven, or task driven?

The emotions behind motivation are different for everyone, but learning to recognize when they pop up is a huge step in understanding what drives you towards your goals. Procrastinators are often chided for leaving tasks to the last minute, but does that necessarily mean they aren’t as good at their jobs?

Dr. Mary Lamia is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst, a professor at the Wright institute in Berkeley, a writer for Psychology Today and the author of What Motivates Getting Things Done: Procrastination, Emotions and Success.

I recently interviewed Mary for the LEADx Podcast, where we discussed the difference between being task driven or deadline driven, and the emotions of failure. (The interview below has been lightly edited for space and clarity)

Kevin Kruse: You say high achievers want to get things done as soon as possible, what are some other traits of high achievers?

Dr. Mary Lamia: The business people I studied were interesting. Many of them would do things like raise their level of anxiety by challenging themselves in terms of time, so they would make a list the night before about the things they really wanted to get done the next day, and they would give a cutoff point of say 6:00 and even if they didn't start until 3:00 or 4:00, and many of them didn't. They admitted, even though they had this list, they didn't approach it until the deadline got close, and then they would race the clock and they would be so highly stimulated because they were challenged to finish all of these things before 6:00 and they always did.

Or, they would set a timer to certain intervals, or they would schedule their business travel. If they had three weeks to finish a project, they would schedule their business travel so that the time they had to finish that project was very limited and squished in there somewhere, and they always got things done. They never missed deadlines. It was absolutely fascinating, the little things they did.

There were often those situations where someone would contact me or I would be interviewing somebody, and they were just in the throes of anxiety and shame. One incredibly successful trial attorney I saw felt so bad about himself. He was around a deadline, he was getting close, and all in that week he happened to make an appointment with his internist who said, "Well, maybe if I give you some psychostimulant medication, that will help you get things done," and this guy said, "I can't take that, I don't want to take medication."

He had an appointment with another therapist who was actually an analyst as well, who said, "Well, he obviously procrastinates because he's got an issue with his father," and that he needed psychoanalysis four times a week and that would help him. He didn't want to do that, so he consulted me knowing that I was studying these things, and we talked about how he gets things done, and it was obvious. He was just in the throes of this important deadline and he thought something was really wrong with him.

That's what they do. In the midst of deadline angst, they take their anxiety and project it on other things. Like, "There must be something wrong with me,” or, "I really don't like this career," or, "Do I want to stay in this career?" Or, "Am I made for this career?" They have compulsions to do other things like take any procrastinator, at the point at which a deadline is imminent. That's when they get a million other things done. They clean their house, they clean their closet, they do the dishes, they do things they haven't done before that have been pending forever.

Then, they say, "I am so distracted. I have a problem with distraction." They don't have a problem with distraction. They have anxiety that's being mobilized by a deadline, and they're putting it into anything else. But eventually, they'll focus at the task at hand, and get it done. They're amazing people.

Kruse: How might we figure out is we are task driven people or deadline driven people?

Lamia: I think most people know if they're highly activated when they get closer to a deadline versus right away. Even though there is some confusion around it. For example, take a task driven person and a deadline driven person who has to be in an appointment at 3:00 and they have to leave the house at 2:45. Both of those styles may get a whole lot of things done because they're about to leave the house. For different reasons, though. The task driven person just wants to get all these things off their plate before they go to their appointment.

The deadline driven person sees the appointment as a deadline to do all these other things. I mean, there's so many variations on the theme, but I think people know where they're most effective. The people who don't know their motivational style are people who habitually fail. Failure is different than procrastination. Anybody I see who says, "I fail repeatedly because I'm a procrastinator and that's my problem," you can bet that their problem has nothing to do with procrastination. Their delay becomes the target of an excuse for why they fail, when in fact something else is going on with them emotionally.

People have a hard time looking at what makes them fail. Shame motivates us to save face. Some people save face by succeeding. People who habitually fail save face by making an excuse and procrastination is a great excuse.

Kruse: You're saying they're failing, not procrastinating, and it could be something else behind that. It’s not a procrastination issue.

Lamia: And it's very, very sad that some people blame it on procrastination so they never take care of the real problem. Another Psychology Today blog post I wrote is "Procrastination Is Not To Blame." The shame of defeat challenges our potential to look with interest at ourselves and to learn from it. People who repeatedly fail have a hard time looking at themselves. When you think about it, if we are the product of all the emotional memories we have, all of our memories throughout our life are stored in our brain, so whenever there is a current situation, our brain automatically, not consciously, scans every single emotional memory and comes up with what we should feel.

It's our brain's best guess at the emotion we should be feeling at the moment. If you have a history of failure, your brain is going to activate some emotion that's going to make you protect yourself in some way. Like shame. It's going to remind you of the shame of failure, and that you better do something to protect yourself and many people who have repeated failures withdraw effort, because it's so face saving to think, "I didn't do something because I procrastinated" versus, "I was afraid I would fail if I tried to do it."

Kruse: It's less shameful to say you're a procrastinator than to say you tried to do it and it didn't work.

Lamia: So it's very important for people who fail to create new emotional memories, a little at a time. Just one at a time, of approaching a situation in spite of the fear that one is going to fail, and getting it done, and having a success so that they have many emotional memories piled on all the rest of their emotional memories. They have emotional memories of success, and that's why people who succeed will tell you, success is addicting. It's addicting because every time you succeed, all of those emotional memories of your successes light up.

You feel the sense of pride. The sense of pride is not cognitive. People who say, "I do things because I want to be proud of myself," well that actually is not totally true. It's not a cognition, it is, "I do things because I can recall the joy I felt in all of my emotional memories when I succeeded before." That's what the anticipation of prideful moments really is. It's the memories of achieving in prior times. It is really addicting, so people who fail just need those little successes and need to get through it in order to prosper.

Kruse: What would be a specific challenge that we could do to try to overcome our procrastination?

Lamia: Don't say overcome our procrastination, but procrastination is not something to overcome. What we need to do instead is to take a look at how you get things done. Understand that there are emotions that motivate everything you do, and to not be afraid of looking at oneself, and being curious, and interested in one's own emotional life and to use the octane provided by your emotions to get things done.

Learn how to use that octane and see it as an octane, so if people walk away and the one thing they do is recognize that emotions are the fuel for what drives us, that will help. Because so much of the focus tends to be on getting rid of one's emotions as though they're an interference, when in fact, they're your motivation. If you walk away with that in the next 24 hours, you're way ahead of the game.

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