How fear of success causes procrastination

You probably know about the fear of failure, that impending sense of doom when looking at your goals, comparing them with your abilities, and finding them lacking. But that’s not the only thing that can get you stuck, frozen and unable to move. Fear of success can do it too.

But how’s that possible? The promise of success, you might think, is a powerful motivator that should get you going in the morning and keep you going until late at night. But that’s not all it is. Imagine someone who wants to climb mount Everest. They secure funding, build a team, train like crazy for a year or more all the while imagining that spectacular moment at sunrise on top of the highest mountain in the world, at the peak of their game. They imagine standing there, looking around and wondering – “OK, so now what?” That void, that sense of the future accomplishment combined with a devastating uncertainty of where you go next is what fear of success is about.

Turns out we’re not afraid of the actual success (which is why the title is a little misleading), we are instead afraid of the loss of identity that comes with it. If you’ve ever graduated, or got that job or that girl, or travelled to that exotic place you’ve always wanted to go, you probably experienced this. It is amazing for the first few hours or days, but then it fades leaving an emptiness in its stead. After defining yourself in terms of your ultimate goal for a long time, you suddenly don’t have that which leaves you a bit lost.

Your egoic minds recognizes this potential future and can try to sabotage your progress to keep you in the chase for as long as possible. And the harder you push to reach for your goal the more resistance you’re going to experience. So what can you do? You can’t stop pushing for your goals, can you? That won’t get you anywhere either.

The usual advice to try and enjoy the path, not the destination, applies of course. If you can find joy or peace in every step along the way and hold the goal gently without being too attached to it, the resistance should lessen considerably.

The other part is feeling your fear fully, deeply, and honestly. Find that knot in your belly, that tightness in your throat, that tingling in your elbows (yeah, don’t ask) and tune into it. Imagine yourself after having achieved your goal, staring at the void and the uncertainty. Brace yourself for the unknown. And dive in. By aiming at slightly beyond your goal, at the emptiness just after it, you’ll find the freedom you need to pursue your dreams.

How fear of shame causes procrastination

You’ve got a big presentation to give in a month. All the big shots are going to be there, you’ve been working on this project for the last year and it’s going to be great. You can see the standing ovation, the accolades, the smiles. So why does day after day goes by without you starting to work on it? Why can’t you bear staring at that empty slide deck and the pull of YouTube videos is so strong? Why can’t you just sit your ass down and get to work?

What you’re experiencing is fear of shame. And even though the positive thinking part of you, reinforced by years of listening to well meaning productivity gurus, is generating the images of a standing ovation, the fearful, younger part of you is sensing the potential of crushing shame. The unplesant images don’t come as easily, but if you stay with the sensation you’ll probably note the tight throat, deer in the headlights, OMG what have I done feeling you’re dreading. The silence. The dubious looks. The desire to run away and hide under a bed.

And while you’re sitting here, getting angry at yourself for being on Reddit all day long for no reason at all, you’re missing the fact that there’s actually a profound reason for you to be running away from working on this presentation. Fear of shame is a very intense demotivator and is way sneakier and nastier than the actual experience of shame.

When we feel shame when we failed at something, it’s real, it’s strong and most of all – it’s justified. We know what happened, we know why we’re feeling this way and we usually aren’t judging ourselves for the feeling itself (just for the actions). It’s an awful sensation but because we’re not fighting it, it eventually goes away. Fear of shame on the other hand hides in the shadows and creates the perception that there’s no reason to feel what we’re feeling. So we fight it, or as is more commonly the case, we run away from it. And what’s a better place to run to than the autoplaying, autoscrolling, autoloading madness of YouTube, Netflix and Reddit?

If you think you’re bored, think again

My 6 year old came to me this morning and uttered the words that no parent wants to hear during the endless summer vacation: “Daddy, I’m booored!” Shit, what do I do now? How do I keep him occupied and off my back so I can get back to scrolling through Reddit? Wait a second… Something’s wrong with this picture. What’s going on here? And what is boredom anyway?

The simplest way to understand boredom is to think about its opposite – excitement. Bordem then is just the lack of excitement (or insufficient stimulus to be more precise). For my kid, most excitement comes from the outside. If the game he’s playing poses just the right amount of challenge, reward and sense of progress, he’s happy to play. If it doesn’t, he’s bored. But boredom comes from the inside. He’s bored when he’s sad and feeling lonely, he’s bored when he’s scared the Minecraft monsters are going to kill him, he’s bored because he doesn’t know what to build with his Legos and he’s bored because the reading app is way too hard for him. Bordem in other words, often hides a bunch of other emotions that he can’t see.

Now back to us, grownups. We get bored too. We get bored while sitting on the toilet, we get bored while eating, we get bored in the evening after work, we get bored if we’re with a group of friends and the conversation either isn’t stimulating enough or way too stimulating (e.g. a heated debate about politics). And we have the perfect response to bordem – we pull our phones out with our trusty Reddit or Twitter or Instragram feeds to infinitely scroll through and provide just the right kind of mindless stimulus to keep the bordem at bay. But as we saw with my kid, bordem is rarely just a lack of stimulus. It is often an indication of some deeper unwanted emotion trying to push through the surface that we don’t want to feel.

If you manage to notice the thought “I’m bored,” and instead of running towards the next distraction close your eyes and stay with that boredom for just a few seconds, you’ll notice how much resistance there is to just be bored without reacting. If you stay with that for a little while longer, you might notice some emotions bubbling up. It might be a sense of worthlessness or self-judgmenet, it might be anxiety, it might be a sense of overwhelm or just some garden variety tension you can’t really pinpoint. If you stay with those feelings even longer and allow the train of thoughts to gently flow through your mind, you might see what’s actually going on, what your bordem is covering up.

There’s typically one thing on your plate that is both terrifying and extremely valuable. One thing that would change the course of your life if you did it. One thing that causes so much anxiety that you’d rather forget it even exists. You know what I’m talking about. And now back to scrolling.

Why discipline isn’t the answer to procrastination

We tend to look at procrastination as a lack of discipline, which causes us to try to push ourselves harder. But as you do that you might find to your surprise that you’re procrastinating even more after a short period of sticking to your guns. So what the hell is going on? Why does applying discipline to procrastination make it worse?

You probably intuitively know this already, but you discipline and will power have a limit. If you apply too much of it, you’re going to run out. This is called “Ego Depletion” in research and it’s the reason why if you’ve skipped the cake, you’re going to have a hard time skipping the beer. And if you’ve been pushing yourself to study all day, the cake, the beer and the Netflix show will have an irresistable appeal even if you’ve firmly decided you’re going to limit all three.

The real reason we procrastinate (and keep procrastinating) is that we are running away from discomfort. In particualr we’re running away from the discomfort of feeling a negative emotion. That emotions is guilt, and guess what emotion comes up when you’re procrastinating? Yep, guilt, and a lot of it.

Let’s roll that back for a moment. Let’s say you’re looking at the stack of books you need to go through to prep for an exam and it triggers a subtle fear in you. Maybe you don’t believe you can go through all this in time, may you doubt if you can absorb all that knowledege – it doesn’t matter. What matters is that fear sets in, and fear is really uncomfortable to feel. The physical experience of tightness in the chest and throat, and the mental images of doom that accompany it are so unplesant we want to run away. This of course all happens subconciously. The only concious response is a thought: “I’m just going to watch a couple of videos and then get to it.”

And so, the need to study caused fear, and the fear caused the first bit of procrastination. And now we’re back with guilt, caused by our procrastination. Since guilt is even more unpleasant than fear, the incentive to run away from it is even more intense. So we get into a perpetual cycle of procrastination reinforcing guilt and guilt reinforcing procrastination and we aren’t even enjoying the f’ing funny cat videos anymore!

We’re always going to have fear, anger, sadness and shame causing discomfort and causing us to reach for our vices. And our vices will always create more shame and guilt and anger at ourselves, reinforcing the need to reach for the vices even more. The only way to properly deal with this cycle is to face the discomfort of our emotions directly. We need to feel our guilt, our shame, our fear – fully, without reservation, without running away. It’s going to hurt like hell, but luckily it won’t last forever. In fact, when we are able to fully feel an emotion, it usually only lasts for a few minutes and then dissipates.

And that is the measure of true courage – facing our fear, our anger, our self-doubt and in particular our shame. Face them, feel them fully, and you’ll be free of them.