19. PANIC!: The ObstacleAmplifier

Important Note

The “panic” referred to throughout this chapter is the ordinary panic of everyday life. If you suffer from disabling anxiety or panic attacks, you should see a doctor or psychologist.

Remember the negativist response in Chapter 16?

What a disaster. I’m such a dope, a complete loser. I always screw up. I don’t know why I even bother to try. And this town—it’s full of jerks. It was a dumb idea to try to teach them anything. They just don’t get it. I feel like crap. I just can’t stand it. I’m going to get a quart of ice cream and rent a bad movie and crawl into bed.

What if, instead of that little speech, the activist had reacted this way, instead:

What a disaster. I’m such a dope . . . oh, well, I could keep dwelling on this, but why bother? There was no real harm done, and I really did try my best, so I shouldn’t dump on myself for it . . . In the meantime, I’ve got other work to do. I’ll spend a few minutes making some notes on the experience, and maybe call a friend for support, but after that I’ll get started planning this weekend’s demo.

Notice how, in the second speech, the activist consciously interrupts her negative thoughts and introduces a more functional line of thinking.

A key difference between the activist in the first example and the one in the second may be panic. Everyone experiences regular episodes of fear, anger and disappointment; and people in challenging professions such as activism probably experience those emotions several times a day. Non-procrastinators can usually experience those emotions briefly and then return to a positive, or at least neutral, mood and continue to do their work. Procrastinators cannot: they panic, and their panic amplifies their fear and anxiety until they can no longer function. Then they retreat into dysfunctional behaviors such as perfectionism, negativity and hypersensitivity.

The other thing panic does, besides amplify negative emotions, is disable your coping mechanisms. This could, in fact, be the definition of panic: the state of being unable to cope. Someone who is able to change a tire during practice runs in her driveway, but forgets how to do it when she has a flat on the side of a highway, is panicked. So is someone who knows a school subject well, but bombs the test; or who plans and practices for an important meeting, but screws it up.

Students frequently come to me with problems that they claim to have no idea how to solve. I ask them, “What advice would you give someone else with the same problem?” and they invariably rattle off a good solution without even stopping to think about it. They can do that because it’s usually much easier to solve other people’s problems than our own, mainly because we panic over our own.

“Stealth Panic”

We’re all familiar with the type of high-energy panic where you feel frantic and out of control. But panic often happens much more quietly than that. What I call “stealth panic” may actually be a more common problem for procrastinators.

Stealth panic is what happens when you sit down to do your work at 9:00 a.m. and then get a sudden, irresistible urge to do something else, like get a cup of coffee. You don’t feel panicked—it actually feels like a calm, even trivial decision—but wham! You’ve been bumped off your path. Sometimes this happens even before 9:00 a.m., so that you don’t even make it to your desk.

Stealth panic often precipitates a kind of trance state that lets you keep procrastinating. First you get the cup of coffee, then you read the newspaper, then you make a personal call, and then you do some Internet shopping—and then, suddenly, it’s time for lunch. All the while, you’re semi-aware that you should be doing something else, but never quite aware enough, or focused enough, to actually stop what you’re doing and get back to work.

The Solution

We now arrive at the true heart of fear-based procrastination. Minimize or eliminate your panic, and you should be able to manage your emotions and continue with your work. Or, as my teacher Jerry Weinberg, says, “The problem is not the problem. The problem is your reaction to the problem.” This would seem to put a lot of pressure on you, but in reality it takes a lot of the pressure off. What it means is that, thanks to your panic, you are probably perceiving your problem as being much worse than it actually is. In Chapter 20, you’ll see how, once you remove panic from the equation, even the worst-seeming situations can become much more manageable.