22. Defeating Your Fears: The Process in Detail

Let’s look at each step of the Fear Defeating Process individually.

Step 1. Use Mission Management and Time Management to establish reasonable goals and a reasonable schedule.

By now, hopefully, you understand the importance of Mission Management and Time Management, and won’t be tempted to skip those steps. I won’t repeat the information in Parts I and II of this book—just remind you that setting reasonable goals and a reasonable schedule is the primary catalyst of success, while setting unreasonable goals and an unreasonable schedule, or no goals and no schedule, is the primary catalyst of failure.

Step 2. Start your work: catch yourself procrastinating.

To deal with your procrastination, you need to be able to catch yourself in the act of doing it. This step will either be very easy or very hard, depending on how deeply you “zone out” when you procrastinate.

As mentioned earlier, many people enter a kind of trance when they procrastinate—that trance is the whole point of the procrastination, really, as it allows you to avoid doing your work without experiencing pain or guilt. (Those come later, when you look back at your wasted day.) When you’re in that trance, you’re only dimly aware of what you are doing, and the hours just seem to melt away.

Some people don’t enter too deeply into the trance. They can be in the middle of an unscheduled video game and think, “Oops! I’m procrastinating.” If you can do that relatively quickly, then you’ve completed this step.

If, however, you are one of those people who really zones out, it may take some time and practice for you to reliably catch yourself early in the act of procrastinating. One thing that may help is to get into the habit of asking yourself, at fifteen- or thirty-minute intervals, “Am I doing what I’m supposed to be doing, or am I procrastinating?”

Keep working at it, and eventually you’ll be able to quickly and reliably catch yourself in the act of procrastinating.

Step 3. Don’t criticize or berate or shame yourself!

As I’ve said many times in The Lifelong Activist, self-criticism does nothing to solve your procrastination problem, and instead is likely to make it worse. Don’t do it.

Instead of criticizing yourself, be an objective, compassionate observer and analyst of your own behavior. Tell yourself, “Oh, I’m procrastinating.” Do not even add a mildly negative phrase such as, “Too bad.”

Step 4. Start journaling.

You have caught yourself procrastinating: now’s the time to figure out why. Your main tool for doing this is journaling, which will help you (a) defuse your panic, (b) characterize the precise nature of your obstacles, and (c) come up with solutions for overcoming those obstacles. Journaling isn’t hard, but there are a few tricks to it that I’ll share with you in Chapter 23. The important thing to note here is that the moment you catch yourself procrastinating, you should stop whatever you are doing and begin journaling.6

There are many ways of journaling, incidentally, but the one I want you I want you to do here is the uninhibited “stream of consciousness” type journaling that is also sometimes called “free writing.” It basically “dumps” the content of your thoughts and feelings, in undiluted, uncensored format, onto the page (or screen). For this kind of journaling, spelling and grammar don’t matter: just get everything down as honestly and as fast as you can.

If you are desperate to get some work done, you may be reluctant to stop and journal. Journaling may even seem like a waste of time. In reality, however, it is the very best use of your time, as it is your main tool for solving your procrastination problem. The thirty minutes or one or two hours you invest in journaling now will be returned to you a hundredfold, once you start to overcome your obstacles and work more productively.

NOTE: Steps 5a, 5b and 5c all happen simultaneously while you’re journaling.

Step 5a. Defuse your panic.

As discussed in the Chapter 19, you can’t solve problems while panicked. So your first step, before getting down and dirty with your procrastination problem, is to defuse any panic you may be experiencing.

Fortunately, journaling is a “miracle cure” for panic. The simple act of writing down your problem is often all it takes to relieve a lot of the anxiety and panic surrounding it. Psychologists have even discovered that the simple act of naming the problem, which you can also do as part of your journaling, is often enough to do the trick. After a journaling session, you should feel mentally and even physically more relaxed.

Journaling is, in fact, powerfully healing. It’s a way of giving yourself the time, attention and respect most of us crave but never get enough of. It also provides a way for you to really focus in on your problems, which empowers you to solve them. It’s no wonder that journaling is an accepted therapeutic tool for working with many types of distressed people, including cancer survivors, victims of violent crime, troubled teens and people in jail.

Journaling yourself to a calm, centered, reflective state of mind can take a few minutes or a few hours: the important thing is not to rush it. If you are journaling for a long time—with fear, confusion and other strong emotions pouring out of you and onto the page—it’s because you need to. Don’t be impatient: trust the process and understand that (1) this intensive-journaling phase is one that you probably have to go through; and (2) it won’t last forever. In a few days or weeks, you will probably be generally less anxious or panicky, and have a better handle on your obstacles than you ever did before. You will probably also be able to calm yourself much more quickly than in the past, and use journaling mainly for its analytical and problem-solving benefits (5b and 5c).

Important Note

Journaling sometimes uncovers memories that we have trouble handling, including memories of childhood abuse. It can also force issues to our attention that we have been in denial over, usually because they are painful. Either event can be traumatic. If journaling isn’t helping you calm down but, rather, is making you more upset, or if it is raising issues that you are not sure you can handle, see a therapist or other professional. You may even wish to consult a therapist before you start journaling, if you are concerned about how the process will affect you.

Step 5b. Characterize your obstacles.

At the same time you’ve been calming down, you’ve also, in your journal, been creating a “snapshot” of your mental state. This snapshot is likely to tell you exactly why you’re procrastinating—i.e., the precise nature of your obstacles.

It’s important to characterize obstacles precisely, because the more precisely you characterize them, the more focused and effective a solution you can come up with. Trying to solve a problem you haven’t accurately characterized is an exercise in futility—in fact, it’s probably what you’ve been doing all these years when working on your “problems” of laziness, lack of discipline, etc. All of that effort, directed at the wrong targets, didn’t solve your procrastination problem, did it?

Use your journal to create a list of the specific obstacles (thoughts and feelings) that are preventing you from continuing with your work at this moment. For instance, suppose you should have been writing a grant proposal, but spent the past hour doing all kinds of other stuff instead. In the course of your journaling, you discover that the reasons you haven’t been writing are one or more of the following:

• You hate to write, and have never been confident of your writing skills.

• You are pretty sure you won’t get the grant, so the whole project seems futile and a waste of time.

• You don’t like the project the grant is funding, so if you do get the grant, you’re going to be stuck doing something you don’t want to do.

• The people who promised to help you have made themselves scarce, so you’re stuck doing everything yourself.

• Fundraising isn’t in your job description.

• Fundraising is, in fact, several grades above your pay level, and you’re not getting paid to do it, so you feel exploited.

• Your work situation overall is not very happy, which interferes with your ability to motivate yourself for this project.

• You are worried about things in your personal life, and that worry interferes with your ability to focus on this project.

• You are in love, which interferes with your ability to focus on this project.

• You’re not feeling well.

• Your computer keeps crashing.

These are all Logistical or Situational Obstacles, and several also hint at one or more Big Three Obstacles underneath. For instance, “hate to write” could be grounded in perfectionism or negativity. The fact that the solution to many of these Logistical or Situational obstacles is simple, or even trivial, I’ll discuss below.

First, however, I want to be very clear that all of the above obstacles are not just reasonable, but understandable and forgivable. In other words, nothing to be ashamed of. This shouldn’t be used as a license to procrastinate, however. To live a happy, successful life, you must learn to persevere even in the face of stress or misfortune. So . . .

Step 5c. Design a solution for overcoming your obstacles.

The solution to the Big Three obstacles is, as discussed in Chapters 15 through 18, to replace dysfunctional thoughts and behaviors with functional ones.

Once you do that, and once you defuse your panic, you may be able to easily overcome your Logistical and Situational Obstacles. What’s amazing, actually, is how many even intractible-seeming obstacles turn out to be rather easily overcome, once they are exposed to the light of day via journaling. It’s like in The Wizard of Oz, when Toto pulls back the curtain and reveals the Almighty Oz to be a flim-flam man. Pull away the “curtain” of your panic and dysfunctional thinking, and your toughest obstacles are often revealed to be small and easily solved.

To repeat Jerry Weinberg’s wonderful quote: “The problem is not the problem. The problem is your reaction to the problem.”

So:

• You hate to write, and have never been confident of your writing skills. SO, you ask a coworker or friend to edit your writing.

• You are pretty sure you won’t get the grant, so the whole project seems a waste of time. SO, you check with your boss, and perhaps others, to see if your assumption is warranted. If it is, then you talk with your boss about canceling the project or reworking it so that it’s more likely to succeed.

• You don’t like the project the grant is funding. SO, you see if you can rework the project so it’s more acceptable, or find someone else in your organization to manage it.

• You feel exploited. SO, you decide to either discuss this situation with your boss, or to do the project but start looking for another job as soon as possible. If nothing else, the project will look good on your resume . . .

Your Situational Obstacles, as discussed earlier, tend to involve other people or circumstances not entirely within your control. As such, they tend to be harder to overcome than the Big Three or Logistical Obstacles. The steps you need to take, however, are often just as straightforward—it’s the implementation, or “taking them,” that can be painful. If, for instance, the Situational Obstacle is a health problem, you can plan to make an appointment with a medical specialist. (Expensive, time-consuming and scary.) If it’s a troubled relationship, you can have a frank talk with your partner, or plan to consult a couples counselor. (Ditto.)

Go ahead and use your journal to design detailed solutions to your logistical and situational obstacles.

Step 6. Start to implement the solution and, if possible, return to your path.

Your goal here is to implement just enough of the solution you’ve designed so that you can calm down enough to return to your daily path—i.e. the work you are supposed to be doing. You don’t want the solution itself to become a form of procrastination, after all.

Sometimes, just writing out the problem in detail in your journal is enough to get you back on your path . . .

Or, writing out the solution . . .

Or, making a phone call or two . . .

Or, taking a few more substantive and time-consuming steps . . .

Again, there’s no wrong way to do this, and you should take as much time as you need to stop panicking and calm down, especially early on. Eventually, however, you should be able to return back to your path in less and less time.

Figure 3. Back on the path!

Step 7. Celebrate your victory.

It doesn’t matter whether you’ve returned fully to your path or not, or even if you returned at all. If you’ve made it this far in the process, you are victorious. You are finally grappling with your procrastination problem in a meaningful way, perhaps after years of fear, confusion and dithering. That’s a huge step, and you should give yourself huge amounts of credit for it.

If you don’t believe me—if you think that only a “clear win” against your procrastination problem is worth celebrating—then please go back and reread Chapter 15, Perfectionism.

As I’ve mentioned repeatedly, it is important to celebrate every small achievement or victory in every area of your life, and never to bash yourself for any perceived “failures.” Most of us grow up oppressed by too much negativity and criticism, and we continue to be oppressed by those in adulthood. It is up to us to counteract that negativity, both for ourselves and for those around us.

So, congratulate yourself—a lot. Call up a good friend and boast of your achievement. Treat yourself to a movie, CD, bubble bath or sinful dessert. Or all four! Make a fuss—if you don’t, who will?

This is not merely an exercise in feeling good, although that itself is a worthwhile goal. It also helps you “own” your victory, and the skills that went into achieving it, so that you have that memory and those skills readily available the next time you do battle with your old nemesis, procrastination.

Step 8. Repeat as needed.

Even if, this time around, you score a spectacular success—meaning, you are able to quickly defuse your panic, overcome your obstacle(s) and return to your path—you shouldn’t consider your procrastination problem licked. Procrastination is a wily, persistent enemy: it will return. So, be prepared to repeat this process as often as it takes—and occasionally, throughout your entire life. Rest assured, however, that by persisting you will get to . . .

Step 9. Watch change happen!

When I teach my students these techniques for defeating their fear-based procrastination, many begin to make amazingly fast progress at their goals. That’s because, in contrast to their negative self-image of being lazy, undisciplined or uncommitted, they are actually highly energetic, highly disciplined and highly committed. The problem is, as discussed earlier, that they were trying to solve the wrong problem. Once they start trying to solve the right one—their fears, obstacles and panic—many shoot ahead like arrows toward their goals, often making more progress in a few weeks than they had in the previous few years. That’s because beating procrastination is an act of self-liberation. Begin to conquer your procrastination problem, and you begin to redefine yourself and your possibilities.

Self-liberation is an exciting journey to make, and an inspirational one to witness. I have no doubt that many readers of The Lifelong Activist are poised to make that journey within a very short time. (If they weren’t, they wouldn’t have picked up the book to start with.) If you hunger for self-liberation, the key is to start following the advice in this book but not to expect too-quick progress: to set modest, attainable goals; focus on the journey, not the destination; and remember that the time to tackle fear is either immediately after you become aware that you are experiencing it, or, better yet, before you experience it, by empowering yourself (see Chapter 27).

Now, onto journaling and other tools for change . . .