5. The Problem You Think You’re Solving

Look, you’re a smart person. An ambitious person. A creative person. A dedicated person. I’m pretty sure about all of that, or you wouldn’t be an activist, or reading this book.

So, how come such a smart, ambitious, creative and dedicated person can’t solve a little procrastination problem? A problem, I might add, that is entirely under your control. . . .

If you’re like many of my students, that is a question that has haunted you for years. The frustrating thing about procrastination is that it seems like it would be the easiest thing in the world to solve—“Just work harder, Sally!”—when, in reality, it is one of the hardest.

Actually, that’s not quite true. Any problem is hard to solve, if you’re not really solving it.

Huh?

I mean it—the only way to solve a problem is to solve it. If you try to solve a problem using actions designed to solve some other problem, or actions designed not to solve any problem at all, but instead to maintain the status quo, then you are bound to fail.1

Makes sense, doesn’t it? And here’s how it applies to your procrastination problem.

You probably think the root problem causing your procrastination is laziness, lack of discipline, immaturity, lack of willpower, lack of commitment or some similar character flaw.

But guess what? It’s none of those.

First of all, most procrastinators are not—I repeat, NOT—lazy, undisciplined, etc. In fact, they tend to be dynamos, at least in areas other than the one they are procrastinating in. One of the peculiar tortures of procrastination is that we are often productive in all areas except the one that is closest to our heart.

Secondly—and you will hear me say this repeatedly because it’s such a vital point—applying negative labels such as “lazy” or “undisciplined” to yourself is, from a problem-solving standpoint, worse than useless. Not only do those labels misidentify the problem and fail to motivate you into action, they actually make the situation worse by undermining your self-confidence and predisposing you to failure. Parents, teachers, coaches and other mentors all know this: criticism, shame and blame do not inspire positive behavioral change. What does work, rather, are encouragement and praise for any small step taken. And that’s not just true for kids; it’s true for everyone, at any age. Within even the most worldly and mature activist, there’s a little kid who craves, and responds enthusiastically to, praise and encouragement—and who grows resentful and contrary when subjected to criticism, shame and blame. I’ll have more to say about this in Chapter 16.

There’s also another problem: labeling. As I discussed in Part I, Chapter 11, the psychology of expectations means that people often live up or down to the labels others stick on them; so if someone repeatedly calls you, or you repeatedly call yourself, lazy or uncommitted, you are likely to one day fulfill that “prophecy.” I’ll have a lot more to say about labels in Chapter 17, but in the meantime—stop labeling yourself!

The Myth of Laziness

Think of yourself as a lazy or uncommitted person? In a book entitled The Myth of Laziness (see Bibliography), pediatrician Mel Levine, M.D., discusses how many cases of “laziness”—or, as he calls it, “output failure”—can often be traced to undiagnosed or untreated learning disabilities, teaching failures, environmental problems or distractions such as a chaotic family life. Once these causes are diagnosed and addressed, a person’s supposed “laziness” often evaporates.

His approach highlights just how important characterizing your procrastination problem properly is to solving it, as described in the next chapter.