Intentionally putting something off until later does not necessarily imply that tasks are not completed well and on time. People who delay yet never miss deadlines are just as likely to be successful as those who attend to things ahead of time.1 But some people just don’t get things done and allege that their tendency to procrastinate is to blame.

Consider Donald who claims he is “procrastinating” about making an appointment with a doctor for worrisome physical symptoms he is experiencing. Generally, negative emotions such as distress or fear—commonly referred to as anxiety—motivate us to do something to avoid experiencing them or to be relieved of their effects. People who get things done, whether it is making an appointment with a doctor or completing a task at hand, make use of the information, directed attention, and motivation their negative emotions provide. Donald’s belief that he is simply procrastinating obscures what is really in the way of his taking action. This is also the case with people who suffer from repeated failure in their work or academic life and blame it on procrastination. Emotions motivate everything we do, including what we avoid doing.

Failure is painful. The emotion of shame motivates humans to save face. The shame of defeat and the fear of shame can challenge our potential to look with interest at what is happening or what has happened and to learn from it. It is no wonder, then, that people with a history of failure might cope with their feelings around a present challenge by using typical defensive responses to shame, such as withdrawing effort, avoiding any engagement with a task, or attacking themselves or others with criticism rather than looking within. Their pessimistic thoughts around the possibility of their efforts leading to a successful outcome may lead them to anticipate the familiar negative emotions associated with failure, defeat, or an assumed weakness. Shame is information that we have not met the higher standard we had set for ourselves and, as a result, we are left with an expectation that we will be negatively evaluated by others.

It’s not always easy to pull yourself up and alter a deeply engrained pattern, but the goal is to create new emotional memories of success that will override memories of failure. The following are a few guidelines for troubleshooting failing motivation:

  • Take a genuine look at what may have contributed to any failure you’ve experienced. It’s imperative that you not blame a failure to meet deadlines on procrastinating or doing suboptimal work just to put tasks behind you.
  • Determine your actual motivational style, specifically, whether you work best getting things done ahead of time or perform optimally when you race the clock.
  • Find mentors who successfully employ a motivational style that aligns with your own.
  • If the motivation to realize your goals is overshadowed by personal issues, it’s time to figure out what’s going on with you. You may need to resolve the way you think about yourself and consider what is affecting you emotionally that handicaps your success. Every person can own success, and you can claim your space in that crowd.
  • Face any shame you experience and learn from it. We can learn from errors, regrets, or failed attempts.
  • Take a few steps toward success. Be aware of the times you are motivated and what you do with the energy provided by your emotional system. Notice the thoughts that enter your mind or the feelings you have that recall past failures. Vow to create new emotional memories that involve success—one memory at a time. Achievement can be very habit forming. Start with a little, learn from any obstacles, and see what happens.

For information about my books please visit my website: marylamia.com or whatmotivatesgettingthingsdone.com

References

1. Lamia, M. (2017). What Motivates Getting Things Done: Procrastination, Emotions, and Success. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

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