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The irresistible urge to resist doing what we know we should is universal, but is it a matter of laziness or something deeper?

You might be procrastinating for good reason

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Hypothetical: if you knew for a fact, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that if you invested one month of effort, that you would end up with, say, a million dollars, would you knuckle down and do it? Or continue binge watching The Good Place?

The goal in question can be anything. Maybe you want to build your own business. Maybe you want to be a well known artist who can live off your work. And the effort can be anything: releasing an MVP, finishing an illustration, or launching a blog.

Now assuming you want a million dollars, and can spare a month of effort, I’m willing to bet you’d get your ass up and get on it and wouldn’t sit about for months hating yourself, trying to manipulate yourself into action. Simplistic I know, but what does this tell us?

Generalised, if you absolutely knew that by expending some amount of effort you would definitely achieve some goal you had (that was worth the amount of effort expended) you’d probably do it.

So why do you procrastinate? I don’t know you, but boy do I know procrastination. And I think I’ve sussed out a lot of the reasons why it happens. There’s millions of opinions on this problem and techniques to overcome it, but they miss a few very important points, which I’ll illustrate.

The big one: reward and doubt

So in the hypothetical above, the reward was an absolute certainty. Everyone I know in the creative or entrepreneurial fields struggles with doubt. The doubt in question is that we can achieve the goal we’re after. This can be further broken down. Maybe you doubt that the task you’re on will get you to your goal or reward. For example, maybe you doubt the feature you’re adding to your app will result in the users you need. Maybe you doubt your goal is achievable at all. For example you might not believe that a game you’re working on will be able to find enough of an audience to make it worth your while.

If you’re like me, this doubt lingers however much you try to suppress it. And in cases like this, I propose that your brain wants you to reassess and not blindly continue something you have doubts about, so you have a gut feel urging you to not work. Procrastination. Seems pretty logical: if you don’t think what you’re doing will get you to your goal, why would you work on it? I sit on the couch. I wrangle over what I’m working on, I can’t bring myself to work on it because deep down I don’t think it’ll be worth it. So this doubt is informative, and the procrastination is practical.

Dealing with that doubt can be just as practical. Research into similar endeavours and find ways to increase your odds of success. Reassess the steps in your plan and discard what seems unlikely to work, reorder the steps, come up with new things to try. Discuss your work with friends and adjust. Do whatever you think will result in an increased chance of success, because that’ll decrease the doubt you have in what you’re doing. Getting you closer to the hypothetical from above: a certainty that expending the effort will achieve the reward.

On the other hand, this doubt can be irrational or emotional. It could be fear. Fear of failure most likely. Overcoming that particular issue will take some good old fashioned self-belief. I’m not a psychologist so techniques for assuaging fear isn’t my expertise, but do what works for you. Things like talking it over with a friend, thinking about what you’re afraid of and realising it’s irrational, with a traditional “what’s the worst that could happen?”

The doubt could also be doubt in yourself, doubt that you’re capable of completing the tasks required. If you have some deep down self-esteem issues going on about your abilities, that’s pretty clearly a serious drag on your motivation. But you can take practical steps there too. Prove to yourself how capable you are by working on something similar – make a little app, write a little, get some wins in so your brain will say “Oh yeah, I can do this stuff.” This might also involve just a little bit of something I don’t usually recommend: forcing yourself to take some tiny steps. It might be that ticking some basic boxes will raise your confidence and make you doubt your abilities less.

The effort versus the reward

Real talk, I struggled for a long time motivating myself to make another game. I knew I was capable, I’d done it before. But I also knew how much effort was required, and what the odds of success were. Effort: extremely high, odds of significant success: very low. Those in the game industry know how saturated the market is. Games are a dime a design and getting yours noticed in the various stores is extremely challenging. I knew that there was potentially years of effort required, and that it could very easily result in negligible reward.

No wonder I couldn’t make myself do it: my brain was smarter than I was. Blogs and YouTube and self-help books recommend all sorts of mental gymnastics to trick ourselves into doing something that our brains already figured out: it’s not worth it. Other blogs out there have us contorting our thinking, putting pot-plants in our growth area or whatever, scrapbooking success on our walls to trick ourselves, but our brains figured out it’s not worth it. Demotivation.

This is not a bad thing! If it turns out what you’re working on is highly unlikely to succeed, then maybe it’s a bad move. Unless you’re motivated out of moral conviction or something, like Elon Musk, then that can power you. Finding something that you’re motivated to achieve even if it’s highly unlikely is probably really hard, but really valuable.

What you really want

We’re human beings. We have needs, and we get hungry. Ever tried to get some work done when you’re hungry? Hierarchy of needs. Get fed then get back to it. But humans need more than food. Maybe you’re like many an entrepreneur, and you’ve been neglecting your social or romantic life, and you’re lonely. Maybe deep down you actually want something entirely different: maybe you don’t want to build apps at all, and there’s some other goal you haven’t discovered yet. If you’ve got more pressing issues than getting some work down, you might subconsciously resist being productive as a result.

Logically enough, your brain might be telling you not to neglect something important to you. It’s hard to be aware of these issues, and it’ll take some introspection. Once you’ve identified things that are bothering you, it’s a matter of taking steps to improve the situation. Like taking time out to socialise, or whatever convinces you that you don’t have to worry about something else, and can get some shit done instead.


Usually our behaviour is so much simpler to understand: we’re hungry so we get out of bed and make a sandwich. But the reason for why we procrastinate seems elusive. We don’t seem to have control over our behaviour. I think procrastination is just a fancy word for something simpler: not really, truly wanting to do the task at hand right at that second. Being unsure the task gets us where we want to be, being unsure if we can get our reward, needing to do something else first, or wanting to do something else entirely. If you’re procrastinating, there’s probably a logical reason for it. Sit down, think about what’s really going on in your head, deal with it, then get to work.

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