A Surprising Cause of Procrastination

Mark: "I hate my job.  I drag myself into work everyday. I should look for a new job. What's the use. I'll probably never find one and who'd want to hire me? I'd feel guilty leaving the family business. Dad expects me to work here. What choice do I have?"
Tom (his buddy): "What would you want to do instead?"
Mark: "Who knows! I've never really asked myself that question. I've always done what's expected of me."
Tom:"What about going back to school? I notice you enjoy reading the travel section of the paper. And you always beeline to the travel section of the bookstore. What about becoming a travel agent? "
Mark:"Can you imagine me travelling to Istanbul? Yeah I've thought about it. I got applications to take some night courses. I've had the  applications on my dresser at home for over two years.  I kept telling myself I should call, but now the papers are coffee-stained and yellowed."
Tom: "Well call them up now and get a new application."
Mark:"At my age? I'd be sitting in a class with teenyboppers."
Tom:"You don't know that and even so – who  cares! If you love travelling, go for it. Take night classes while you support yourself with this job, then, when you have the skills, get a job with a travel agent."
Mark: "It's no use. I'll just put up with my job."
Tom:"For life? You're so grumpy and depressed all the time. Why would you do this to yourself?"
Mark: "You don't understand."
Tom:"What don't I understand? You're a pain to talk with sometimes. You complain and complain and yet you never do anything to make your life better."
Mark:"What do you mean?"
Tom:"You complain of back pain, but you won't see a doctor even though you say you will. You complain everyday that you need to  exercise and lose weight. You say you're going to join the gym. You've been saying that for years. You say you want to ask Lori out on a date. I watch her flirt with you, and you have not made a move. She'll be married with kids before you ever pick up the phone to call her. You love travelling, but you only sit and dream about it. You never even take a trip to the beach. You treat yourself as if you're in some prison. I'm sick of your moping. You never do anything for yourself. You sit at the bar, watch TV and go to a job you hate. What a life!"

Does this sound  like someone you know? A friend? A sister? A parent? Does this describe you? What's going on here? What would explain not doing what is objectively good for your life: pursing a career that you'd  love, exercising, losing weight, going to the doctors when your back aches and seeking a romantic partner? Although there are other causes for procrastination (e.g., lack of time management  skills, forcing yourself to do something you don't like, rebelling against a controlling person in your life, having conflicting values, perfectionism), I want to focus in on a specific category of procrastination that stems from low self-worth.

Compare Mark to someone who hates his job, and figures out a plan to take night courses to prepare for his dream  career (e.g., travel agent). He tactfully tells his family "I'm sorry that dad will be disappointed. I hope he will give me his whole-hearted support as I pursue my lifelong dream." He doesn't like his 20 extra pounds so he signs up and goes to the gym regularly.

What explains the difference between Mark and this other person? Why is one person  procrastinating his life away and the other person actively pursuing his dreams?

What keeps Mark or you from getting that job, asking that person out on a date,  applying to college, or not planning that longed-for vacation?  In what respect do you sell yourself short? Dr. Frank Bruno, in his book, Stop Procrastinating , quotes a woman:   "I look back on my life and think about what I might have done, what I might have been. And it makes me feel angry with the foolish person I was." Procrastination is robbing Mark of his life – it's the opposite of valuing yourself, being focused and goal directed. But what ideas are causing his procrastination?

What would explain Mark's procrastinating on things that are objectively good for him (e.g., finding a better job or a lifetime partner)? How do we start to make sense of the fact that he puts his dreams and goals, his top values anywhere but at the top of his to-do list?

Problem 1: Valuing your life

Mark does not take his life and the achievement of his own happiness seriously. Why? Why did he never ask himself what he really wanted to do in life? Why, when he identifies an interest (e.g., travelling), does he keep this at arms length?  Why is  he self-sabotaging and settling for a dreadfully boring life?

Listen to Mark talk to himself: "I've always gone through life feeling guilty. I don't know why. It's not as though I'm a bad person. It's hard for me to think about what I want. I've always felt that other people are more important than I am. They own the world. I don't know why. I just don't feel as though I deserve to go after what I want. Besides, it seems selfish. It would hurt dad. He wants me to work in his factory and who am I to say no. After all, he is my father and he did pay for my education."

How many errors can you discover in Mark's self-talk?

1. Mark is carrying around a vague feeling of guilt that he has never identified. If you feel guilty, it's important to figure out what you did to earn the guilt. If you can identify nothing, then refuse to take on guilt that you have not earned.
 2. Mark views other people as more important.  Why does Mark put himself in a one-down position with respect to his own life? Who can be more important in his own life and more deserving of attention to Mark than himself?  Should his father's needs, desires and whims come ahead of his personal goals?  If so, why? This position cannot be rationally defended.
 3. Mark feels that other people own the world.  He needs to identify in what way he feels that they own the world. Mark may discover that he too can "own the world" by being active in designing his own life. And by owning the world, he doesn't deprive anyone else from pursuing his or her individual dreams.
4. Mark feels he doesn't deserve to go after his dreams. This translates into the thought "I'm undeserving and therefore it would be an injustice for me to pursue my dreams." An injustice to whom? The exact opposite is true. It would be an injustice for Mark not to pursue his dreams.
5. Mark is afraid to be seen as selfish. This implies that selflessness, being the yes-man or the doormat whom everyone else is free to step on, is good.   But it is precisely Mark's selflessness that lands him on his barstool or in front of the TV. First you have to value yourself in order to set and to pursue your goals.

What would explain Mark's procrastination? His willingness to sacrifice his goals and dreams, his willingness to put others (e.g., his dad) above himself. When his values conflict with other people's values, he sacrifices his own (e.g., he works for dad rather than having a career as a travel agent). He does not feel worthy enough to pursue his own values.  When he successfully adopts a policy of giving up his values and substituting other's values, he discovers that values as such become less appealing; values represent duties imposed on him by others (e.g., working in dad's factory) at the sacrifice of his own choices.

There is a principle that sums up the cause of his procrastination, and it does not mean what most of us lightly take it to mean. The word is "otherism" or "altruism". I used to think that it meant being generous, kind to others and respecting the rights of others. But that is not accurate. It means that you put others above yourself. In this view, pleasing others, especially as a sacrifice, makes you a "good" person. Notice Mark's pleasing his father came at the expense of his own judgement of what he would like as  a career. What is the cost of Mark's pleasing his dad? His happiness. Mark becomes a disgruntled, bitter, couch potato. He thinks about his values, but he always runs up against a principle that tells him, "Who am I to pursue my goals. My values are not important". This stops him dead in his tracks and he procrastinates indefinitely. He has given up pursuing his personal values.  It's hard to get motivated pursuing other people's values. It's no wonder that he has started to drink to deal with his depression as a way of coping with the slow torture and death of what could have been his life.

Altruism, i.e., self-sacrifice, underlies this type of procrastination. The policy of altruism leads to low self-esteem. Your focus is not on how to live your life and achieve your personal dreams, but on how to be a "good", i.e., sacrificial, "giving" person. That typically leads to an "oh what's the use, why bother" burned-out attitude toward your own life.  This mindset will not motivate you to pursue your dreams; it will motivate you to put your dreams on hold indefinitely, to procrastinate.
When you discover that this principle is dead wrong, that it's a killer idea, it becomes a fun hurdle to get over. Discover that you do count. You count more than anyone else does in your life.  Don't buy into the altruist notion that your self-valuing means that you will be nasty to others. That's one of altruism's biggest lies.  Self-valuing people are the only people who can truly value another person.

Problem 2: Feeling capable

Even if you value your own life and feel worthy of achieving your goals and dreams, you may falsely conclude that you can't get that job, or that you are not "college material". Some parents make a career of belittling their kids, and some kids buy into their role: "I'm the slow kid, the kid who never finishes any project, the kid who is always late. Mom says I can't do anything right."  Even if your parents didn't demean you, you have the capacity to do this to yourself (e.g., "I botch up everything I do").

Altruism teaches us to focus on other's opinions. If mom says you are "slow" or "not college material", who are you  to claim otherwise? Don't buy into this!  If you do, you will purposefully avoid any psychological risk that will expose your "slowness". You procrastinate or give up on pursing your true  goals. Use your own mind, purged of altruist ideas, to evaluate yourself. Don't use other's evaluations as fact.  Procrastinating, avoiding your goals because you believe you're incapable or  you fear failure, will guarantee failure. Egoism, valuing your own mind and your life, is the cure.
To break through the procrastination barrier, value your own life and set some delicious long-range goals for yourself. Then work within your capabilities and don't sell yourself short.  Write down your most important lifetime goal here:


This goal deserves your daily attention. Imagine yourself achieving this goal. Break this long-range goal into mini-goals. List three things you can do this week to move toward that goal:




When you look back on your life, you want to be able to say, with a satisfied smile, "My life has been wonderfully rich and I made it so"