2nd Root Cause of Procrastination: Fear

This is part 4 of my 5-part series on procrastination and how to tackle it at the root.

Fear, 2nd Root Cause of Procrastination

Fear is the second root cause of procrastination. While you can have a desire to do something, if you have a fear that is stronger than your desire, you will still procrastinate. This fear can be any fear — fear of pain, fear of uncertainty, fear of hardship, fear of losing control, fear of being incapable, fear of rejection, or fear of being alone.

While this may sound bizarre, if you examine the areas of your life that you are procrastinating on today (even though you want to work on them), the reason is likely related to a certain fear. This is especially common for perfectionists, where they procrastinate as they fear doing something in a “less perfect” manner than they envisioned, thereby affecting their ideal images of themselves.

Take the example of Tim, a driven and competent individual who enjoys his job. He has a work deadline that he is procrastinating on.

If we ask Tim why he is avoiding the task, his first answer may be “because I don’t want to do it.” Upon probing, we find that Tim is procrastinating because he finds the task a dread. Why? After more probing, he reveals that the work is too much for him to handle.

While the answer is rearing its head, it’s not the real reason. After all, many people face an overload of work, but not everyone reacts to work overload by procrastinating. Why does Tim procrastinate when there is too much work?

If we look deeper, we may find that this procrastination is due to the loss of control from being overwhelmed. He fears losing control because not being able to control makes him feel low in self-worth. Tim’s procrastination is his attempt to avoid feeling worthless or incompetent.

Similarly, many cases of procrastination are driven by a fear or several fears.

My Procrastination with Public Speaking

A few months after starting my business, I started getting invited to give talks. I would be excited every time that happened, because it meant reaching out to a new audience base.

However, I noticed that I would delay the preparation work (making the slides, practising the delivery) till one day before the talk or even on the day itself, even though I really wanted to prepare a week ahead of time.

Even though I would always finish the preparation in time and deliver a great speech, my procrastination was a big issue for several reasons:

  1. While everything turned out fine, it could have been better if I had spent more time to prepare as I had originally intended.
  2. My contact point with my audience is my one chance to share my message. Not putting my best foot forward means that I may miss out on a chance to move someone in their path of growth.
  3. The whole process of procrastinating, stressing about the task, and delivering something less than what I’m capable of is wearisome.

The first time this happened, I thought that it was just poor time management. When it happened again, I suspected that may be something else going on. Then it occurred a third time, a fourth time, and an nth time. By then, it was clear that there was some pattern going on and I had to get to the root of it.

I dug within and asked myself why this was happening. Was I avoiding the task due to a lack of desire? Certainly not. I’m always enthusiastic about new speaking opportunities. It represents more exposure and the ability to touch others. It’s part of my long-term vision to help others grow and uniting the world as one.

So I asked myself, “Why am I procrastinating on preparing for my upcoming speech?”

The immediate answer was “I don’t feel like doing it.” A natural first response with every self-questioning exercise.

I asked again, “Why don’t I feel like doing it?”

New answers emerged. “So much work needs to be done”, “It’s such a dread”, and “This is going to take a lot of time.” In my mind, I had subconsciously painted an elaborate preparation process. I envisioned being as good as top speakers like Les Brown and Barack Obama, but I was nowhere near that standard. Thus, I felt that I would need lots and lots of preparation.

My next question was, “Why do these matter? So what if there’s so much work to be done — why procrastinate?”

A voice in my head spoke. “Because it makes me feel out of control.”

This was interesting. I was surprised and pressed on further: “Why is being in control important?”

“Because if I’m not in control, it means that I’m not good enough. I’m incapable.”

It hit me there and then what was going on. Because a) a part of me had linked my self-worth to my skill in public speaking, and b) I wasn’t as good in public speaking compared to my ideal vision of myself, I had lowered my own self-worth. Thus, any situation that reminded me of my lack of expertise in public speaking would make me feel lousy. I would then procrastinate on my speech preparation.

In conclusion, my procrastination was due to my fear that I was unworthy.

This answer caught me off guard as I don’t measure someone’s worth by their skill in something. Just because someone is a beginner in something doesn’t mean he/she is not worthy. Likewise, just because someone is an expert doesn’t mean he/she is more worthy than others. Everyone’s level of self-worth is the same, regardless of who they are and how good their skills are.

Furthermore, I’m passionate about being a powerful speaker. I knew that in order to become better, I have to start somewhere, as with all experts. I certainly don’t expect to become better by avoiding speaking. These are all things I understood on a conscious level.

Yet, a part of my subconsciousness had the flawed notion, probably conditioned from young. Realizing this was liberating. By uncovering my fear, I could immediately see how silly my thoughts were. When you uncover the real reasons causing your procrastination, you will find that it is usually the result of very silly, misconceived beliefs. Many of my participants experienced this when taking the Anti-Procrastination Course. Their procrastination is often due to 1-2 poorly formed beliefs when they were young, which then rippled out and caused negative impacts in their life.

After uncovering my hidden fear, I was able to immediately rectify the misconception and resolve the internal misalignment. My problem was that I didn’t know I was thinking this way subconsciously, and by uncovering this subconscious fear, I could immediately address it from within.

In the last part, I share how to stop procrastination through an introspection exercise. Read Part 5: How to Stop Procrastination

This is part 4 of my 5-part series on procrastination and how to tackle it at the root.