Productivity and Procrastination

Posted 2 July 2019

Productivity and Procrastination

Most artists feel the drag of procrastination at some point. Annabel Smith looks at ways to beat the negativity and self-doubt, and find new ways of supporting your mental health.

Image Courtesy of Lacie Slezak on Unsplash

If you’re an artist, or simply a human being, you’re almost certainly no stranger to procrastination. You tell yourself you’re going to work on your creative project but somehow, instead, you find yourself decluttering your wardrobe or, worst of all, scrolling through cat memes.

While there is evidence that suggests some procrastination can be fruitful, when it becomes chronic, it can erode our productivity and, with it, our self-worth.

‘Procrastination can collide in dramatic fashion with your finest intentions … yet it can often seem extraordinarily difficult to change,’ says Dr Stephanie Dowrick in her book Choosing Happiness.

It’s easy to think of procrastinating as a character failing, but beating ourselves up for it rarely helps.

Instead, Dowrick argues for getting to the bottom of the causes, including: ‘underestimating yourself; fear of failure; fear of other people’s power to judge you; perfectionism.’ In short, procrastination is caused by our own brains trolling us.

So what can we do about it? Dr Russ Harris, author of the best-selling self-help book ‘The Happiness Trap’ and teacher of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) explains on her website that ‘the aim of ACT is to maximise human potential for a rich, full and meaningful life.’

Underestimating Yourself

What Dowrick calls ‘underestimating yourself’ might also be called negative thinking, low-self-esteem, or critical self-talk. Have you ever caught yourself telling yourself ‘I’m not creative’, ‘I have no talent’, or ‘I’ll never be successful’? In ACT, this kind of self-talk is called fusion, meaning that you’ve ‘bonded’ with a thought or feeling.

ACT teaches that although you have a mind, you are not the same as your mind, and mental events are not reality. Therefore if our procrastination is caused by underestimating ourselves, we can overcome this by ‘unhooking’ ourselves from unhelpful thoughts.

ACT practitioners Dr Kirk Strosahl and Dr Patrica Robinson in their book The Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Depression recommend inserting the phrase ‘I’m having the thought…’ in front of our toxic self-messages. ‘I’m having the thought that I’m not talented’ is far less debilitating than telling ourselves ‘I’m not talented’ as though it is a fact.

Fear of Failure

Scott Peck, author of self-help classic The Road Less Travelled says: ’Courage is not the absence of fear. It is the willingness to act in spite of the fear’. One of the guiding principles of ACT is taking action that leads you in the direction of your long-term goals, even while experiencing difficult thoughts or feelings. ‘I made a decision a long time ago that if I want creativity in my life –  and I do – then I will have to make space for fear too,’ writes Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear.

This ‘making room’ for challenging feelings is a theme of ACT. But how exactly does one make space for fear? In The Gifts of Imperfection, shame researcher Dr Brene Brown explains that the word courage comes from the French word for heart. In pursuing creative goals, it can be useful to think of courage as bringing heart to what you do, rather than being ‘brave’.

Fear of Other People’s Power to Judge You

Brown’s work also engages with fear of failure, and judgment. Her book Daring Greatly is inspired by the words of Theodore Roosevelt:

‘It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming … who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.’

Brown says she rejects feedback from others unless they too are in the arena, daring greatly, and keeps a list in her wallet of people whose opinions matter to her.


According to that most imperfect of sources Wikipedia, ‘Perfectionism, in psychology, is a personality trait characterised by a person’s striving for flawlessness and setting high performance standards, accompanied by critical self-evaluations and concerns regarding others’ evaluations.’ Perfectionism is the amalgamation of all the other elements on Dowrick’s list: fear of judgement, fear of failure; and negative self-talk; a toxic (un)holy trinity. The paradox of perfectionism is that ‘while those in its grip desire success, they are most focused on avoiding failure’

‘A life worth living [is] … measured by the vitality that comes with living in accordance with your values and being willing to face both pleasurable and distressing experiences directly in the service of those values.’ The long-term effect of procrastination is that it ‘proves’ the validity of those voices in our heads that tell us we don’t have what it takes to succeed. Doing what feels difficult, in spite of those voices is the only way to break the cycle.


First published on Friday 28 June, 2019

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