Fixed Mindsets Make Action Feel Useless

The main causes for so-called laziness include fear of judgment and negative emotion, fixed mindsets that make action feel useless, organizational issues that keep you confused and spiraling, and physical or mental deficiencies such as sleep, rest, nutrition, illness, and lack of alignment. It’s not so much that we need to cure these issues, because that is a tall task without dedicated introspection, but if we are more aware of what drives us to act (or not), then we stand a chance of addressing it on a consistent basis. You may never truly overcome all of those issues, but for our purposes, breaking inertia is the goal.

  • Practical Self-Discipline: Become a Relentless Goal-Achieving and Temptation-Busting Machine (A Guide for Procrastinators, Slackers, and Couch Potatoes) By Peter Hollins
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  • Peter Hollins is a bestselling author, human psychology researcher, and a dedicated student of the human condition.
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Carol Dweck’s now-famous concept of “fixed” versus “growth” mindsets can tell us a lot about procrastination. A fixed mindset is the belief that intelligence and ability are set at birth and are broadly unchangeable. They’re part of the personality, or constitutional. This means there’s very little point in trying to change them! A very negative side effect of this belief is the idea that success, if it comes, is natural and that if you’re meant to do something well, you ought to do so immediately and with ease. Someone may try a new hobby, find it quite difficult, and throw their hands up and quit, because they believe that they simply weren’t born with the requisite intelligence to do it. What’s more, they have a low tolerance for being a beginner—they don’t want to look like they’re unintelligent or make mistakes. So they avoid or procrastinate or fail to take action at all.

The more adaptive and useful mindset is seeing life as a work in progress and the brain as a fluid, trainable thing. This “growth” mindset means that intelligence and ability are developed deliberately, with consistent, slow practice that improves skill in increments. This way, a person is never surprised to make mistakes as they learn—in fact they expect it. They are comfortable with being a beginner, because they understand that mastery is a process. If they begin a task and are not immediately rewarded, they don’t quit or procrastinate—they take it in stride and carry on.

If you find yourself with thoughts that hint at a fixed mindset when it comes to the tasks you’re avoiding, it may be time to reframe a little. Train yourself to completely forget about the big goal at the end. Focus only on the smaller tasks in the interim. Try to detach your ego from the outcome. Remind yourself that trying and failing is normal and proof that you’re learning! It may even help to try focusing on the process instead of the outcome. Plan to do a number of hours, say, rather than assign yourself an impossible and lofty goal at the outset. As a practical example, a poor goal would be “do well on my assignment” whereas a better one could be “try my hardest on my assignment.” The latter is less ego- and goal-centered and is more reasonably under your control. Finally, learn to laugh at yourself a little—sometimes “finished is better than perfect”!

Someone might feel that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” and as a result procrastinates on all those “new tricks.” For example, despite being asked repeatedly to go to therapy with his partner, he may refuse, believing that it’s just not in his nature to talk about his feelings. Here, as with many cases of procrastination, it can pay to ask sincerely, “What am I really trying to accomplish right now?” and “Why is what I’m trying to do important to me?”

Realizing that, deep down, protecting and maintaining his relationship is worth more than momentarily feeling right, he may have the impetus to push past beliefs that nothing will change or he’ll look stupid trying. Reconnecting with this deeper purpose can bring clarity and inspire action. If this rings true for you, ask yourself if momentarily protecting your ego or avoiding the slight embarrassment of failing or being wrong is worth passing up on your dreams and goals. Do you keep a big bank of embarrassing memories of all the times people around you looked a little silly? If not, then don’t expect that others will remember your slip-ups either!

People procrastinate because they have low self-confidence.

According to Dr. Lisa Saulsman and the Center for Clinical Interventions, it’s natural that people shy away from tasks that might expose any weakness or flaw. If you think that you’re generally not that great, you might avoid all situations where you have to apply yourself, be appraised or rated, or have your work looked at by others. The belief that we are fundamentally up to the tasks life throws our way is the root of high self-esteem. If this doesn’t sound like you, you may have automatically assumed you’ll fail and now are procrastinating on the task because you “know” that doing it will expose your weaknesses to others and be painful for you.

If self-belief is low enough, people may stop themselves even from wanting to set goals for themselves, convinced in advance they’d only fail. Unfortunately, this means they never give themselves the opportunity to prove themselves wrong, making this attitude somewhat self-fulfilling. People with severely low confidence will avoid challenging or pushing themselves and cringe away from criticism or failure. What better way to avoid failure entirely than to not even try in the first place?

Someone could start to challenge these limiting beliefs, however, by gently encouraging themselves to take small steps to prove themselves wrong. Sometimes, even deliberately courting a negative outcome can be strangely liberating—a person deathly afraid of sharing their art may suddenly realize they don’t actually care so much once they get their first dreaded negative reaction. If you have low self-esteem, it may help to journal down all the ways you’ve survived and overcome adversity in the past already. Try to find evidence for a new narrative—one in which you are capable and able to deal with what life throws your way.

People procrastinate because the task is confusing or overwhelming.

Often, the barrier is simply that although the alarm bells are blaring in your head—get this done!—you’re not at all clear about how to do that or what steps to take first. So you turn up to the task filled with the desire and motivation to do good work, but you’re confused and have no direction. The thing looks overwhelming. Immediately, your anxiety goes up and your sense of efficacy and confidence goes right down. Though such a problem isn’t strictly emotional to start with, it soon leaves you with a bunch of unpleasant feelings that can make you spiral out of control. It’s an organizational problem, and this is not something that is ever strictly taught, is it?

Here, the solution is not emotional so much as practical and executive. It’s all about carefully dividing tasks up into smaller tasks and completing them in an orderly fashion. Procrastination can happen when there is a lack of organization in the way a task is approached. Sorting through a task step by step can give you a sense of control and order and give you clear, concrete work to do every time you sit down to tackle it. Here, “laziness” tells a very different story about someone’s thought process.

A complicated work presentation you need to compile within two weeks can look overwhelming and lead you to procrastinate. Instead of reprimanding yourself for being lazy, though, simply take a deep breath and break the thing down. Ask yourself, “What is the one thing I need to do to start moving again?” Just one thing: what you can do in the next five minutes, for example. Identify separate tasks of researching data, compiling a graph or two, finding images, writing some descriptive text, getting someone to look over the slideshow, adding a list of references or further reading, etc. Don’t worry if you don’t have a 100% clear picture before you begin. Only aim to make it a little clearer and understand your very next step. Focus on what needs to happen instead of the big picture.

Now, you can relax and let your field of attention shrink down to a more manageable single task, one at a time. Set aside some time and work on just one aspect. Adjust as you go. Feeling confused or overwhelmed is not a cause for alarm—it’s simply a little bell inviting you to stop for a moment, reorient yourself to your goals and values, and remember what you were ultimately trying to achieve. What is unnecessary and can be eliminated? What is the core and what is peripheral? Center yourself and wait a moment. Sometimes giving confusion a little time is all that’s needed to gain some clarity and an idea of what your next step should be.