Action Comes First: Coping with Fear and Procrastination

03 March 2014 · 6 comments

Every morning, Kim wakes at five o’clock to get ready for work. Most days, I just lie there. “I don’t need to get up,” I think. “I’ve nowhere to go.”

But I’ve learned that if I don’t get up, I regret it. If I stay in bed, I don’t make it to the gym. I miss work deadlines. I have less time to do the fun stuff, like hiking, and reading, and riding my motorcycle.

So, I get out of bed. I get dressed. As unappealing as it sounds, I go outside for a walk or a run — even when it’s raining (as is frequently the case here in Portland). The first few minutes suck. I’m tempted to go back to bed. Before long, however, I find I’m actually enjoying myself. I return home invigorated, eager to get things done.

Rain run

If I were to wait for motivation, I’d sleep all day. By forcing myself to take action, I find the motivation that was missing before.

Feeling Good is a popular self-help manual by David Burns. The book helped a younger me through an extended bout of depression. Part of the solution was to overcome my chronic procrastination, procrastination brought about by fear. In Feeling Good, Burns describes the problem.

Individuals who procrastinate frequently confuse motivation and action. You foolishly wait until you feel in the mood to do something. Since you don’t feel like doing it, you automatically put it off. Your error is your belief that motivation comes first, and then leads to action and success. But it is usually the other way around; action must come first, and the motivation comes later.

Action primes the pump.

Anxiety is largely self-doubt and insecurity — an underlying belief that you cannot handle whatever is before you. Anxiety often causes fear and procrastination. Because of this, preparation plays a key role in mitigating fear.

When you prepare — to speak to a crowd, to hike through a bear-infested forest — you decrease your doubt. You can’t eliminate the possibility of failure, but you can drastically reduce the odds against you. You rehearse possible situations. You practice the required actions. You allow your imagination to explore (and cope with) worst-case scenarios. In short, you prime the pump, which prepares you to do your best.

And that’s the important thing: If you always do your best and you do what’s right, then you needn’t fear the results. Sure, bad things will happen sometimes. But if you’ve done well and done what’s right, the negative outcome isn’t your fault — it’s just how things are. If you’re unprepared, however, you must own the negative results.

When we’re prepared, we feel competent. When we feel competent, we feel confident. When we’re confident, our fears fade into the background.

Photo by Antony Mayfield.

1 Eileen March 3, 2014 at 13:33

Your first 3 paragraphs are just perfect. I no longer have kids at home that I have to get up & out, so my early mornings are my own. I still have to work at 8am for an employer, but I do so from home. But still you can get a lot done before 8am. Without fail, if I get up and out and exercise, I’m ALWAYS happy I did so…. without fail. It’s funny how a warm bed can work your brain into thinking otherwise even when you know this fact. I went thru the whole mental gymnastics this morning, but got out there and ran. Completely worth it.

I’ve got a 20-something child that is struggling a little with direction, procrastination on a more general level. I’ll have to look at that book for him.

2 Affording Happiness March 4, 2014 at 08:38

Great post! I agree with everything you said, yet I still have difficulty combating procrastination particularly with early morning workouts. Every time I actually make it out of bed and go for a run or knock out a p90x workout, I am always so glad I did. The resulting good mood and increased energy I feel the rest of the day should be sufficient to get me out of bed the next day and the next day after that. Unfortunately, I still struggle with consistency but am working on improvement. I have really enjoyed your blog by the way.


3 Alex March 5, 2014 at 05:12

This post really resonates with me, J.D.; nice job.

Action first, motivation later — definitely going on my mission statement.

4 ClaraT March 8, 2014 at 06:55

It is said that misery loves company, looks like there are plenty of us. Like others, I am having trouble with the get up and go. I too know I feel better on the days I go to a morning Cross fit session, but I have a dog to walk as well. I will use “action first, motivation later” to get moving earlier. Thanks for sharing.

5 Edward Ferguson March 10, 2014 at 12:07

Amen, JD! And one often finds the “fear” result one was anticipating is either self-delusional, completely non-existent, or (even in a worse case scenario) nowhere near as bad as what your mind was telling you it would be.

6 Joseph Ratliff March 24, 2014 at 07:08

Love this post J.D.

And sometimes, I’ve found the “action” you take isn’t related to the thing you want to do. Like you’re getting out of bed and exercising, but I think it gets deeper than that…

… if you want to write a blog post, for example, and you don’t finish it, or don’t hit “Publish” because of whatever reason… you’ve procrastinated (finishing), and took action at the same time.

I would say developing the skill of awareness helps here. Being aware that you DID in fact procrastinate helps you realize you’re really putting off something you might be afraid of, or lack motivation to complete.

So, I would go do something else, but don’t retract… like you mentioned, don’t “go back to bed,” but in a figurative sense. Anything that resembles “going back to bed” won’t help you. Keep moving forward on something, anything, that keeps you motivated to keep doing stuff.

You’ll most likely come back to that blog post, and publish it for the world to see. At least that’s what I’ve found.

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