Procrastination, addiction and Turning Pro
In the last post, I have already adressed the topic of the habits of the pro versus the amateur and also mentioned Steven Pressfield’s works (among others The War of Art and Turning Pro). Now I want to take a closer look at those books I found to be very rewarding reads. They both share the same topic but explore different aspects of it. While The War of Art undoubtedly is a classic and must-read for creative minds and all those of us who should be writing (probably right now while you’re reading this, you should actually be writing and you know it), I personally prefer Turning Pro. It’s an in-depth look at the most actionable parts of The War of Art (which is a lot of “the philosophy of the pro versus the amateur”). So this post is going to be part book review, part reflections on procrastination seen as addicition.
Steven Pressfield’s book Turning Pro directs those of us who are stuck in amateur habits to consciously adopt a professional work ethic. Turning Pro, he argues, is imperative to overcoming “Resistance with a capital ‘r.’” Resistance is the term he uses to describe the relentless force determined to distract and indeed stop us from the important work it takes to achieve our dreams. (source)
Concepts surrounding the war of art
In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield argues that instead of seeing the world in the dichotomy of “broken versus healed” (or other similar ones), we can see human life as a dichotomy of the pro versus the amateur, or in other words: The artist versus the addict. The amateur is an addict. Their addiction needn’t be a substance. An addiction is anything that you look towards as an easy way out of your problems, as a form of stress relief.
As Pressfield points out, even the garden-varieties of addictions (be that Facebook or binge-watching series) are not harmless. Like a drug in a small dose, you might not see the negative results straightaway but eat enough arsenic and you’ll die eventually. When it comes to pathological procrastinating, what dies are your dreams. The addict replaces their aspiration with a “shadow activity”, meaning a surrogate for doing what they actually know they should be doing but are afraid to for some reason. This leads them to live a shallow shadow life.
Those “garden-variety addictions” aren’t fundamentally different from ‘real’ addictions, only in that society lets you off the hook with the garden varieties. Giving in to the desire to engage in an addictive activity (such as giving in to procrastination) is like a slip back into taking drugs, what Pressfield calls “pulling the pin”, i.e. giving up. Every time you give up on “Doing The Work”, you let Resistance win. You’ll have even less willpower with every extra time you let it happen. At some point the habit of giving up will become automatic. This is essentially the same thing that both Barbara Oakley (see the post on procrastination and learning) or Mel Robbins (5 Second Rule, see these posts 1 | 2) address.
Many addictions are procrastination and many procrastination habits are addictions
In one audiobook I’ve listened to, Mel Robbins coaches a woman who can’t stop smoking. After some psychological digging, it turns out that she chain-smokes as a way of procrastinating. Having another cigarette allows her to put off the work she fears to do just a little longer. So for me, the takeaway from this is that no matter what your addiction looks like, they are all similar in essence. I sometimes wonder whether in terms of achieving our goals, the societally accepted bad habits (such as watchting TV for hours on end, sugar, social media, …) are even worse than substance abuse. They do a different kind of damage, of course. However, almost no smoker has never been informed that they’d better stop smoking (most have already been informed of this by a random person they hardly even know or a passer-by).
The importance of self-parenting
With other addictions, however, no one tells you to stop or reminds you of how much damage you’re doing to your life. Maybe when you were a kid your parents would tell you to watch less TV, to play less on the computer, to go out more and eat less sweets. But once you’re an adult, like Mel Robbins phrases it, you have to parent yourself. Nobody will tell you to do the shit you don’t want to do. If you don’t do it, there will be no consequences. Ok, maybe your boss might tell you and there will be some consequences. But when it comes to your personal goals? No one is going to clean up after you when you didn’t tidy your room again.
How to get un-stuck?
Now that we have identified procrastination as an addictive behaviour or habit, how can we get sober?
- First of all, you need to make the habit un-automatic again. Because when it’s automatic, you don’t have time to pause and reflect whether that’s what you really want to do with your life.
- Recognize procrastination habits as (harmful) addictions.
- Find out how addicted you really are. (Do you have huge difficulties not succumbing again or is it really not all that hard to resist?) Be completely honest with yourself here.
- Determine the amount of harm this habit is doing to you. Which one of your dreams gets killed through this activity?
- Do you need to cut it out of your life altogether to avoid relapse or are constraints (such as time limits) enough to limit the amount of time wasted to a reasonable level?
- What kind of active rest practice can you replace this passive addictive habit with?
- Do the work, it’s the only thing which will really help make you will better and eliminate the feeling that is at the root of your bad behaviours.
Why is passive rest harmful and should be replaced by active rest?
Passive rest will make you feel guilty. That’s why you should eliminate it from your life as much as possible. It’s also mostly ‘infinite’ activities (such as auto-playing TV shows or inifite scrolling apps), because continuing to engage in them costs no activation energy whatsoever. That makes their effect all the more detrimental. Of course, you can also get lost on a hike and thus, spend more than you had allocated for it. But you won’t (usually) go totally overboard with it because this active activity is limited by your physical energy. For me, blogging can be something like this too: I’ll never go way too long because you do get tired and you do run out of things to say. Passive habits, on the other hand, are so dangerous because they are so lazy and easy: There is no ending point and no reason for you to stop. Most digital habits are engineered to take up as much screen time as possible and it’s easier to continue than to stop, so that stopping to engage in them requires activation energy. Lately, some people have referred to this as the pleasure trap or suggested that you should do a ‘dopamine detox’ eliminating those easy go-to rest activites, so you’ll enjoy ‘harder’ stuff like reading again / more. Those easy go-tos require no decisions, no action, no energy whatsoever. It’s easier to continue than to stop. But they’re also robbing yourself of the real rest you need. Not even talking about the creative energy lost.
How to recognize an addictive behaviour?
According to Pressfield, addiction is repetitive and essentially boring. As per Pressfield’s definition: It leaves you feeling guilty and incapacitated. It’s passive. If you feel like you have no more control over yourself after engaging in such an activity (such as going way over the allocated time slot, time and time again) or leaves you feeling guilty, that’s an indicator that it’s addictive and you’re losing control over it. Another indicator is whether you argument it to yourself as “I deserve to do XY now.” because that means you’re, at least subconsciously, feeling guilty for wanting to do it. Deep down, you know that it doesn’t align with your goals. You make excuses which makes sense. Everybody could come up with good excuses why they can’t do something (too tired, etc.) and some of them might even be very reasonable. Yet a pro does not succumb to this inclination. That’s the differnce between the pro and the amateur, the artist and the addict. Don’t pull the pin on yourself. And when the crop is picked, follow the muse to the next crop to continue working hard. (If you don’t understand those references, read the book – it’s really worth it.)
Finally tired of your own bullshit: Turning Pro
Stressfield says that you’re pro once you’re so tired with your own bullshit (laziness, excuses, addictions) that you end up cutting it all and just doing the work. I’m the last person to advocate against rest (see the Rest book review, for example) and I feel that Pressfield doesn’t stress the importance of good rest enough (even though he says he stops after 4 hours of good work, so he doesn’t actually condone overwork like it sometimes sounds, he just disapproves of making excuses to not do the work).
Socially accepted addictions are the devil in disguise
For me, many socially accepted additions like email, social media and binge-watching spiral out of control from time to time. Mostly I only realize after a very long time that I have relapsed yet again. Mostly it happens after I “allow myself” to engage in a moment when I “really deserve it”. Only for the habit to become automatic again in no time, so that I don’t even realize I’m doing it again until much later. I think that’s because it’s so societally normalized. You can always make the excuse that you “have to” be on social media or check email compulsively 50 times a day. Society will actually even reward you for it and thereby reinfore the negative behaviour. I have made this same argument with regard to what I called the ‘innate workaholism myth’, overwork and socially-rewarded busy-ness.
So these are some thoughts from Steven Pressfield’s work that I found worth sharing. How do you guys cope with procrastination? Can you easily engage in ‘bad habits’ such as binge-watching and then just go back to being productive or, like me, do you wonder whether these habits could be so detrimental that you should cut them out somehow?
Steven Pressfield, Turning Pro, Black Irish Entertainment LLC 2012.