The “Spell” of Procrastination: Specious Barriers and How to Conquer Them

Procrastination saves lives.

Until the discovery of penicillin, medical treatment killed more people than it saved. Procrastination helped us to escape from bloodletting with leeches, rusty needles, and disease-ridden waiting rooms.

Procrastination helps in finance, too.

If I ignore my cousin Romeo — a “successful” stockbroker — and put my savings in an S&P index fund instead, I am rewarded two decades later when my portfolio outperforms his.

Sometimes, the best thing you can do is to do nothing.

But this isn’t always the case. Taxes, for example, don’t sort themselves out. Sometimes, procrastination is a form of escape.

First, a story.

New Dinner, Old Tricks

I’m in Japan to catch up with an old friend.

We’re at a Korean BBQ restaurant. After an hour of idle chatter, we turn to a more serious subject: our dreams, hopes and aspirations.

My friend burps and leans back in his chair.

“I’m gonna make music,” he says.

“Oh, yea?” I say, looking up from a square of pork rib. “When are you gonna start?”

“Well,” he says. “I want to, but I’ve got work to worry about. My contract ends next year, and I need to develop skills so I can find another job.”

I wipe my mouth on a napkin.

“And I’m short on cash. I need good equipment before I can start. That’s the only way to be competitive.”

I’m clean my teeth with a toothpick.

“And, ah, I wanna be able to find a good teacher. You know how bad it is to learn things the wrong way as a beginner. Takes years to correct.”

The interesting thing about this conversation was that it happened three years ago. Circumstances changed, but the excuses didn’t.

To this day, my friend has yet to make a single song.

I’m Lazy, and It’s All Your Fault

I don’t mean to pick on my friend. After all, I’ve done much worse.

To my girlfriend, I once said, “Hey, I’m not getting enough work done. I need more time alone. If I don’t get that, we’ll have to break up.”

What a great way to make a woman cry.

The whole time we were together, I told myself I would be a much better, and effective, person if I was alone. Yet, when I became single, nothing changed. The time I spent with her was replaced by stupid videos on YouTube and mindless internet browsing.

I realized, later, that I was using her as an excuse to shirk responsibility for my own actions. Once she was gone, I no longer had anyone to blame.

Humans are masters of self-deception. We constantly search for excuses to explain why we would (but don’t) contribute to charity, talk to the girl we like or make beautiful music. “If things were a bit better,” we say, shaking our heads, “all of my dreams would come true.”

In his short but excellent book How to Write a Lot (it’s a lot better than the title sounds), PhD psychologist Paul Silvia gives these excuses a name. He calls them specious barriers:

“When I talk with professors and graduate students about writing, they always mention certain barriers. They want to write more, but they believe that there are things holding them back. I call these specious barriers: At first they appear to be legitimate reasons for not writing, but they crumble under critical scrutiny.”

Here’s the definition of specious:

  • superficially plausible, but actually wrong
  • misleadingly attractive

In other words, specious barriers are excuses that sound sensible but — when you examine them carefully — turn out to be wrong.

Take my friend, for example.

He says he has no time, but each week, he spends many hours reading blogs on electronic music. If he spent just 30 minutes a day practicing, he’d get pretty good in a few years.

He says he has no money, but he owns thousands of dollars worth of high-quality headphones. Surely, he could have bought one less pair and spent the money he saved on decent musical equipment.

Examine the excuses, and poof, they disappear.

The Spell of Procrastination

Silvia explains that specious barriers are part of a game we play to put responsibility outside of ourselves:

“It’s reassuring to believe that circumstances are against you and that you would write a lot if only your schedule had a few more big chunks of time to devote to writing. And your friends … understand because they have a hard time finding time to write, too.”

There’s a great quote from Jill Dawson, an English poet and writer (found in this collection), that captures the appeal of such excuses.

Procrastination, says Dawson, is a spell that we cast on ourselves:

I can, of course, see the temptations of not beginning. Chiefly, not beginning sustains the belief that you are gifted, that the novel — when you one day get round to writing it — will surpass all others, that you will suffer no rejections, that it will be published at once and be thereafter visible in every bookshop you step into, that you will never suffer a bad review or sit at a dinner party and hear the question: “So, should I have heard of you?” Not beginning protects you from the disappointment — no, shame — of reading what you have written and finding it rubbish. It also prevents you from an equally disturbing possibility: discovering that you can write. What then have you been doing all those years? Success or failure can both be avoided by never starting at all — this then is the spell that procrastination casts.

We are not just terrified of discovering we are incapable. We are also terrified of discovering how capable we truly are.

Sometimes, the easiest thing to do is to believe you are weak.

Common Specious Barriers

The first step when it comes to dealing with our own proverbial “bullshit” is to catch ourselves in the act.

One way to do this is to look at common excuses that people make. In his book, Silvia shares the four common excuses used by academic writers (but seem pretty universal):

  1. “I can’t find time to write.”
  2. “I need to do more research.”
  3. “I’m missing software, a nice computer, a standing desk, etc.”
  4. “I’m waiting for inspiration.”

Again, when examined, these excuses fall apart.

Busy? When Silvia encouraged them to, not a single professor failed to find 30 minutes a day to work on writing. Over a year, 30 minutes a day can produce hundreds of publishable pages.

Missing equipment? Kazuo Ishiguro, a Nobel-winning novelist, writes with a computer from 1996. In computer years, that’s like… 340 years old.

Waiting for inspiration? Silvia found that professors were more creative more frequently when they ignored inspiration and just sat down to write.

Breaking the Spell

The problem with specious barriers is that they are so convincing.

Yes, not having money limits people. Yes, better equipment can make better music. Yes, inspiration matters.

So how can we separate the fake excuses from the real?

Here’s what I’ve been doing:

  • Keep a mental note of the excuses I make
  • Look for patterns in the excuses
  • Compare & contrast with common specious barriers (Do they look a lot like the ones that Silvia mentions in his book?)
  • Examine the most suspicious ones with a critical eye

Another thing you can do is to procrastinate and see what happens.

Last year, I spent a few months ignoring all attempts at organization: no to-do lists, no scheduling, no pomodoro, no nothing. Instead, I tried to do everything by “pantsing it” — dealing with challenges as they came.

I wanted to see if this change would make me happier, less stressed, or more creative.

Instead, I discovered that I was less happy, more stressed (which spilled over into friends and family), and produced much less overall.

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