Chronic procrastination as a coping mechanism for guilt

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Procrastination prevents people from doing what they want.

A side-note: I have an official ADHD diagnosis and I think it's a heavy version of procrastination, so I'm going to talk about them interchangeably. Tellingly, stimulators like Adderall can help both with ADHD and with procrastination.

The funny thing is that procrastination is also partly caused by not doing what you want. Specifically, it is a coping mechanism for guilt. Fix the guilt and you won't have procrastination.

Note: not all procrastination is a coping mechanism for guilt specifically, but I think all procrastination is a coping mechanism for something. Chronic procrastination is most likely a coping mechanism for guilt, though.

What is guilt

Gabor Maté gives a great definition of guilt in Scattered Minds:

Guilt is obsessively single-minded, knowing only one stimulus and only one response. The stimulus is this: you, child or adult, wish to do something for yourself that may disappoint someone else. This could be a true misdeed, such as stealing, or a human desire to act in accordance with your core impulses, perhaps by expressing a genuine feeling the parent cannot tolerate in you. Guilt does not know the difference. It hurls at you the same epithet for both misdeed and self-expression: selfish.

ADHD is—not having learned a healthy attitude towards selfishness. Without a healthy attitude, you're going to feel really bad about it. So you'll have to cope.

To cope with guilt, you either a) tune out or b) distract yourself from your thoughts. Those are the symptoms of ADHD. Talking too much, not listening, jumping from one task to another, fidgeting, checking your phone all the goddamn time — all is either tuning out or trying to distract yourself.

Try an experiment. Stop doing anything for five minutes. Don't listen to music, don't fidget, don't read anything. The goal is to spend those five minutes as uselessly as possible. Don't meditate, relax, lie down, do chores, go outside. Just do nothing. Say out loud: "I am wasting time right now".

How do you feel?

In my case, when I stopped doing anything, I immediately felt an urge to start doing something useful. Except that I knew, from experience, that there wasn't anything particularly useful I could do—even if I was allowed to.

The only thing I can do with the feeling is to run away from it. And this is what I've been doing for the past ten years.

If I am tapping my foot, the feeling goes away. If I am doing something interesting, the feeling goes away. If I am taking a bath or walking outside, the feeling goes away (because "walking is necessary").

I go to sleep late, because night is the only time I have that is my own. Nobody can demand anything from me during the night. I feel safe. If I go to bed early, on the other hand, the next day — day full of responsibilities — begins immediately. So I code, or play piano, or read, or talk to friends — anything to prolong the guilt-free time.

How to fix the guilt

A common way to fix the guilt is to beat yourself up relentlessly. I don't recommend it.

  • Pretty much every well-meaning person will tell you something like "you deserve X" if you complain. You will think "what if I don't?". If you voice this objection, you will probably have to engage in a pretty unhelpful argument, and you'll feel worse afterwards.
  • People who don't have this particular kind of guilt will tell you "but why'd you think you don't deserve X?". In the best case you'll walk away thinking "god, I didn't know how selfish and self-interested they were, I'll try even harder to not be them". In the worst case you might actually convince them that they are a shit for thinking they deserve X.

Sometimes it works. For some people, the very idea of "this guilt is not necessarily inherently right" kickstarts a process of Thinking About It On Your Own, which eventually banishes the guilt.

Other people, like me, are pretty stubborn and pretty good at arguing. "You are wrong about your own values" doesn't work for me. I will just label you as a selfish bastard and carry on feeling guilty.

To fix the guilt, I tried several things in parallel. Each helped the other. Let's go through them one by one.

Figure out what you want

I spent several months observing what I liked/disliked and wanted/didn't want. Not trying to beat myself into doing things I wanted, just observing them. "This TV show is considered good, but do I personally think it's good? Why not?"

I made multiple Twitter accounts, posted opinions there, and argued about them. I liked others' tweets not when they were objectively great, but when I felt something good about them ("treat the like button as a clicker trainer for your friends"). I made my main Twitter acc extra provocative on purpose.

Probably the best idea was — installing a separate note-taking app and used it for nothing but recording down what I wanted. Highly recommended.

The app is Bear (macOS/iOS only). Literally any app would do. I did timestamping because it provided extra incentive to revisit each entry and remember that "yes, this is what I want", but timestamping is optional.

Observe the good effects of doing what you want

In parallel with figuring out what I wanted, I started explicitly noticing the good outcomes of doing what I wanted. "Aha, here's one more case when doing what I want turns out to be good", buzzing in my head once in several days.

If you have friends around, or a partner, notice how doing-what-you-want often leads to better social interactions. You thought you were selfish when you invited a friend over (you were just bored!), but it turned out they liked being invited and you had a great time together. Huh.

If you are making decisions of any kind at work, pay extra attention to when you didn't listen to your gut and it led to bad consequences. Maybe you didn't fire somebody you wanted to fire, and they ended up leaving the project anyway because they felt very unproductive. Maybe you got overruled on a technical decision, and later it turned out you were right all along.

Notice your own selfishness

The first two points get you 90% there. This third point fixes the remaining 90% (ha).

ADHD-y guilt comes with an escape hatch: "if you succeed, you were a good person all along". For instance: "If I manage to somehow finish the project before the deadline, everything will be fine". I remember how I once avoided a work chatroom for two weeks, because I didn't want to show up until I was done with a task I had delayed — I thought that if I returned with the finished task, all would be forgiven.

The thing is — no, you weren't a good person all along. You were a bad person, by your own standards, you just hid it from yourself.

I went to a graveyard today. And as I was walking, I held the thought: "I don't look respectful, do I. I'm just hanging around. The graveyard keeper probably doesn't like that I'm here, maybe even feels annoyed. But I want to be here".

I didn't try to convince myself it was "alright" to walk through the graveyard, or that the graveyard was "made" for visiting, or whatever. I just observed the contradiction: "I don't care about the feelings of the graveyard keeper. I think it's good to respect them, but at the same time I, personally, don't respect them".

The trick is to distinguish between "I think X is good" and "I want X". Start with an extreme example — anger, sex, violence. Find something you want to do even though it's bad. The goal is to get comfortable with it, so that you don't have to hide from it.

"Yes, I am selfish. Yes, I do want to burn the world down just so that I can live forever. I will feel very bad doing it, and I will not do it, but I want to."

(This is also called: eating the shadow.)

Notice that you are still alright

A big obstacle on the road to noticing your own badness is that you might think you will become selfish, evil, or lazy, once you normalize the bad behavior.

There is no better antidote to it than a visceral demonstration. You will notice that you still have good qualities. That you still care about other people, even if you really really care about yourself. That you still care about doing your job well, even if you aren't enthusiastic about the project. Etc.


You probably have a bunch of different unrelated guilts. They won't get fixed all at once. After you notice more bad things about yourself, you will realize that in some cases they are the right things to do even by your own standards (e.g. fighting a bully, acting out a sexual fantasy with an enthusiastic partner, etc) — but it will take more observations to start actually doing them.

That's it. That's the cycle. Do it.

P.S. "Okay, but if I do everything I want, I will become bad."

The goal isn't to start doing absolutely everything that you want to do.

The goal is to become free to do what you want when you think it's a good idea. The problem is that:

  1. if you are scared of doing what you want, you can't do it even if it turns out to be a good idea, and
  2. if you never get any practice at doing what you want, you won't know when something is a good idea or not.

That's what we are solving here.

P.P.S. "Do you have other examples of guilt?"

Sure, not being helpful is not the only form of guilt. Look at every instance of procrastination that happens to you, and you'll find more.

One extra example: I noticed that I constantly want to look at Twitter today. This is not because I am worried about being useless and need to distract myself — it's because I had a huge debate on Twitter, and I feel like I was in the wrong. Every time I open Twitter, I get a small fix — e.g. an occastional like that proves that someone else thinks I was right. Or I even simply reread my own tweets and think "okay, no, that was a good argument".

Guilt: "I am talking about things I have no idea about". It won't go away, because I was trying to appear much more sure than I actually had been.

Hope: that I will get enough people who agree with me, and thus my overconfidence will have been retroactively justified. Note the "retroactively". This is a recurring pattern. It's everywhere.

Solution: a) internally admit that I am arguing without evidence, and b) internally admit that I want to argue without evidence. Once this is done, I can actually start noticing when arguing without evidence is a good thing to do, and when it's not, and adjust accordingly. (E.g. sometimes it's a good thing to do when it lets you develop thoughts you wouldn't have thought at all otherwise.)

Further reading

Misadaptation theory extends the idea of "X is a coping mechanism for Y", just with the word "misadaptation" instead of "coping mechanism".