Motivation and Procrastination


My posts on motivation were inspired by a blog written by Judy Westerfield about an upcoming seminar she is co-facilitating about procrastination.  

Judy’s Four Phases of Procrastination

  1. Ow!  The task hurts

  2. Oooh! I’ve found something else to do that feels better

  3. Mmm:  I do the activity that feels good & is interesting

  4. Wah!:  The original task hasn’t miraculously gone away.

See more of her blog here:

I started reflecting about procrastination.  You can’t be motivated and procrastinate at the same time.  What causes us to procrastinate?  What sucks away our motivation?   The specific answers will vary between individuals.   It also changes according to life circumstances.

Recently, I have been struggling with both procrastination and maintaining motivation.  Life with the head injury is unpredictable.  There are days that my symptoms are more manageable.  Then there are days like today where I have felt “off” and struggled more with speech and have constant “tweaking” in my eyes.   The head injury plays in with both my procrastination and motivation issues. 

A couple of weeks ago, I was removed from attending Officer Basic (I have 14 years service as enlisted).   Additionally, I was removed from the mobilization deployment roster.   I felt a sense of loss but recognized that these were necessary actions.  Since then, I have noticed my motivation to work harder through the discomfort of physical therapy and other tasks dropped.  I took for granted that I would heal to return to my regular job.  However, the deployment of my unit was a major motivator to push through.  Forget the 10k run (work), I was aiming for the marathon (challenge of deployment).  There are personal reasons why I wanted to deploy.  Perhaps I have been struggling with more depression lately. 

Lesson: Motivation is complex.  When something  has a lot of your emotional, mental, and/or spiritual energies put into it ends, it can result in a loss of motivation.   I often have the same sense of “let down” after a marathon.  All the training is done, the race is run, now what?  Find another goal.  Adjust the dream.  Find a new sense of motivation. 

Procrastination is avoidance of a task or activity.   It is a lack of starting.

There are several reasons that people procrastinate.  Perhaps you’ll recognize yourself in some of them.  And there are other reasons you might discover in yourself when you look into procrastination.

1.  Being overwhelmed.  Where do I start?  There’s too much to do and not enough time.  Procrastination will certainly help with that!  This is my number one reason I procrastinate now.  My apartment needs cleaned:  the ferret cage, room, floors need vacuumed and mopped, bathrooms done, dusting, kitchen.   I look at that list, and it seems impossible for me to complete all those tasks without getting sick.  It’s overwhelming.   

Answer: a. Break the task into smaller steps.  If I start with the ferret cage and then the room, and then progress through the tasks, mindfully, one at a time, it’s not so overwhelming.  Notice I mentioned mindfully: do one thing at a time, effectively, present, and non-judgementally.   I get the supplies for the task and do it.  I don’t worry about completing the next one.   

 b. Keep the tasks realistic and allow for rest.   I won’t be able to clean the entire apartment in one session.  I may not even complete it in one day.  I have to allow myself time to rest as needed.  Allow yourself to adjust as needed.

c. Acknowledge your progress.  This is important.  It helps you stay motivated.

2. Fear.   Often people procrastinate when they are anxious or fearful about the task.  What if I fail?  We receive the message that anything less than perfect is failure.  How confining and unrealistic!  No one can ever achieve perfection.  We can only do the best we are able with the talents and abilities we have.  Certainly, we can work toward improvement; growth is part of life.   I notice fear often plays into procrastination when someone is contemplating a change in their life.  For example, I have a friend who is not really happy in her job.  She speaks about looking for other employment but has not yet started the process.  In part, her current job may be unpleasant, but it’s “comfortable.”  It’s known.  She gets good benefits.  Change looms threateningly if she were to look for another position.  So, she procrastinates and does other things instead. 

I also see the role of fear in fitness goals.  In order to truly become more healthy, lose weight, and increase fitness, you have to make a life change. 

Answer: Fear is a natural, healthy part of life.  It keeps us safe.  It prevents us from rushing headlong into dangerous situations or making irresponsible decisions.   Recognizing what you are fearing and why you are afraid is the beginning ending procrastination and making changes.  Sometimes, the fear is present for a good reason and you need to take action to correct the situation before you can proceed.  Other times, you have to step boldly out into the unknown, fear or not. 

3. Avoiding something unpleasant or that you don’t enjoy.  It is hard to be motivated to do something you hate or is nasty. 

Answer: To quote my Drill Instructor, “Suck it up and drive on.”  There’s no real “fix” here.  Sometimes we just have to do it.   One trick that helps me is to set a time to do the task.  If it’s particularly noxious, like doing my taxes, I’ll have a “reward” set up for after.  The reward can be something simple, like going to Dairy Queen for a Blizzard (treat!) or something more complex.  Make the reward something you like and look forward to.

 Procrastination, Motivation, and Fear

Quite frequently, fear manifests in the words “I can’t.”   Over the years, I had conversations with many women in the gym who were struggling with fitness goals.  They had already taken gigantic steps by joining the gym and working out.  Now, they were facing difficulties with maintaining motivation .    Often, they felt a sense of frustration with their progress or a sense of hopelessness that they won’t achieve their goal (fear).  

One conversation illustrates the relationships between motivation, procrastination, and how fear impacts both.  I had just completed a difficult workout with my trainer and was cooling down on a treadmill.   She was overweight, dressed in loose clothing, and appeared to be determined.   She commented on the workout she had just witnessed and said, “He (trainer) really works you, doesn’t he?  I’ll never be able to do that. ”

I replied, “It took a long  time before I could complete that type of workout.  I’ve been running and training for years.  Keep working at it.”

As the conversation unfolds, she spoke to me about her past attempts at weight loss and how hard it was for her to come to a gym.  She was afraid of being ridiculed by other members.   She had tried to become more fit in the past but inevitably lost motivation and gained weight back. She had thought about trying again for months.    

Fear held her immobile for months.  She knew what she wanted to do, yet the thought of taking action was overwhelming.  She was afraid to try again.  She was afraid of what others would say.  And she feared that she would not succeed in making the changes she desired.

She found the courage to overcome her fears and try again to bring positive change to her life.  I asked what was different this time.  Her reply, “This time, it’s for me.”  Her goal.  Her desire.  That was important and powerful.

I saw her many times in the gym over the next year.  She started working out with a trainer and attending Weight Watchers.   As time went by, she lost the look of desperate determination.  She smiled more and talked to other members.   By the time I moved the following year, she had lost 90 pounds!  I saw her last spring.  She maintained her success and was training for her first marathon.





Motivation: 1a. The act or process of motivating. 
1b. The condition of being motivated. 
 2. a motivating force, stimulus, or influence.
Merriam- Webster Online Dictionary

I am known in my Army Reserve unit as a “PT Stud.”  This term is complimentary.  It is bestowed on Soliders who earn the respect of others through their physical stamina and abilities.  Following Physical Readiness Tests, Soldiers often ask how they can improve their scores on the three events (running, pushups, situps). 

“L.T.,  I wish I could run like you,” the Soldier comments. 

“You can’t run like me.  Like I can’t run like Deena Kastor.  We’re all individuals.  What do you really want to do?”

The Soldier looks at me like I’m crazy for a few moments, then thoughtfully replies, “I want to run faster.”

“Why?”  “To improve my PT score.”  “Why?” “To get promoted.”  “Is that all?” 

So, the conversation begins.  It may seem odd that my first response was a “put down.”   My purpose was to help the Soldier identify his goals.  He really didn’t want to run like me.  He wanted to run to the best of his abilities and get promoted.  As the conversation continued, he identified several other goals related to health, fitness, and his military career.   We refined two of the goals to be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-targeted). 

Goals and motivation are closely related.   Without motivation, no goal will be achieved.  Without goals, motivation has no direction or purpose.

The following month, we met again to review his progress.   “How did the running plan work?” I asked.  “Not so good, L.T.  I just couldn’t get motivated to get up early to run.”   “Really?  No motivation?  Why not?”    The Soldier talked about work and school schedules, being tired, and life generally interfering with his goals.   “Sounds like excuses,” I comment.   At first, the Soldier was defensive, trying to explain why he couldn’t run.  “Hold on for a second.  I understand that getting up early is hard.  But, again… what’s your motivation?  How motivated are you?”  He stated, “I want to improve my run, pass the PT test, and get promoted.”  “Those are your goals.  What’s your motivation?” 

The Soldier was confusing goals with motivation.  Why is this a problem?  He knows what he wants: his struggle is breaking the inertia to work towards his goals.  Change takes effort.  Overcoming inertia and making change takes motivation.

Motivation comes from two sources: intrinsic and extrinsic.   Extrinsic motivation comes from outside the person.  When I was a child, I hated math.  Left to my own motivation, very little math homework was completed.  The extrinsic motivations were twofold: my parents and grades.  Completing my math homework was less painful than facing the consequences set by my parents for not completing it and getting a bad grade.  This is an important point.  Extrinsic motivation is only as effective as the person’s desire to avoid punishment or obtain the reward.  If it’s not important, if there’s no personal value, it won’t be as effective.  Intrinsic motivation comes from within the individual.  There are personal values, interests, and reasons why the goal is set.  When I run a marathon, the motivation to train comes from within myself.  I enjoy the activity and meeting the challenge.  I like the fitness I obtain through the training process.  I like how my body looks and feels.   I often experience a spiritual connection or resolve a problem while running.  Running is relaxing.  All these are motivators for me to run.  Intrinsic motivation is your personal desire; your personal reasons.  

Motivation is a verb and a noun.  Motivation leads to action.  Motivation is energy.  Motivation is being. 

Over time, the Soldier discovered what motivated him.  He started working on his goals and started to see progress.  And success became further motivation.

Motivation can be difficult to obtain.  It waxes and wanes with life events.   Frequently reflecting on goals and motivation can help keep you going.