Avoiding Work: The 3 Reasons You Do It

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Now Habit" by Neil A. Fiore. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you find it difficult to get yourself to sit down and do your work? Do you tend to put off work until the last minute and then end up scrambling?

According to Neil Fiore, the author of The Now Habit, avoiding work is a symptom of anxiety rather than laziness or lack of motivation. Therefore, discipline is not an enduring solution. To address the problem, you have to tackle the underlying psychological reasons that make you dread work.

Here’s why you’re avoiding work and just can’t get things done.

1. Perfectionism

Fiore argues that the most common reason we dread work is perfectionism—we set impossibly high standards for ourselves and tell ourselves there will be dire consequences for not meeting those standards. For example, a student might tell herself she has to get straight As or else she’s a failure who’ll never get a good job. Fiore points out that we often adopt these standards from others—parents, teachers, bosses, and so on. (Shortform note: The problem could also be socially prescribed perfectionism—the tendency to believe (often falsely) that other people expect us to be perfect. In other words, sometimes we attempt to live up to standards that nobody actually expects of us.)

According to Fiore, perfectionism makes it hard to even start working on something. If your goal is to be perfect, you’re all but guaranteed to fail—so why even put in the effort? Then, Fiore says, once we procrastinate, we typically feel bad and tell ourselves we’re lazy. That negative self-talk creates more anxiety, which in turn only makes it harder to get back to work by creating even more pressure. (Shortform note: Research shows that perfectionism causes problems beyond just procrastination. For example, as Brené Brown suggests in The Gifts of Imperfection, perfectionism can lead to shame, self-judgment, depression, and even an increased risk of suicide.)

2. Fear of Success

Whereas perfectionism makes us avoid working because we fear failure, Fiore says that it’s also possible to procrastinate because we fear success. Fear of success can occur for several reasons:

1) We fear that we’ll alienate our friends, colleagues, or family if we outperform them. For example, a straight-A student might deliberately reduce the effort she puts into her schoolwork for fear that her friends will brand her a “nerd” or “teacher’s pet.”

2) We’re uneasy about the major life changes that sometimes come with success. For example, a successful job search might mean moving to a new place, adapting to a new social environment, and learning a new set of skills and responsibilities.

3) We fear that succeeding will raise other people’s expectations until we hit the point where we’re guaranteed to disappoint them. For example, our hypothetical student might not want to earn straight As because she suspects that earning them once will make her parents and teachers expect her to earn them every semester.

(Shortform note: Fiore largely describes the fear of success as a conscious phenomenon. However, other experts warn that we can also harbor such fears unconsciously and express them in subtle ways. In other words, it’s possible that many people struggle with such fears without ever realizing it.)

3. Frustration and Powerlessness

Lastly, Fiore argues that we sometimes procrastinate as a way of controlling our situation. For example, if you feel powerless in your job, you may subconsciously feel that avoiding work is the only way to express yourself. Similarly, Fiore points out that if you’ve internalized the lesson that you should always be working and should never take time to play, you might conclude that there’s no point in working hard because hard work just leads to more hard work. When that happens, we procrastinate because procrastination seems like our only possible escape from the drudgery of life itself.

(Shortform note: According to Johann Hari, powerlessness at work causes a number of problems in addition to procrastination. In Lost Connections, Hari points to studies showing that the less control you have over your work, the more susceptible you are to depression and health problems like heart attacks. And the problem is widespread—Hari cites surveys that worryingly suggest that about 87% of people feel disconnected from their work. Given that depression and procrastination are linked, there’s reason to agree with Fiore that at least some procrastination results from this feeling of disconnection.)

Avoiding Work: The 3 Reasons You Do It

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  • Why people tend to put off the things that matter the most
  • Where procrastination stems from, and why it doesn't mean you're lazy
  • How to get more done while still maintaining a balanced life

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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