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Procrastination & Time Wasting: How to Temper Fear-Based Motivation

“I have to write this article,” I implore myself. “There is no excuse not to churn out 500 words; this Psych Central article isn’t going to write itself.”

And then I surf the web — alternating between ESPN, CNN, and the New York Times before, much to my head-shaking dismay, circling back to ESPN to research my beloved Iowa Hawkeyes. Again.

And as for that published article, well, we are still in the proverbial “brainstorming” stage.

What explains my flagging motivation — even when I do want to write? And, more importantly, what are some practical tips to delay procrastination — at least until that next 20 page term paper?

Motivation is more nuanced than a vein-popping supervisor barking orders or your mind’s incessant commands to “fire it up; you need to be on your game today.” Motivation, instead, waxes and wanes — despite your and my exhortations to the contrary. In fact, my mind’s shrieking commands to “write this article” or “research this project” are often counterproductive. Instead of sitting down and churning out my latest 500-word masterpiece (please note my tongue in cheek sarcasm), I opt for web surfing’s mindless — and time-consuming — enjoyment.

Why though? Why, arguably, do I self-sabotage when there is a pressing need to write an article (or finish an immediate project or send out that resume and cover letter).

The answer: fear-based motivation. The “I have to do this or else,” not the “I want to do this” type of motivation. Fear-based motivation, at least for me, instills a sense of unease — even dread. And as a self-described rebel (thank you Gretchen Rubin), it ignites my spirit of resistance. Instead of hunkering down to revamp that outdated resume, passivity — and researching the Iowa Hawkeyes’ left tackle — sound much more appealing.

So what can you (and I do) to temper fear-based motivation — and its twin cousins: delay and procrastination?

  1. Recognize that feelings — that creeping unease; that prevailing sense of despair — are just feelings. Nothing more, nothing less. While the paper may feel overwhelming, your feelings are (likely) inaccurate. A racing heartbeat and sweaty palms are just that — a racing heartbeat and sweaty palms. There is no greater Shakespearean meaning, even if your mind wants to attach one.
  2. Challenge fear-based motivational thinking. For many of us, myself included, fear intersects with motivation. An example: “If I don’t write this grad school paper, I am unproductive — and, in turn, will jeopardize my grad school progress.” There are dire consequences — at least in my mind — for not completing the latest grad school assignment. Not exactly Knute Rockne-level inspiration for someone with flagging motivation.

Instead, try framing the task in a more self-directed light. An example: When completing my latest grad school assignment, there will be a sense of satisfaction — even pride — for persevering through such a time-consuming project. Notice that there is no mention of external rewards or punishment in the previous sentence; instead, there is an emphasis on intrinsic factors (a sense of satisfaction and pride) directing and driving motivation.

Motivation is invariably complex and uniquely personal. There is no “one size fits all” template. That said, fear-based motivation — as evidenced by that knotted pit churning in your stomach over the latest, most disastrous possibility — induces more paralysis (than analysis). When questioning your flagging motivation, perhaps your first question should be, “What is my motive?” And if, indeed, it is Primal Fear, maybe that is why you spent the entire day watching (and procrastinating with) this Netflix drama.

Procrastination & Time Wasting: How to Temper Fear-Based Motivation

Matthew Loeb

Matthew Loeb, a Seattle-based attorney, is a mental health advocate. You can contact him at

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APA Reference
Loeb, M. (2018). Procrastination & Time Wasting: How to Temper Fear-Based Motivation. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 14 Sep 2018 (Originally: 13 Sep 2018)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 14 Sep 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.