Procrastination is as much about finishing tasks as it is about starting them. You have to learn how to manage the emotions and thoughts interfering with your ultimate success.
By the time you’ve gotten to the end of a project, you’ve done a lot of hard work and proved how dedicated you are to your goal. But sometimes, fear can get in the way of putting on the final touches. In this article, we’ll dive into those fears, and you’ll learn proven strategies for facing both your fear of failure and fear of success.
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Why Is It Difficult To Get Over the Finish Line?
Crossing the finish line can be difficult for just about anyone. As you come close to achieving your goal, you might experience perfectionism, which is associated with a fear of failure (“If I make a mistake, I’ll be rejected”). Or you might feel imposter syndrome, which is associated with a fear of success (“If I succeed, they’ll find out I’m a fraud”).
Completing a project can also be tough for people with depression (“If I accomplish this, people will expect even more of me”) or ADHD (“I’m not organized/focused/motivated enough to go to the next level if I succeed with this”). What each of these scenarios has in common is self-limiting beliefs—perceptions or assumptions that hold you back from reaching your potential.
When Jacob was in his early 20s, he went on a health kick. He ate well, exercised, and was the most confident he’d ever been in his body. While many people complimented his success, his closest friends and family mocked him for bringing healthy food to a pizza party and skipping a picnic to run a 5k race.
Eventually, he started to feel alienated by his success and fell into a depression. Over the next decade, he regained the weight. During this time, he’d begin a new diet and fitness regimen in fits and starts, only to quit soon after.
With therapy, he realized he was afraid that if he accomplished his health goals, he’d be alienated from his friends and family again. His fear of not being accepted was keeping him from accomplishing his own goals.
Fear of Success and Failure
Most people are afraid of failing. In fact, many of us have had the experience of being so convinced we’d fail at something, we didn’t even try.
But while being afraid of failure is normal, it can become a problem when it overrides your drive for success, keeps you from accomplishing your personal and professional goals, or prevents you from finishing a task with your best effort.
Maybe you believe that, no matter how hard you try, your project will never meet your standards. You then ignore it for as long as possible and blame your flawed final product on the time crunch, not personal inadequacy.
The fear of failure is really grounded in a fear of being rejected, or at least not accepted. We equate self-acceptance and social acceptance with perfection and assume that if my task isn’t good enough, then I’m not good enough.
Fear of failure is relatable, but it can be harder to understand why someone would be afraid of success. Even the people who are afraid of success don’t understand it! Often, fear of success is more about the fear of what comes after the success than the success itself. Once you succeed with one thing, you may expect even more from yourself or believe that other people will expect even more.
That constantly increasing pressure can be intimidating. Sometimes, a fear of success can come from uncertainty about what comes next. Some people are scared to graduate from college because then they’ll have to establish a career.
This can be daunting for someone who has self-limiting beliefs. Some people have experienced genuinely negative consequences due to their success—their parents mocked them for getting good grades at school or their coworkers abandoned them after they got promoted.
How To Finish What You Start
Across the board, success means something will change, even if it’s for the better. Change comes with uncertainty and with uncertainty comes anxiety, which we’re motivated to avoid.
Crossing the finish line involves confronting these self-limiting beliefs, and that’s where the following evidence-based strategies come in.
1. Talk To Yourself With Compassion
Self-compassion involves offering kindness to relieve suffering. “Suffering” can be experienced on a deep level, like in cases of trauma, but it can also be part of ordinary experiences, like when you make a mistake.
It’s part of the normal human experience: Everyone suffers. That means that everyone benefits from self-compassion. Research shows that talking to ourselves with compassion (rather than criticism) decreases negative moods and increases motivation.
Fears related to failure might come in the form of self-criticism: “I’m sure I’ll never get it right,” “I might as well give up now,” or “There’s no point in even trying because it won’t work out.” And fears related to success might come in the form of self-doubt: “I’m not smart enough for this promotion,” “I won’t be able to keep this success streak going,” or “People will find out I don’t know what I’m doing.”
When you have these types of thoughts, imagine what you would say to someone you care about in a similar situation. Your friend is doubting herself, despite being so close to accomplishing her goal, and you want to encourage her.
Consider not just what you would say but also how you would say it. What words would you use? What advice would you give?
And what tone of voice, facial expressions, or gestures would you use as you talked? Being able to speak to yourself with compassion, the way you would speak to a good friend, allows you to help yourself through an issue and actually take steps toward reaching your goals.
2. Respond To Self-Criticism
Self-critical thoughts can come in the form of name-calling (e.g., “I’m such an idiot”) or other unhelpful or disparaging languages (e.g., “I’m not good enough,” “No one likes me,” or “I can’t do it”).
These demoralizing thoughts keep us from working toward our goals. It’s important to catch these thoughts and check them for accuracy. When you catch one of these self-critical thoughts, respond by thinking of two other thoughts, interpretations, or reactions you could have to the situation.
For example: You’re starting a new healthy lifestyle. Your self-criticism says, “You’ll do it for three weeks and then fail, like you always do.” Now,consider additional thoughts, interpretations, or reactions you could have:
“I’ll get this perfectly from the start,” “I might have some stumbling blocks, but I can ask my sister for encouragement or help if I need it,” or “There will probably be days when I don’t make it to the gym or eat well, but I’ll need to remember that’s a normal part of the journey.”
Not all of the new thoughts need to be realistic, or even true; the point is to show your brain that there are many ways to think about the situation, not just the one critical way that it immediately went to.
Hopefully, though, you’ll stumble across some thoughts that are more helpful, and you can carry them with you to cross the finish line.
3. Consider The Evidence
If you are afraid of failure, consider whether the evidence supports the belief that you’ll fail. Maybe you have a school project that you have been procrastinating on. You’re feeling intimidated and think you won’t do a good job.
In your past, you’ve rushed to complete these projects at the last minute, telling yourself it’s better to fail because you ran out of time than because you aren’t smart enough. Confront those thoughts and see if the evidence supports them.
First, generate evidence that proves you’ll fail:
You have had some trouble mastering the material recently, and you aren’t really sure what the professor is looking for in this project. Now, generate evidence that shows you won’t fail: You’ve never actually failed a project before, you have some ideas for the project, and you could ask for more information at your professor’s office hours this week.
Often, there is some truth to our fears—we’ve had some life experience that’s made us develop this fear, or there’s some legitimate probability that what we fear could happen. It’s also important to recognize there is contradictory evidence—we’ve had many more life experiences that contradict what the fear is telling us, and there’s a difference between something being possible and something being probable.
Lay out all the evidence, not just the evidence that supports your fear. That way, you can make a more balanced and reliable assessment of whether you want to behave as if the fear is true or whether you want to face your fears.
4. Imagine Yourself Coping
If fear of success or fear of failure is holding you back from finishing a task, project, or goal, you may notice flashes of images in your mind—a picture of yourself freezing in a job interview, an image of yourself getting fired, or a visual of your classmates laughing at you. If these images don’t appear automatically, generate them for yourself by imagining something you fear will happen if you complete your goal.
Next, imagine yourself coping with that feared outcome. Imagine what you would do if you froze in a job interview. Would you just sit there indefinitely, until someone called a paramedic to come wheel you out?
Most likely not. How would you cope? Maybe you’d ask the interviewer to repeat the question, ask for a break, make a joke, or maybe one of the interviewers would ask if you needed some water. Imagine what would come after you began to cope.
Imagining yourself coping with success or failure can show you that you are more capable of navigating stressors than your anxiety would lead you to believe.
5. Appreciate The Positives of Success
Success isn’t usually entirely positive—new expectations develop when you succeed, as do new issues and problems. The uncertainty of what can follow success sometimes prevents us from crossing the finish line.
To manage this, make a list of the lessons you would learn from success. Most likely, you will learn new skills, meet new people to mentor you or help with your next adventure, and build confidence to manage adversity (in other words, build psychological capital).
As you create your list, consider what success would do for you personally. You’d never have to regret or wonder “what if,” you’d develop a sense of progression rather than stagnation, and you’d overcome some personal insecurity. Then, compare this list of the “positives of success” to your concerns or fears about success.
Decide which set of outcomes is most consistent with your goals. Would you rather continue to generate doubt and fear by holding yourself back? Or would you prefer to build confidence and courage by pursuing a challenge?
6. Use A Reverse Deadline
You’re familiar with regular deadlines, but you may not have heard of a reverse deadline. A reverse deadline is the amount of time you commit to trying something before you quit. Say you want to learn a computer programming language, but frustration and a fear of never becoming proficient are holding you back.
Try setting a reverse deadline for yourself that includes an amount of time you are willing to commit to practising coding—maybe 30 minutes a day, or an hour a week. This type of reverse
a deadline helps us continue to move towards our goals rather than feel paralyzed by fears, while also making the commitment seem more manageable.
Another application of this strategy is to commit to trying a new skill for six months or one year, to allow yourself a realistic opportunity to learn it before deciding you’ll never be good at it.
7. Connect The Task To Your Goals
When we’re wrapped up in the stress about an individual task, it’s easy to lose sight of the greater importance of our work. Typically, any task, activity, or project is part of a larger goal: Completing this physics project is part of your larger goal of completing your degree, which contributes to your larger goal of supporting yourself independently.
Once you remember the greater purpose, it’s easier to challenge yourself to overcome the fears that might hold you back.
Try writing down three reasons it’s important to you to complete the task. Consider how quitting or finishing would impact your life goals. Tackling this physics project will (1) help me prepare for the exam, (2) make me more competitive for med school, and (3) give me an opportunity to show me that I can do hard things.
Often, this exercise helps us realize that following through with a task will take us closer to our goals, whereas quitting will keep us stuck. That may be the extra push you need to finish what you started.
8. Use Positive Affirmations
Positive affirmations are statements or mantras designed to provide encouragement, and research shows that they enhance confidence (Hatzigeorgiadis, Zourbanos, Mpoumpaki, and Theodorakis, 2009).
Choose affirmations that address your doubts and provide encouragement. For example, if you are afraid of failing, you might choose affirmations like “Done is better than perfect,” “Action is better than perfection,” or “Challenges are opportunities to grow.” Or if fear of success is holding you back, you might benefit from affirmations like “My actions are taking me closer to my goals,” “I am capable of troubleshooting obstacles,” or “I am ready.”
Inspirational quotes, religious scripture, and advice from your mentors are all great sources of positive affirmations. Keep track of your favorite mantras on your coping cards. Remember, fear is only a feeling—it can’t hold you back.
Once you’ve dedicated your time and effort to get a task started and managed to stay focused on it, you want to put a rubber stamp on it and mark it “DONE.”
The strategies in this article are all about helping you reap the rewards of your hard work by finishing what you started. Use these strategies to keep your self-limiting beliefs from holding you back.
The idea of having to do unpleasant tasks is so aversive that we procrastinate to relieve the discomfort. But it’s not the discomfort itself that’s the issue; it’s how we react behaviorally to the discomfort. Anxiety, insecurity, boredom, and frustration aren’t harmful—they’re just uncomfortable.
Choosing healthy strategies to respond to those feelings is a major factor in overcoming procrastination. When you commit to approaching rather than avoiding what’s making you stressed or uncomfortable, you can conquer the self-limiting beliefs and behaviours that have sabotaged your prior success.
We sabotage ourselves by believing we need to be motivated to take action. But your life experience will prove this is not true. Consider all the things you do without motivation—untangling your jewellery, unpacking your suitcase, going to work every day. The truth is that action leads to motivation, not the other way around. Promise yourself that even if you’re not feeling up to it, don’t think you have enough energy, or you just plain don’t want to do it, you will show up and give it a good effort anyway.
When you start with action, your success will follow. Momentum is a far more powerful force than motivation, so focus on action.