When I was 22 years old, I moved into a freshly painted one-bedroom apartment. It was my first “solo” experience — no roommates, no dog, no parents, no siblings. I could leave my dirty socks on the dining-room table and stay up late playing my guitar. I reveled in the freedom of my solitude.
After about three weeks, I was making dinner when I realized I was out of dishes — all the plates and bowls were dirty and piled in the sink. They had been waiting, for quite some time, to be washed. So I did what any self-respecting young bachelor would do: I raced over to the convenience store to buy paper plates.
Why those dishes hadn’t been washed was a bit mysterious, particularly given the presence of a well-functioning dishwasher under the counter not far from the sink. But I never did figure out how to get the dishwasher to reach over, grab the dishes, and turn itself on.
Admittedly, my role in this process, while essential, was limited. The task was not particularly complex. The time required was minimal. So what kept me from doing what needed to be done? At the time, I really didn’t know.
Ten years later, I discovered the work of a Japanese psychiatrist who provided insight into my procrastination. His work presented a set of practical strategies for taking action, even when I didn’t feel like it.
Shoma Morita, MD, developed a model of psychology, now known as Morita therapy, in the early 20th century. Drawing on an Eastern worldview and rooted in Zen, it stands in stark contrast to familiar European-based models that go something like this:
Patient: “I can’t seem to get myself to wash my dirty dishes.”
Therapist: (long pause) “So what I hear you saying is that you have a lot of dirty dishes sitting in the sink.”
Patient: “Uh, that’s right.”
Therapist (looking pensive): “I see. And how does that make you feel?”
One of the main tenets of Morita therapy states that our feelings and thoughts are inherent, essential, and acceptable parts of us. They make us who we are, and they are largely uncontrollable by our will. So Morita therapy doesn’t ask us to examine how we feel. Rather, it asserts that focusing on our feelings and picking them apart is likely to intensify those emotions. Further, by attempting to find their source and then adjust or eliminate them, we only amplify them and extend their natural lives.
Recognize Your Demons
Most of the reasons we procrastinate involve internal limiters like fear, anxiety, indecision, and perfectionism. I call these barriers the “demons of inaction.”
If we feel anxious about a job interview, we can’t will ourselves to feel relaxed and confident. If we find income taxes frustrating and tedious, we can’t snap our fingers and find the task exciting and satisfying.
But if we act in the face of those emotions — rather than allowing ourselves to become immobilized by negative feelings — they often subside. This happens faster than if we explored, mulled, or worried, but failed to act.
The Morita approach is less about conquering our demons than about coexisting with them. Rather than attempting to vanquish our anxiety about the job interview (or examining it ad nauseam), we simply note it, accept it as normal, and then take it along for the ride. In this paradigm, we accept the presence of our feelings, and if a particular action is important to us — to our success, our expression, our priorities — we move forward anyway.
When we learn to do this, the demons lose much of their power, and many of the causes of our inaction naturally transform into constructive effort.
Coexist With Fear
One of the most common demons of inaction is fear. We imagine the road ahead and it’s fraught with peril — failure, embarrassment, rejection, discomfort, pain, even death. In the face of fear, we may find ourselves frozen in an iceberg of inaction.
Of course, fear is not necessarily our enemy. It can make us think twice about risky behavior, warn us to tread cautiously, or tell us we need more information. It can remind us that our actions have real consequences.
But fear often arises when we are not in imminent danger at all. We’re just nervously moving toward our dreams.
All action involves some risk. But inaction involves risk as well. So how do we keep fear from preventing us from doing important tasks? How do we stay on course when fear makes our hearts pound and our palms sweat? We learn how to coexist with fear.
The Japanese use the term arugamama to describe the state of “accepting things as they are.” In Morita therapy, we don’t try to fight our fear (or any emotion), talk ourselves through it, understand it, or get rid of it. Instead, we direct that energy toward action.
Many forms of martial arts use a similar philosophy. Rather than taking on opponents directly, we use their energy against them — which is how a 120-pound woman can throw a 200-pound man.
In Morita’s view, it’s not our imperfections but our focus on those imperfections that often prevents us from realizing our potential and living the most useful, meaningful, and enjoyable lives possible.
“Give up on yourself,” Morita advised. “Begin taking action now, while being neurotic or imperfect, or a procrastinator or unhealthy or lazy or any other label by which you inaccurately describe yourself. Go ahead and be the best imperfect person you can be and get started on those things you want to accomplish.”