On Pain, Procrastination and Painting

I painted the dining room today.


From that opening you might be thinking that this post is about:

The benefits of freshening up your environment. (Nope, but there is value in that as a means of changing your mindset and improving your mood.)


The joys of making something with your two hands. (No, but Jonathan Fields has a great recent post on that topic.)


Practicing mindfulness as you focus on the task at hand, really experiencing the feel of the brush in your hand, the strong scent of the paint, and the sound of the roller as it thrums on the wall. (Again, a worthy thought, but that’s not it either.)

No, the reason I painted the dining room today, and the reason I’m writing about it tonight, is because painting was “easier” than sitting down and writing this post, which I’ve been putting off far too long.

If you’ve ever painted a room by yourself, you know how time-consuming it can be. The prep work alone is enough to drive you crazy. And the cleanup isn’t much better. The painting itself isn’t exactly “fun”—okay, so rolling the paint on is kinda fun. But that’s such a small part of the total effort. Maybe one-tenth of the effort, when you take into consideration the prep, the cleanup, and the brush work cutting in at the ceiling and around all those fixtures and such where a roller won’t reach.

My point in all this is that painting isn’t the sort of thing you choose in preference to something you don’t want to do—in fact, it’s often the thing you put off doing in favor of something else that’s easier or more fun.

So you’d think that I’d have chosen the blog post first? Yeah, me too. I thought I’d sit down and write something, and then go paint.

But when it came to that choice, painting won.

So as I was painting, I had some time to think about why it was that I would choose this chore over writing a blog post. (Yes, I had some time to practice mindfulness, too, but there were some parts of the painting that really needed a chaser of some good mindwork to keep them tolerable.)

Here’s what I came up with:

  • I wanted to paint because it was something I could do well, but not necessarily worry about being perfect. (Accomplishment)
  • I wanted to paint because I wanted to surprise my wife. (Pleasing Others)
  • I wanted to paint because I had one more room downstairs to finish, and I wanted it all done. (Completionist Tendencies)
  • I wanted to paint because I would see an immediate result of my efforts. (Accomplishment again)
  • I wanted to paint because I was afraid I didn’t have anything to say in the blog post, and so doing something else would still help me feel accomplished even while I was putting off that important work. (Fear)

That last one was really the crux of it, the motivator from which all the others grew.

And isn’t it funny (strange, not haha) that of all those, the real reason was the fear.

Which got me to thinking…

Psychologists tell us that we as human beings are motivated by two core things: seeking of pleasure and avoidance of pain. And since pain is often the more immediate of the two sensations, we may develop a tendency to move away from pain rather than a tendency to move toward pleasure.

In her book, The Desire Map, Danielle LaPorte points out a key problem with the avoiding pain strategy:

“The problem with avoiding pain is that your energy is always constricted, so you’re more uptight and lest trusting. And this kind of stress inhibits your love, your creativity, and your access to your Soul.”

Boy, isn’t that the truth? Fear is totally like that. Do you remember feeling that tightening in your throat, or your stomach, when you’re in the grip of fear? I sure do. Even that turn of phrase, “grip of fear,” highlights how constricting fear can be.

If you’re like me, though, the avoidance of that pain is the first thing we respond to. Like today: avoiding the potential pain of not being able to write, or to write something that was substandard, was enough to send me to the paintbrush. Even though I know that once I’m in the rhythm, the writing (even if the result is not perfect) is a tremendous pleasure for me. I love the words, love crafting them into sentences, love the idea that something I write here might be just the thing that one of you kind readers might need in the moment to help you through a tough time, or to make a good day even better.

So for me, then (and perhaps for you, too), the need is to short-circuit the wiring that makes me immediately jump to the “avoid pain” conclusion and run down that path.

But how to do that? Particularly if avoidance is our natural tendency (and it is for some of us)?

Here’s what I’ve found helpful:

  1. First thing is to acknowledge that “avoid pain” is at work. Knowing that we’re moving in that direction, and susceptible to the gravitational pull of that black hole, can allow us to break the cycle before it starts.
  2. Sometimes we need to understand the avoidance—unmask it, pull it out from the shadows under the bed and into the light of day. When we see the monster in its true form, it’s often not as scary as we originally thought. Asking ourselves “What’s the worst that could happen?” sometimes is enough to help us through. (See Comfort Zones for more on this technique.)
  3. Sometimes, though, we need to focus our thoughts on the pleasurable. Skip the “worst” and instead spend some time visualizing the best. Think back to the last time you successfully did something. Remember that moment as vividly as you can, particularly the feelings you had during and immediately upon completing it. Do you feel the energy? Your brain remembers that time, too, and it’s sending that positive energy your way.
  4. If none of these are working for you individually, you might tap into a good friend who has an understanding of the situation you’re in, and ask them to help you with one or more of the steps above. Sometimes all you need is the extra boost of someone else telling you “Remember that time? You were awesome!” to get you moving toward feeling that pleasure again.

Simple steps, but not necessarily easy ones. Hopefully they help you as you strive toward those things that lift you up and away from those that weigh you down.

And hopefully you won’t end up painting instead of doing the thing that makes you light up (unless painting is that thing…). I was lucky—today I painted and I wrote. And I feel pretty damn proud of both accomplishments.

6 thoughts on “On Pain, Procrastination and Painting

  1. James Michael Taylor

    Wonderful post, as always, Steve. Your bless your readers with your stories.

    Man, have I lived the story of avoiding the important to excel in the mediocre. That may well define my 20’s.

    Day by day, choice by choice, I’m rewriting that story for my 30’s, though. I’m thankful for your fellowship in that journey, Steve!

    1. Steve Post author

      Thanks, James.

      It’s tough sometimes to really dive in and do what Stephen Covey called the “important but not urgent” stuff, which is most often where the great work lies. But as we age it seems like the time goes faster and faster, swallowed up by those day-to-day things, that the great work sometimes gets lost. I’ve been fighting that battle with myself for a long time, and feel, finally, like I’m starting to get the better of it…

      However I can help you in that walk – you know I’m there for you.


  2. Michelle Damm

    As a stay at home that will be a full time photographer someday I clean my house to avoid the real work. Constantly tidying things up. Little jobs athat I hate but am good at. Thank you for the article. I found this through James Michael Taylor’s email.

    1. Steve Post author

      Hi Michelle!

      So glad you took the time to wander over, and that you found this post useful. I think we all have things we do to avoid doing “the real work”, as you put it. The challenge is becoming aware of those moments when we do it, taking time to figure out why we’re doing it, and then taking some action, however small, to accomplishing that real work.

      Best of luck on your journey! James is a great one, so you have an excellent mentor!


  3. Rebecca

    Brilliant post, and a great explanation of why we do so much work to avoid other work. Hope the dining room looks good, at least! (Found this blog from the comments section of a recent Live Your Legend post.)

    1. Steve Post author

      Hi Rebecca!

      Thanks for the kind words. So glad you wandered over!

      The dining room looks great… next is the kitchen… probably when I’m next in need of an “important” reason not to write here! 😉


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