Hoo boy, procrastination. My old friend.
It's like a bad smell, lurking at the back of the fridge. You know you've got to take care of it, but you just really don't want to have to deal with the unpleasantness. Who among us hasn't been there or dealt with it? I suppose there's a non-zero chance that some super overachiever out there somewhere never procrastinates, but the reality of the situation is that everyone does. Even those of us who are driven to attend to every detail and get a jump on our class assignments 6 weeks ahead of time are still procrastinating on something in some aspect of their life. Maybe self-care, maybe calling friends or family, maybe just sitting down and cutting their toenails. So instead we sit down with social media, or a video game, or a new series on Hulu we've been eyeing, and we go down the rabbit-hole of getting fuck-all done.
Sound familiar? I thought so. You've got good company on this boat, friend. We all do this.
What is procrastination and how do we get around it?
So, as I discuss with my clients, procrastination is rooted in avoiding something that you just don't want to face. What are you procrastinating on, and what's the worst thing about it?
Back when I was in undergrad, I was a huge procrastinator. I had this belief that I didn't do well unless I had a deadline looming over me. The pressure, I reasoned, was why I performed so well. To a certain extent, I was right. The pressure of a deadline, oftentimes one that required an all-nighter, gave me a sort of adrenaline-fueled rush. The reinforcement that came from getting decent scores on my work didn't help with the habit. As I came to realize later, it was because the pressure of the deadline kept me from deliberating and dithering about with my anxiety too much.
Within psychology, we have the diathesis-stress model to explain how a person's disposition to emotional disorders interacts with the stressors in their life to create that disorder, as well as to talk about trajectory and prognosis.
What this means for anxiety and procrastination is that there's a certain level of anxiety in our life that is optimal. That is...it spurs us to make the changes and do the things we want to in our lives. Once our anxiety passes a certain threshold, we start falling into unhelpful thinking patterns and unhelpful coping methods. Et voila. We procrastinate to avoid having to deal with the anxiety of writing a kickass paper, or completing a grueling work project that may be pretty intimidating. When we procrastinate, we are avoiding some unpleasant situation or sensation. I procrastinate on my paperwork, for example, because it's onerous and boring and by God, I'd rather just be talking to clients. It's the trade-off though. If you understand what you're avoiding and what you're anxious about, you can figure out ways to tackle the unpleasant situation, whether it's balancing boredom, facing your fears of inadequacy, or just powering through.
What if it's not anxiety that causes the avoidance? What if it's depression? That's a whole different beast, and deserves it's own exposition, so I'm not going to address it here and now.
So what is it that you're avoiding, if you're anxiety-prone? Do the deep-dive and sit with the anxiety as you confront the thing you've been procrastinating on. A tried and true method to understand what you fear and why you avoid it, is to just sit with the feeling for a while. That's it. Just because you have a feeling doesn't mean you have to do anything about it specifically. You can just observe it, learn more about it, and learn more about yourself in the process.
As an exercise, choose something you've been putting off for a while. I'll wait while you pick.
Got it in mind? Yeah? Good.
Now close your eyes and envision yourself getting started on the task. Walk yourself through it step by step, and monitor what's going on feeling-wise for you as you do it. When you notice that you're starting to dread something, or any other negative feeling really, pause just there and look at that feeling in your mind. What's that all about? What is it about that task that just turns you off? What's the worst thing about it?
Take a deep breath, and continue. Really turn this over in your mind and consider it from all angles? Does it make you angry at your job? Does it take away from valuable relaxation time when you're already up to the gills? Does it take you away from your family? Once you've got an idea, make a note. Over time those notes accumulate and you can get a better sense of why it is you avoid those tasks.
Once you've got your ideas, you can make your plan. Systematically find ways to defeat each obstacle. If it's boring, spice it up with music or task switching to keep things fresh. If it's painful, take frequent breaks. If it's scary, pair it with some deep breathing, some relaxing cues in your environment, and the knowledge that it's an infinitesimal chance for anxiety to kill you.
The next time you catch yourself procrastinating, ask yourself.."What am I trying to get away from?" You might find that it's boredom, anxiety, sadness, or you might learn a bit more about how you feel about yourself and your abilities.