When we procrastinate, we often top it off with some feelings of shame and disappointment. We berate ourselves for being "lazy."
But most often, our procrastination is rooted in worry thoughts and feelings of anxiety, not laziness.
Generally we don't take action because there is some dread or uncertainty about how we'll feel if we do take action.
So we delay making a decision or getting started on a task. While we label this as procrastination, many times the emotion of anxiety (fear) is what lies underneath.
3 truths to know about procrastination & avoidance:
Avoidance is a normal manifestation of anxiety and you are not weak or lazy.
Procrastination is treatable. There are strategies to help decrease your avoidance.
Offering compassion for yourself that you are feeling overwhelmed or avoidant gives you more ability to cope and take action than if you're criticizing or belittling yourself for being stuck.
Why we procrastinate & avoid.
We tend to procrastinate and avoid doing things for a handful of reasons. Do some or all of these apply to you?
the task feels too big or overwhelming
the task is just an unpleasant thing to do
the task feels too difficult
it’s hard to prioritize what to do from the list of things needing attention
you just feel unmotivated
you are distracted by things that are more trivial in nature
The good news is that there are specific strategies to address each of these reasons....keep reading.
Problem: The task feels too big or overwhelming.
You need to do it and you are worried about doing it correctly or messing it up or not being able to sustain motivation long enough to finish it.
Break it down into smaller pieces.
Identify the parts that seem the easiest and start with those to increase your feelings of accomplishment.
Ask others for an outside perspective on ways to break it down.
Ask others if they will help you in areas that seem especially overwhelming to you.
Change your personal goal for the task from “completion of task” to “completion of 30 minutes working on the task.”
With this approach, you score a win for reaching your goal of working on it, and whatever you accomplish in that 30 minutes moves you closer to completion of the whole task.
Focus on progress vs. task completion.
Problem: The task is unpleasant.
Some tasks are unavoidable and have aspects to them that are absolutely unpleasant. Very few people like filing taxes, but we typically end up doing them because we fear the consequences of the additional fines or jail time. When distaste or disinterest is high, it’s particularly challenging for us to find any drive for unpleasant tasks.
Take a moment to remind yourself of the potential negative outcome of delaying action. Sometimes this can kick you into gear.
“If I don’t pay this bill, I will have a late fee."
"If I don’t work on this assignment, a low grade will bring down my average.”
"if I don't do my part, the rest of the group with be upset with me."
Set up a reward system for yourself to make the unpleasant task more worthwhile to complete.
Folding all the laundry for your family of 6 doesn’t feel quite as painful if you promise to treat yourself to a show on Netflix afterwards (or during!).
If the task is both large and unpleasant, you may need to give yourself several small rewards along the way to keep your momentum going
ex: "I'll get 10 minutes on Instagram for every 45 minutes I study for my Chem exam."
Reflect on the literal amount of time the unpleasant task is likely to take. Can you endure discomfort for that literal amount of time? Have you endured discomfort for that long in the past? Focus on your capability.
Pause to imagine "future you" feeling relieved & satisfied after the task has been addressed or completed.
Problem: The task seems too difficult.
It’s common to imagine the task will be too challenging if you think you may not have the skills needed to do it. This is especially true if it’s something new you need to tackle or you have not attempted anything very similar in the past.
Like trying to find a therapist, for example.
Where do I even start looking and how do I know if they take my insurance and how long will I have to wait before I can get in and what if I don’t really gel with their style or what if therapy doesn’t work?
All the unknowns make the whole idea just seem too hard.
Reach out for guidance, support, or tips from someone who is either skilled in the area, has some insight, or can point you to resources.
Research about the task online and see if there is a video explaining more about it. You may be overestimating the difficulty of getting the task done if it is new to you.
Write out each small step of the job and determine what you will need to know or accomplish for each independent step.
Then start with just one step.
Problem: You have trouble prioritizing what to do first.
Perhaps you struggle to decide which of the several high-priority tasks on your list to begin with. Everything seems crucial and everything has pressure around it. Or possibly you feel pushed to work on someone else’s high-priority task when you have one of your own that is more pressing.
If the decision-making step is where you get stuck, then you have an option to make the decision itself easier.
Assuming you have several tasks that seem equally important, assign each of them a number 1 through 6. Roll dice and whatever number you roll is the task you do first.
If you’re just caught between two tasks, flipping a coin works great too.
Take the decision-making worry out of it and save that energy for actually getting started.
Or: consult with a friend, colleague or therapist to talk through the various tasks and obtain some outside perspective on an ideal place to start.
You can also reflect on which of the tasks will have the greatest impact (largest or most immediate) if completed or if they're not completed.
For a structured decision-making tool, read this article.
Problem: General lack of motivation.
Maybe you are just having a “lazy day” or feeling drained. That’s normal! Except what if the timing of this lethargy happens to be smack dab in the middle of your task deadline...and you need a quick remedy. Ugh.
Hop in the shower and make it on the cold side. This will give you a quick boost of physical alertness and energy.
Engage in some quick high-intensity exercise (like jump rope, squats, push-ups, running, climbing stairs) to increase adrenaline and the flow of oxygen to your brain for enhanced concentration.
Engage a buddy to increase your accountability. Commit to a friend that you will work on the task and ask them to check back in after a certain period of time.
Ask a buddy to join you, if sharing space gives you some calm or motivation. You can do this in person or just have a video chat open while you both work.
Reflect on your basic self-care and assess if you are lacking in the areas of nutrition, sleep, hydration, or physical comfort, since deprivation in any of these has a direct impact on your energy level.
Read this post for additional motivation tools.
Problem: You keep getting distracted.
If you feel a high level of anxiety most days, you might be used to distracting yourself with less-important things to make the worry stop.
Distraction is a helpful tool when you're emotionally overwhelmed, but it's certainly a barrier when you are trying to get something done.
Change your environment into a less-distracting one.
Set yourself up in a location that promotes focus and progress. This typically means finding a pleasant spot, fairly uncluttered, with ideal lighting, and your preferred music or white noise.
Remove distractions like your phone (put it out of sight or turn it off), close unnecessary web pages, and separate yourself from the TV and fridge.
Remember the concept of giving yourself a TIME goal rather than a completion goal and just aim to be in your “productive spot” for a certain amount of time.
Identify a very small amount of time that you know you can maintain focus. 5 minutes? 10 minutes? Commit to taking action on a task for just that length of time. Set a timer and work.
Again...focus on progress vs. task completion.
Remember to observe your progress.
If procrastination and avoidance seem like lifestyle habits for you, it may take some effort to turn that around. Be patient and encourage yourself as you make positive efforts.
Pay attention to your progress and notice the way your self-confidence can grow each time you successfully interrupt your initial desire to avoid. And if your overwhelm and anxiety remain too high to be shifted by these strategies, it may be time to reach out for some professional support.
If you experience intense anxiety and want to learn new ways to manage anxiety & other strong emotions, check out my 8-week online course to see if it's a fit for your needs.
Image credits in order of appearance: Tungsten Rising and Dan Brown on Unsplash