Overcoming procrastination is sometimes easier said than done, and the best way to achieve this goal is by understanding it first.
I told myself when we first quarantined that I’d clean out the bathroom drawer where I keep my hairdryer. It’s August and it’s still not cleaned out. Maybe this newly revamped episode should be entitled “Procrastination Meets Pandemic.”
“Hey, did you get that paper done?”
“No, I didn’t finish yet…”
“Did you remember to call the doctor?”
“Yeah, but I couldn’t find the number…”
These are the conversations we have every day. Sometimes with a child, with a partner, with a coworker…or with ourselves.
Procrastination, or putting something off in the present with the intention of tackling it later, is a common problem, believe it or not, especially for perfectionists.
If someone says, “Yeah, I didn’t get to that,” and the words are accompanied by a quick laugh, they’re probably admitting to not being motivated to get an unpleasant or difficult thing done. They may even be coming to me for help with this very tendency. Usually “fixing” it isn’t too hard. A dose of self-reinforcement or reward, or pairing the desired behavior with what’s not so pleasurable, can often do the trick.
For example, years ago, I needed to study for the graduate record exam, the GRE. I’m not good at standardized tests and absolutely dreaded taking it again.
I was also a huge soap opera fan, specifically ”All My Children.” The tumultuous lives of the spicy characters were a delicious distraction from real life for me, so I conceived a plan for motivation. I made myself swear that I could watch one recorded episode for every hour I spent slaving over the books. It worked, and I scored high enough to get into grad school. The rest is history.
Yet procrastination may be an unwelcome piece of your everyday life. You might be absolutely paralyzed by anxiety when facing an action that for some reason, perhaps unknown to you, seems un-do-able. There’s a decision you need to make or a change you want to risk, yet you can’t seem to move off square one.
When procrastination is no longer funny..
You don’t laugh about your procrastination. Instead you feel humiliated by how insignificant your fears seem and chastise yourself, ”I don’t know why I can’t do this… everybody can do this.”
Sarah can’t open her mail, for fear that there will be bad news. Jason can’t begin the laundry and or being his paper because he doesn’t know where to start. Shondra won’t go to the gym because she dreads not knowing how to work the machines. Alex couldn’t order food at a drive-through, because she was too anxious and worried she’d forget something.
And shame increases exponentially every time each of them froze.
You might think that “procrastinators” lives aren’t productive or successful. However, the four examples above are all from people I worked with, who had great careers, wonderful families. What existed were pockets of anxiety, certain things that overwhelmed them. They might have a panic attack when trying to confront those things, which then developed into “panic about panic,” meaning the fear about panicking was far worse than their initial panic.
So why do you procrastinate?
1. Is it avoidance, as in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?
Sarah had had trouble with the IRS, due to not paying her taxes for several years. Her fear about opening mail was completely connected with that emotional trauma, which was re-triggered when official-looking envelopes arrived. She wasn’t simply putting things off. She hadn’t fought in a war, but for her, those couple of years had been highly traumatizing.