How to Beat Procrastination
May 19th, 2014; Posted in Emotional & Mental Health
Have you gotten caught in the cycle of procrastination? It might start with optimism about what you’re going to get done this time. Gradually it can lead to feeling overwhelmed, guilty paralysis, or even magical thinking. Perhaps you find yourself distracted, taking breaks, getting a snack, or avoiding doing the work that will move you forward and focusing instead on small tasks. If you get caught in the cycle of procrastination you can easily feel discouraged overwhelmed and wonder “what’s wrong with me!”
For many people, the cycle of procrastination is a roller coaster. You might make some progress and feel good about yourself and your goals. Then, as a reward perhaps, you ease up and suddenly things start piling up again. Or perhaps you find yourself procrastinating one project, then suddenly everything has piled up and you feel overwhelmed and unsure of even where to begin. It can become a cycle that wears you down and lead to negative thoughts and feelings.
The Components of Procrastination
While everyone is different, many people experience certain thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in procrastination.
You might use words like “should”, “need” and “ought to” which tend to generate anxiety because they imply some shortcoming. Underlying the statement, “I should be able to meet the deadline” is “but I may not be able to.” Using “want” instead can reduce the emotional intensity attached to “should” statements.
Distortions in thinking such as labeling one’s self or behavior can also support procrastination. If you label yourself as a procrastinator you are more likely to behave accordingly. Labeling others or the situation can also affect your behavior; for example, “this isn’t going to impact me much anyway,” “they’re not going to appreciate my work,” “they shouldn’t expect this from me anyway.”
Anxiety, fear and dread are often associated with procrastination; turning to less urgent but easier and more pleasurable activities is a common method of coping with these feelings. For some people, this might be turning to snacks or food as a way of distracting and taking a break. It is only when the feelings of discomfort reach unbearable levels that the procrastinator acts. Often this means using a large surge of energy to get things done, which leaves the person feeling drained and exhausted afterwards resulting in things piling up all over again.
The procrastinator may choose small, short term rewards over larger, long term ones, often to his or her own detriment. In a job search, for example, this might mean focusing on reworking and reworking your resume instead of taking action on pursuing active job leads. Sometimes, this might mean engaging in behaviors which are less important or completely irrelevant to the task at hand in order to satisfy more immediate needs for comfort. Generally, this might mean taking a break or getting a snack. So if you find yourself overeating or snacking during the day while working on tasks you might ask yourself, “what am I procrastinating?”
Why Do We Procrastinate?
There are many reasons for procrastination and they may be different for each task you are procrastinating. Here are few of the most common:
1. Fear of Failure. Fear of failure ultimately assumes, “What I produce is a direct reflection of how much ability I have.” From this perspective, ability = self worth, production = self worth, and self worth = ability = performance. From this assumption, as long as you procrastinate, you’ll never have to confront the “limits” of your ability. Ultimately, it’s easier to see oneself as lazy, disorganized, or uncooperative than inadequate or unworthy. If you’re disorganized, you could theoretically “get organized”. If you believe that you are inadequate or unworthy, this is as a person, not a behavior, and thus, it can’t be changed so it’s better to avoid facing it. Of course, realistically, this isn’t true and what can be changed is that belief system itself. A therapist can help you with this if this applies to you as often these belief systems are deeply entrenched and sometimes buried beyond our awareness.
2. Perfectionism. Perfectionism is built upon unrealistic attitudes and beliefs. Examples include: “mediocrity breeds contempt,” “there is a right way,” “I can’t stand to lose,” “all or nothing.” Ultimately, what is feared is what less than perfection means or reflects about who you are (your self-worth). When things aren’t perfect, you might fear that others will judge you as inadequate or perhaps you judge yourself as a failure. The fear of being less than perfect can be so strong as to prevent you from taking action on what matters to you. Perhaps deep inside you believe you are imperfect and thus hide this “truth” via procrastinating. The solution is to replace “all or nothing” thinking with a recognition that you have multiple attributes, that your self-worth is not tied to your accomplishments.
3. Fear of Success. The belief systems that underlie fear of success are, “I’m not worth it”, or “Where do I go from here?”. One or more of these beliefs or versions of them may apply to you.
I’m not worth it assumes that you’re not deserving. It can sound like, “who do you think you are?” “Where do I go from here” might ultimately be a fear of maintaining. Feeling as if you’re an imposter and though you might be successful if you worked really hard, it would take too much energy to maintain that success and continue to meet everyone’s expectations. For example, this fear might show up with emotional overeating. It might sound like, “if I were actually to lose weight then I’d have to maintain it, others would expect that of me and I’d only end up disappointing everyone.”
How to Beat Procrastination
1. Recognize when you are procrastinating. You might not necessarily be aware of the little things you’re procrastinating. Notice if you’re getting distracted, daydreaming, doodling, taking more frequent breaks or snacking more, working on tasks that aren’t a high priority, etc. Become aware of your favorite procrastination tactics and learn to catch yourself as soon as you “wander off.” For example, when I was studying for my big licensing exam, I recall having the urgent need to polish my silver candlesticks. Uh, yeah, not at all related. Fortunately, it was just a small break and I did pass my exam!
2. Break inertia – do something small to start. Just get started! Say you’ve been procrastinating exercise. Start with 10 minutes of activity – a brief walk around the neighborhood. That’s it. Don’t expect more of yourself or judge 10 minutes as not good enough. The key is just to get started with something very small to break the procrastination cycle.
3. Divide your project into manageable pieces. Recently, I decided to organize all my files, documents and media into a new system. This was a large project and felt draining. I set smaller goals such as “the first shelf of the bookshelf”, “the DVD’s”, “top file drawer.” Breaking things down into smaller sections helped me to focus on that one area instead of the project as a whole.
4. Set attainable, specific sub goals. If you have a large project, see how you can break it into smaller projects. When I organized my office, I set the smaller goal to do one file per day. I could manage one file per day instead of the bigger project, all my files, which felt too overwhelming. Achieving these smaller goals also made me feel more accomplished and motivated as I went along.
5. Don’t sabotage yourself – eliminate distractions. First of all, you have to recognize when something is actually a distraction. It can be easy to say, “I have to do this” when perhaps it can actually wait and you’re using that task as a distraction. It also helps to clear your work area. Sometimes, when I need to focus on a particular project, I may even leave my work area completely as other “work” can easily become a distraction. When I’m surrounded only by my project, it can help me stay focused on the task at hand. If you feel overly disorganized, you may want to consider hiring a professional organizer to help you manage your space as disorganization can lead to sabotage and fatigue.
6. Reward non-procrastinating behavior. If you do stay focused on your task, give yourself a non-food reward! Go out for the evening and do something fun with others, enjoy your favorite activity, or do something that rejuvenates you. Just do something that fills you back up (generally these are things that are soothing, calming, connecting, playful and not mindless activities). You will have to watch out for slipping into not doing anything for a longer amount of time and having things pile up again. Choosing activities that rejuvenate you vs numbing activities such as excessive TV watching will help keep you out this trap.
7. Watch your thinking! Be on the lookout for labels you apply to yourself such as “I’m lazy”, shoulds, fears, and underlying beliefs of inadequacy or unworthiness. These hidden beliefs can sabotage your best efforts.
8. Do a little bit at a time. Research shows that PhD students who work on their dissertation (a major project!) a little bit at a time accomplish it faster than those who work in long stretches of time. This applies to writing a book or any other major project. The key is to do just a little bit each day instead of saving things up for “when I have time.” You’ll accomplish things faster if you work on it consistently and regularly vs blocking off days and waiting until then to work on the task.
Get Help for Procrastination
While much of changing procrastination is simply about creating new habits, procrastination can also reflect deeper fears and anxieties about your worth, competency, capabilities and value as a person. These feelings and beliefs are often deep seated, having begun their formation at an early age. It can be difficult to change these beliefs about yourself on your own and often, they are hiding under the surface driving behavior without us even recognizing it.
If you resonate with some of the reasons why we procrastinate, you may want to work with a counselor or therapist to help you change your beliefs about yourself into more healthy and realistic beliefs. If you find yourself stuck in unhealthy behavioral habits such as snacking when you’re not hungry, these might also reflect ways of soothing negative beliefs that get stirred up when you move towards your goals and dreams. Ultimately, you want to move towards your values and goals and not away from your fear (procrastination). A therapist can help you work towards that goal and get more of what you really want out of your life.
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