If you are reading this then I am guessing you, or someone you know, may be procrastinating and stuck in a rut right now. You are not alone as up to 95% of the population procrastinate to some degree.
Perhaps something needs to get done but you keep putting it off?
Maybe you are distracted by life and even though you have a task or goal that is important, you just don’t know where or how to start?
Possibly you feel overwhelmed at the thought of starting something new?
If you are similar to how I used to be, I would leave it to the last possible minute and then have to pull off a few all nighters to meet a deadline …..
It was exhausting.
I used to come up with all the excuses I could think of, to avoid doing “it” ….
Back when I was studying for my psychology degree, the deadline for submission was looming, but I would justify binge watching a box set by doing the ironing at the same time. I justified that the ironing needed to be done and I would write my paper as soon as I had finished. But …. I was ironing socks and bedsheets. They were so not the priority at that time in my life, or now for that matter!
I was using the ironing as an excuse to binge on a box set because I didn’t know how to start my essay. As soon as everything else was in order, it would be fine ….
But life rarely works that way. When is “everything ever done”, dusted and sorted? I started my degree when my daughter was 10 weeks old. What was I thinking? Nothing was sorted back then!
The real reason why I failed to prioritise what I needed to do was because I was scared. Scared of being judged, scared of not getting it done to the standard I wanted, scared of failing. I was scared that I had taken on too much….. This feeling of being scared or fearful is our anxiety getting in our way.
So what has procrastination got to do with anxiety?
Well, anxiety is a feeling of unease fear and nervousness. Everyone feels anxious at some point, such as sitting an exam, having a medical test or interview, but everyone will experience it differently and it can be mild or severe.
Anxiety is not something we can avoid altogether but it is something we can learn to manage. Some people find it hard to control their fears and anxieties and their feelings are more constant, last longer and can often affect their daily lives. This is when an anxiety specialist can help them get to the root cause and give them new coping strategies to help them manage their feelings.
For other people, the symptoms of their anxiety are less intense, and they will have found and implemented their own coping strategies such as perfectionism and procrastination to protect them from the feeling of being judged.
So what can we do if we find ourselves procrastinating?
Start by being curious and try to identify what you are anxious about. It will usually comedown to a fear of failure, a fear of being judged or something similar. This fear may even be subconscious, because you may never have taken the opportunity to think about it before.
Most often, we then distract ourselves with something easy and fun. In my case, it was a box set. So I didn’t need to stress myself out now because I was enjoying myself in the moment.
But the problem is, whilst easy and fun is, well, easy and fun, sometimes we have to focus on what we HAVE to do instead of what we WANT to do.
And as the deadline looms, we may go into a complete panic mode and end up pulling an all nighter to finish what we may have had several weeks or even months to achieve.
Everything else is put on hold as the initial fear, (in my case fear of failure and fear of judgement) is now guaranteed if I don’t produce something …. I will do what ever it takes to avoid the embarrassment of saying I failed to even start ….
Now, sometimes we can pull it off and we can then convince ourselves that I am one of these people that strives on stress and work best when I leave everything to the last minute. That was me!
But this strategy is not sustainable in the long term. I have previously written about the impact a lack of sleep has on our anxiety and our health. When we are in the fight or flight mode of pulling an all nighter, we find ourselves snacking on whatever is in the cupboards rather than nourishing our bodies. We may spend hours at a desk with little movement in our bodies.
This strategy is also unhelpful if we procrastinate about things that don’t have deadlines. Maybe we want to lose weight, stop drinking, start a business, write a blog, go to the gym, spend more time with family or friends, start a relationship ….. what ever it may be for you.
If we have a coping strategy whereby we need to wait for things to get dire before we can take action …. it does not make for a happy fulfilled life.
How to recognise if you are procrastinating?
We can all reprioritise tasks because something more urgent or important has come up. That is fine, procrastinating is more about avoidance indefinitely.
Ask yourself these questions:
- Is my day filled with menial tasks instead of important or urgent tasks?
- Do I end my day feeling as it I have been busy, but not feeling as if I have achieved much?
- Are there items on my to do list that have been there a long time, even when they are important?
- Do I wait to be in the right mood, or wait for the perfect time, before I take on a big important task?
- Do I read emails or messages several times over without deciding what to do with them there and then?
- Do I sit down to do a task then immediately distract myself with something less important, like making myself a cup of tea?
- Do I prioritise unimportant tasks that others have requested me to do, instead of focusing on my own important tasks?
- Do I say yes to too many things, knowing that I won’t get round to doing what is important for me?
If you have answered yes to a few of these questions, then there is a high chance that you are procrastinating.
It all starts with awareness
Procrastination is defined as the habit of delaying an important task, usually by focusing on fun and easy tasks instead. It can undermine our careers and restrict our life in so many ways. It is an active choice, but it can have serious consequences and can lead us to feel even more anxious, guilty, or ashamed by our own actions, or lack of.
If we are stuck in the habit loop of procrastinating, then we are more likely to suffer from anxiety and low self-esteem.
It is not the same as being lazy, lazy is the unwillingness to act.
So, remind yourself that YOU are not a procrastinator, you have just taught yourself the habit of procrastinating as it is a coping strategy for anxious feelings. Procrastination does not define you, it is just a behaviour that has been learnt over time.
Think about it, none of us were born procrastinating. We didn’t think “This standing upright thing everyone is doing looks tough. What if I fall over and make a fool of myself? What if I am not good enough to walk? I think I will just stay here on my back forever”.
So understand that procrastination is a coping strategy that we have learnt to avoid doing something we don’t want to do or prioritise. It is a coping strategy to avoid anxiety and stress.
Become familiar with the fear that is triggering you and acknowledge it. It may be that this fear was something that worried you 20 years ago. That fear may not serve you now.
Next, what is your go-to thing to do when you are avoiding something? Notice what you tend to do and then you can be more aware of when you are procrastinating in the future. I realised that every time I sat at my desk to make a start on something I had been avoiding, I would immediately get up and make a cup of tea.
Acknowledge the anxious thought and the coping strategy and talk to it, don’t try to hide it or push it away. You may choose to say something along the lines of “Thank you, I know you are trying to keep me safe by helping me avoid what I need to do, but I am OK. I’ve got this”.
I know it sounds crazy, talking to yourself, but we need a pattern interrupt to avoid us doing the habit we have created in the past.
Make a start. It only needs to be for 10 minutes, but I promise you, once we start, it is never as bad as it seems and often momentum and confidence increases and we finish the task so much quicker than expected.
So to summarise, treat your procrastination habit just as you would treat any habit that is not serving you well.
Be curious, acknowledge it, interrupt the thoughts, JFDI, reward yourself with something.
If anxiety is something you or your loved ones struggle with regularly, then please get in touch to discuss how I can help you overcome the underlying cause of your anxiety, so you can live your best life.