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 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 a 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 was 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 in 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 decision you need to be 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?
- 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.
- Is it Attention Deficit Disorder?
The field of ADD is immense, and I’m not an expert in it. But people with ADD and ADHD have neurological differences that causes them to severely struggle with focus. Jason was unable to do laundry or begin a school paper was more about focus. People with focusing problems can get lost in what seem to others simply organizational processes, and shame leads them to problems with self-worth.
- Is it the consequence of helicopter or abusive parenting?
If things were done for you as a child, or even as an adult child, you may not have learned how to organize your own thinking, prioritize your own choices, or navigate small (or large) failures. If you had a helicopter parent, you may have learned, “Even if I don’t do it, it still gets done.”
Shondra hadn’t been allowed to make mistakes because her parent accomplished those unfamiliar-to-you tasks for her. However, this deprived her of the opportunity to problem-solve and develop her own sense of self-competence. She’d never been allowed to navigate unfamiliar territory, and so the unknown or “looking stupid” was terrifying.
In more extreme dynamics, if you were abused as a child, or very heavily criticized, you can also develop the tendency to stay invisible. You fear making a mistake, or looking like you don’t know something. And it can paralyze you.
- Is it perfectionism, worry, self-doubt, or anxiety?
Alex, who had a bad problem with procrastination, also suffered from huge insecurities. She didn’t know how to expect anything but perfectionism from herself, and yet, was also terrified of looking or sounding as if she wasn’t in perfect control.
So, knowing what’s underneath procrastination can lead to different treatments. If it’s past trauma, then trauma-related work needs to occur, whether that’s EMDR or some other kind of trauma work. If it’s a focusing issue, then techniques like biofeedback or neuro-feedback might be helpful, or medication is a possibility. If it’s a product of poor or abusive parenting, there may be an underlying depression that needs to be addressed. If it’s mainly anxiety, then calming techniques such as mindfulness or meditation could be useful, hypnosis is a possibility, cognitive work (challenging those irrational thoughts) and regular exercise could also be helpful.
Confront your shame, show compassion for yourself as you acknowledge your vulnerability, and then begin to unravel the how and why of your procrastination.
And you’ll get that paper done. You’ll order that chicken sandwich. And you’ll open your mail.
And you’ll enjoy so much more freedom.
You can hear more about mental health and many other topics by listening to my podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Subscribe to my website and receive one weekly newsletter including my weekly blog post and podcast! If you’d like to join my FaceBook closed group, then click here and answer the membership questions! Welcome!
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Originally published on May 20, 2018; updated on August 1, 2020.