“Honey, did you Venmo the gardener?”
“I meant to but forgot.”
“Did you remember to call that new client?”
“Yeah, but I didn’t get to it…”
“Hey, did you get that paper done?”
“Mom, stop bugging me. I had to go to practice and was tired.”
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.
A quick “fix” for normal procrastination…
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. Usually “fixing” it isn’t too hard. You can either give yourself an award for the desired behavior. Or you can pair an undesired consequence with your procrastination so that you get “punished.”
Here’s an example of #1. 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 study material. It worked, and I scored high enough to get in grad school. The rest is history.
A friend’s story is an example of the second option. The problem was that she kept putting off the chore of weeding her garden until it became so overgrown sometimes it would take an entire weekend to get it back into shape. So she didn’t want to choose that “punishment.” So, her belief became, “It’s silly! It takes me way less time to pop out for a few minutes in the morning than the times when I really let it go and have to dedicate a day or two to catching up.”
Common sense, right?
These are the every day, garden (pun intended) variety types of procrastinations that can be a part of being a human.
Yet procrastination can take on a more ominous place in your everyday life. You might be absolutely paralyzed by anxiety when facing an action that for some reason, perhaps unknown to you, seems overwhelming. You need to make a decision, or choose to take a risk, yet you can’t seem to move off square one.
When procrastination is no longer manageable or funny…
These procrastinations aren’t a laughing matter; 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 email, for fear that there will be bad news. Jason can’t begin a paper for his college class because it feels overwhelming. Shondra won’t go to the gym because she dreads not knowing how to work the machines. Alex can’t order food at a drive-through, because she’s too anxious that she’d sound silly.
Shame washes over you every time you freeze.
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 apparent procrastination 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.
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.You’ll open your mail.
Most importantly, 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 and republished on June 6, 2022.