Muriel Cooper
Psychologist in Mornington

Happiness and success

 

ProcrastinationDealing with the bad feelings around procrastination

Procrastinating makes us feel awful so why do we do it? Because as bad as the feelings are when we've put something off, they're often not as bad as the feelings we have when we're trying to start something. 

If you learn how to deal with the bad feelings of starting a task, often you can overcome your propensity to put things off.

If you're a procrastinator, I don't have to tell you how annoying, frustrating and stressful it is. You may know that procrastination is caused by factors like fear of disappointment from oneself or others, in fact you can make the task so scary that your survival brain will make you avoid it because it senses that it is threatening.  Also the task could be stressful to do - hence avoidance of the stress of doing (and so you create the stress of not doing) - isn't it ironic? Then there's perfectionism ("I'll never get it just right"), lack of organisation and so on.

Many procrastinators justify their stalling tactics by convincing themselves that they "work better under pressure" (this may be true, but is it just that they always put themselves under pressure and so don't know any other way?). The result is almost always stressful.

Solutions offered often focus on your thoughts as a procrastinator and ask you to challenge distorted thinking – like: "I work best under pressure", "I can only do this if I get it perfect", "it's too late to try now" (no it isn't), or "I'm stupid to even bother trying".

Challenging these dysfunctional thoughts is always a good idea, but it doesn't address the emotional component of procrastination – the stress, anxiety and depression; feelings of worthlessness, fear – even boredom!

Here's a simple method for overcoming procrastination over a specific task when emotions are involved but, it will ask you to sit with all the uncomfortable feelings just mentioned - and put up with them.

I call it active procrastination because you are deliberately procrastinating, that is, exposing yourself to the bad feelings instead of passive procrastination – that is avoiding the bad feelings by doing something else (action and distraction) which is often at the heart of procrastination.

Passive procrastination can involve being distracted away from your task by eating, drinking, 'interneting', reading, watching TV or doing any number of activities which are often prescribed by psychologists in order to overcome worry and anxiety. In this case 'action and distraction' isn't a coping strategy – it's just taking you away from the task you are committed and determined to do. So 'action and distraction' can lead to procrastination when in other circumstances it's an excellent coping strategy.

So, here's how to actively procrastinate – feel the bad feelings and do it anyway.

'Active procrastination'

  1. Select the task you want to do (start your essay or report for example) – make it one thing
  2. Put yourself in the place where you will do the task – e.g. at your computer, in front of your toolbox etc.
  3. Wait (this can take quite some time so don't overdo it; be sensible and if you don't succeed, try again)
  4. Accept the discomfort of any emotion you feel while you are waiting – even if it is several emotions (like stress, anxiety, anger, boredom) – 'surf them' like a wave. The wave of emotion may come but you need to know that it will pass, like a wave always leaves the shore – it comes and it goes
  5. Keep waiting and let it wash over you until it all passes and you are ready to start the task
  6. Begin – and don't worry if you don't finish – it's making a start that counts.

If the bad feelings/emotions are particularly uncomfortable – try the 6-second breath while you're waiting (deep chest breath – hold for 6 – let out slowly for 6) which lowers your stress and arousal slightly.

But whatever you do – hang in there!

You might be surprised at how quickly the parade of bad feelings passes and you're left with nothing but the task. The goal is to accept the discomfort of the bad feelings and know that they're only feelings, they will pass; then make a start.

Good luck!

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