People Skills

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The Cure For Procrastination: Looking Deeper

How worrying keeps us stuck

Helpful steps to handling procrastination are pretty established – break things into manageable chunks, use structure and support from others when you need it, prioritize and don’t take on too much at once – but there’s another question. Assuming we learn these steps, why do we still procrastinate? Procrastination usually gets us into trouble. We get nagged at home, sweat the deadlines at work, maybe even miss out on opportunities. Wouldn’t it be easier to just get it done? Sometimes, despite these strategies, there’s another factor in unrecognized anxiety that gets in the way.

 In his excellent book, “The Now Habit,” Neil Fiore, Ph.D. offers valuable insights and strategies to address anxiety. Some of these insights I’ve used here, as well as adding my own experience and perspective. In my work with stress management, I define stress/anxiety as the perception of threat beyond our coping skills. What’s important here is that stress is a perception. If I have a phobia of spiders, I’ll see one and panic. If you collect insects, you’ll see one and be fine. Dealing with procrastination means finding a way to deal with the anxiety we’re avoiding.

 I’d like to explore different kinds perceptions that might lead us to feel anxious and procrastinate.

-We might have anxiety about our ability to do the task well enough, up to a high standard.

-Our anxiety might be about understanding how to do the task, feeling we’ll “mess it up.”

-We could feel anxious if a task seems too big and overwhelming.

-We feel anxious and resentful that someone else is telling us what to do. Often we feel we “should” or “have to” do something that’s someone else’s agenda.

-We can fear success. If I do this task well, someone will always expect me to do it this well.

 An approach to anxiety that’s very successful is used in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Remember stress or anxiety is based on a perception. A perception is a thought. The basic model of CBT is that our thoughts lead to how we feel and what we do. If someone thinks, “I’m going to fail,” he’s likely to feel upset and is less likely to do well. If he does do well, he writes it off as a fluke; if he does poorly, he feels it proves his expectation. In the case of procrastination, we have a thought that makes us feel anxious which leads to not doing. These thoughts are an automatic response; we might not even be aware of them. What’s important is that these thoughts are usually extreme, a distortion or untrue. Recognizing that we have automatic thoughts allows us to realize they’re an exaggeration, and lets us substitute a more positive way of thinking.

 I’ll give examples of possible automatic negative thoughts underlying the anxious feelings I mentioned, and the positive thoughts that could help. This is called "cognitive restructuring:" we reframe the situation in a way that works for us.

-Our anxious thought of not living up to a standard might be “I have to be perfect.” This is a real burden! The fact is nobody’s perfect. We can calm ourselves down with breathing, counting, or anything that works, and substitute, “Nobody’s perfect. I can do a good job.”

 -Our worry about not understanding how to do something right can reflect a thought like “I’m not smart enough, I don’t measure up.” Calming down is first, and then we substitute, “If I need help, it’s OK to ask. I can do fine.”

 -If a task seems overwhelming, we might have a thought, “I fail at things. There’s no way I can do this.” After we calm ourselves, we can substitute, “I do fine when I take this one step at a time.”

 -If we fear loss of control because we’re doing what someone else wants us to do, we might think, “People are always bossing me around. I never get to pick what I do.” We might calm down and think, “I have reasons for choosing to do this. I can make each choice separately.” Sometimes we have to do activities we don’t like for a job or school and feel it’s unfair. We make a choice: we want the job, or we want to graduate.

 -Fearing success is more common than it sounds. “People expect too much of me” or “I always have to be the best and I can’t.” are common automatic thoughts. We can substitute, “I do a good enough job” and “I can handle this,” which are probably true.

 If we realize that our avoidance is a way of handling anxiety, we can consciously do what calms us down, and address the perception that makes this task stressful. Getting started really helps because if we have something done, even if it's only a part of the task, beats getting nothing done. We feel relieved. We need to think about this good feeling because it’s part of the reward for facing down that nasty thought with positive self talk. We can tell ourselves“I know I can do this for (time limit) and I’ll feel so much better … about myself.” Piece by piece, the job gets done. Add in that we get rid of the hassles created by avoidance, and it’s a definite win-win.

Marcia Eckerd, Ph.D., is an attending faculty in the Department of Psychiatry at Norwalk Hospital.

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