Off the Couch

Thoughts about the therapeutic process, and the dynamics of client-therapist interactions.

To Procrastinate or Not: Do You Have a Choice?

A procrastinator looks at the problem of avoidance.

My only resolution this year was to get all of my client's invoices and insurance forms to them on time. I started off well. On January 1 I did all of the billing for December, printed out all of the statements, and put them in a file folder on my dining room table. Where they sat for two weeks. Somehow I kept forgetting to take the folder to my office. And now, at the beginning of February, instead of doing my accounts I am writing a blog about how much I hate bookkeeping.

If a client brought procrastinating behavior like this to me, I would look at the behavior from several points of view. My PT colleagues Bill Knaus http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/science-and-sensibility/201006/procrastination-test-uncover-delay-patterns , Len Fisher http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/untangling-lifes-complexities/201111/the-power-procrastination, Timothy Pychyl http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/201109/procrastination-oops-where-did-the-day-go,   and E.E. Smith http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/not-born-yesterday/201106/procrastination-basic-human-instinct all wonderfully describe many of these issues on their PT blogs. Besides trying to work with the behavior patterns, when I work with clients who avoid answering phone calls, reading their mail, paying bills, doing school or work tasks, writing, or anything else on a regular basis, I look for underlying psychological issues. In situations like mine, I might explore possible conflicts about being paid for the work, or a secret wish to feel deprived. Years ago my analyst suggested that I might be suffering from the pre-women's lib difficulty of engaging in what was, when I grew up, seen as a masculine activity. But I told him that my mother was a bookkeeper (and also one of those individuals whose checkbook was always balanced to the last penny), and that she would be horrified at my ineptitude in this area. He suggested that I was rebelling against her. It was certainly a possibility then, but, although we can't ever fully know our own unconscious, I don't think it's still a factor at this point in my life. The truth is that I just don't like doing it. I don't like housekeeping, either, which isn't associated with men, and which my mother also hated.  

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I think almost everyone procrastinates about something, usually something we don't like doing. Some years ago I took a class at an exclusive and highly acclaimed writing institute. My classmates were talented, hardworking, and many of them were significantly younger than me. I learned a great deal from the instructor, but perhaps one of the most important lessons had almost nothing to do with how to write. In almost every session, she commented on the fact that to become a published writer, you sometimes had to do things that you really didn't like doing.

For example, she encouraged us to read published articles in the magazines we wanted to write for, and try to write a piece in the same way those authors did. "If they got published," she would say, "some editor or publisher likes their style." She made it very clear that she was not saying to imitate these authors, but to learn what the editors bought - and to try to do it, in our own way and with our own interests. She also encouraged all of us, no matter what our ages or experience, to take internships with any publications that we could - small, local newspapers, large magazines, and anything else in between. "And then make yourself indispensable. Offer to do research for a writer, or copyedit, or write a piece for free. Straighten up the room where they store back issues. And if they ask you to clean out the refrigerator," she would say, "do it." Her point was that in order to make a living as a writer, you can't just write what you want to write. You certainly should continue to write for yourself, she said, but if you want to live off of your writing, you also have to do some things that you might not enjoy quite so much.

I think of this professor every month as I start to do my client billing. I love being a therapist. And I hate keeping track of the finances. I actually don't mind charging for the work - I think I'm pretty good at what I do, and clients get their money-worth from me. And I know that I'm extremely lucky to be able to support myself doing something I love. But I don't love the billing part. In case I haven't been clear, I really detest it. The problem is, I haven't been able to find a way to avoid doing it. I have hired a bookkeeper, only to find that I still have to keep records and even worse, I have to double check the bookkeeper's work. Really. So I might as well do it myself.

I have a decent software program that makes it a little easier - at least neither my clients nor I are dependent on my math skills. But still. I tell myself that I'll do a little bit every week and make it easier at the end of the month. But I don't.

A lawyer friend tells me that bills are the only documents her clients actually read. Another therapist reminds me that bills are crucial because they help us open up the issue of what money means to a client. And yet another says that they are extremely important because this is our livelihood, after all. All of which I know. 

I know this and I agree with it. I think my brain simply doesn't organize around things like balancing numbers or putting everything in a specific place.

Don't get me wrong. I like things neat and clean. I like my accounts balanced. And I can and do perform both activities. I just don't like doing them.

Which takes us back to the point of this blog. In order to get what we want and to do what we like, sometimes we have to do some things we don't want to do. I'm not talking about dangerous things, or morally wrong things, or offensive things. But things like cleaning a refrigerator or washing dishes or getting coffee for our boss. Or writing about something that isn't our chosen topic. Or paying bills. Or keeping records. And even though we don't enjoy them, we have to try to do them well.  Because they are often part of the very thing we do enjoy. So I am now going to finish doing my billing. But I'd also really like to hear what you do to get yourself to accomplish those tasks you would prefer to avoid forever.    

Image Source Page: http://organiseme.wordpress.com/2010/11/08/the-little-book-of-pro...   

 

F. Diane Barth, L.C.S.W., is a psychotherapist, teacher, and author in private practice in New York City.

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