How to Recognize Anxiety-Induced Procrastination

These five types of procrastination are commonly misunderstood.

Posted Aug 13, 2019

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Anxiety and procrastination go hand in hand. When we feel anxious about something, we'll put it off. Sometimes this is obvious to the person experiencing it. For instance, if you put off your driving test because you're scared of failure or of getting hurt while driving, or you're too nervous to ask out the person you have a crush on. However, the anxiety-procrastination link isn't always so clear to sufferers or observers.

Here are fives types of anxiety-related procrastination that are often overlooked or misunderstood. As you read each example, ask yourself if you have any tasks you’re putting off that fit that category. At the end of the article, I'll explain why acknowledging your anxiety can help, and I'll provide some tips.

1. When you're blaming someone else for your inaction.

Anxiety can manifest in typical ways, or it can look like anger or hopelessness. If there's something you're putting off due to anxiety, you might find yourself blaming your partner, coworkers, or parent for your inaction instead of acknowledging your anxiety.

There might be an extent to which others are contributing to your problem or getting in the way, but focusing on this can obscure self-responsibility and give you an excuse not to do the proactive behaviors that are available to you, but that feel stressful and anxiety-inducing.

2. When you're anxious about a task you have a lot of experience doing successfully.

Sometimes people get anxious about completing tasks they have a lot of experience with, particularly if some time has passed since the last time they did the task, if the stakes are higher, or the evaluation of their work will take a different form than it usually does.

Notice when you’re anxious about tasks you’ve done many times before, and ask yourself what’s making the task feel different this time. To identify tasks that fall into this category, think about the basic skills involved in a task, like filling in a form or studying for a test, even if the particulars or domains are different. 

To give yourself a reality check, you can remind yourself of all the objective evidence of your skills that your past successes provide.

3. When anxiety about a small aspect of a project is blocking your progress on the whole thing.

You might not feel nervous about all aspects of a task, but perhaps you feel nervous about just one aspect or a few aspects. For instance, you might not want to make a phone call but the rest of the task isn’t particularly nerve-wracking once you’ve gotten past that step. 

In these scenarios, people sometimes label themselves as being anxious about a task globally when 90% of the steps they’re not anxious about. Seeing this clearly can help you balance your thinking and feel more empowered.

4. When you feel strong resentment about having to do the task at all.

Anxiety gets camouflaged when other emotions you're experiencing are more dominant. I already mentioned when you're angry and blaming specific other people. Another scenario is when you feel general resentment about something you need to do that isn't about a specific person.

For instance, you feel resentment about doing aspects of a task that feel like a waste of time, or when you need to comply with a system or procedures that don't feel logical, fair, or caring. When anxious people feel like a system doesn't work for them, it can trigger their general sense of not fitting in, and their anxiety around that. Or, when someone is very anxious about perfectly complying with all rules, procedures that feel onerous can trigger anxiety about achieving the perfect compliance they're aiming for.

5. When your anxiety is manifesting as perfectionism.

Anxious people sometimes respond to their anxiety with perfectionism. When there is something they want to get really right they might design tasks in ways that are over the top. This can cause a task that might be quite manageable if kept at a reasonable scale to feel completely overwhelming and trigger procrastination. However, often the anxious person doesn't see that the way they're approaching a task is over the top compared to how most people would approach it. They don't realize that the basic task itself isn't nearly as difficult as what they've turned it into.

Why Acknowledging Your Anxiety Can Help

  • If you have anxiety, you'll have some strategies you use to move past it. If you don't, there are plenty of books and resources out there to help. Once you've labeled a problem as anxiety-related, then you can use your anxiety management strategies. For instance, you might break a task down into smaller chunks to make it more manageable. You'll still feel anxious but doing little bits at a time can help that feel tolerable. For me, I often find that exercise helps me cope during weeks in which I'm doing tasks that trigger my anxiety. Sometimes I'll even do tasks on my phone while walking slowly on the treadmill!
  • If you're blaming others for your procrastination, then acknowledging the role of your own anxiety can help you take self-responsibility and kick your butt into gear. Sometimes talking about your anxiety can help you have productive conversations about issues that need solving, such as when you're making decisions with your spouse or partner. Expressing vulnerability can trigger other people to respond in ways that are more caring, provided you don't overuse this strategy.
  • Acknowledging your anxiety can help you be more self-compassionate. Instead of beating yourself up for your procrastination, you can treat yourself kindly over whatever is working you up. There are times when asking for support to get through an anxiety-provoking task is appropriate too, especially if it's an area you typically don't reach out for help with.