John has always had a problem with procrastination. In the 3rd grade it was the proverbial science project due on Monday that was being assembled at 10:00 on Sunday night. In college it was the 15-page paper done at 3 am the day it was due. Now it is deadline for the budget report at work, or filing taxes.
Anne has so much on her plate at work that she can’t think straight. Two reports that need to go out this week. Mother is coming into town and she is worrying about what to make for dinner. She wants to find cheaper car insurance, but doesn’t know where to start. Instead she finds herself shutting down, saying to herself that she’ll do it next week with a fresh start.
Sara’s partner, Mark, has been bugging her about finding a weekend to come with him to meet his parents. She keeps putting him off – excuses about work demands, about not feeling well.
Procrastination. Several faces, different sources. Let’s break them down:
John’s procrastination problem is long-standing. The fact that this started at an early age suggests a possible problem with undiagnosed, untreated attention deficit / hyperactivity disorder (AD/HD). Most cases are genetically linked, running in families, though the parents were often undiagnosed. The pattern usually shows up in childhood – procrastination along with losing things, trouble focusing, being impulsive, problems sitting still in class, high-risk behaviors. In adulthood there are continuing problems with making deadlines, piles of papers about the house, being late or forgetting appointment, along with starting projects that are never completed, and a persistent unreliability – can’t be counted on to pay the electric bill on time – that drives partners, and employers, crazy.
Often such folks who were bright did fine in high school because assignments were more structured with clear deadlines and the work seemed relatively easy. In college, the structure was less rigid, the work more difficult, but folks like John could manage to fake it even if they didn’t do the reading, or could pull out the big assignment at the last minute (while his friends have been working on it for weeks ahead of time, providing him with a secondary gain).
But what kept the procrastination working was that it was working. With that deadline – the gun to his head – John discovered that he could actually focus and think more clearly, priorities became clearer.
Anne is getting overwhelmed. Like John she is having trouble settling priorities, but the underlying problem is not AD/HD but anxiety. Faced and flooded with these feelings, her tendency is to push it all away.
Although Sara feels she “should” meet Mark’s parents, at the gut level, she really doesn’t want to – perhaps because she feels that it is too soon in the relationship, maybe because she worries about the actual meeting them. But instead of speaking up, being honest with Mark, and saying no, she instead just puts it off.
The way out
John needs to find out if he does, in fact, have AD/HD so he can treat it. While there is not a definitive test for AD/HD, there are a number of tests that a professional can use to narrow it down and eliminate other common possibilities, such as anxiety and depression. If it is found that John does, the treatment is usually a combination of medication, which can help him focus, and organizational skills.
The organizational skills involve John having a plan to tackle what he puts off. John tends to do easy before hard, because hard really is difficult, and to fall into all-or-nothing thinking – when it hits 3:00 he mentally considers the day over, and says he will tackle whatever the next day. Of course, he doesn’t.
What John needs to do instead is map out on Sunday night the 5 or 6 things that he absolutely needs to get done that week. This helps him set priorities. In the evening he needs to mentally map out the 3 things (not 30) that he needs to work on the next day. This will help prime his brain and help offset his waking up, feeling groggy because he didn’t sleep well, and push off the hard stuff once again.
That morning, he needs to start with the hardest first. He needs to set a timer and for an hour, then set the timer again for a 15-minute break. The break is important to reset his brain; the timing of the break is important so he doesn’t drift off to checking his email and get lost down some internet rabbit hole, and resurface 5 hours later. After the break, he does another hour round. Then he gives himself a reward for doing the hard stuff (like taking himself to lunch), then tackling easier stuff that doesn’t require so much concentration.
What he is doing here is creating his own structure, his own goals, his own deadlines, as well as finding success by breaking difficult work into small chucks. In order to keep his everyday life running, he also needs to create a lot of external prompts – post-it notes on his computer, phone alarms to remind of appointments – to keep him on track.
Anne emotionally can go from 0-60 with anxiety in a heartbeat, and once she does has trouble unscrambling all the content in her brain. To prevent this she needs to slow things down so she can rein in her anxiety before it goes over that tipping point. She can start by checking in with herself every hour and gauging her anxiety on a 1-10 scale. Once she realizes that she is getting up towards a 4 or 5, she needs to start taking deep breaths to calm herself, or get up and walk around just to clear her head.
Next, she needs begin to break the mass of problems into separate ones – work, mother, insurance – and set priorities – work first, then mother, then insurance. She then needs to take decisive behavioral action – start on the work assignment – to avoid getting lost and overwhelmed by worrying about how she should do it. If she starts to get overwhelmed along the way, she needs to stop and calm herself again, or ask for help.
Like John, she is trying to calm her emotional brain and utilize her rational brain as much as possible.
While Sara’s problem seems a bit different from John’s and Anne’s because it seems relational, it is similar in that Sara too is being avoidant. In her case it is not focusing and doing the difficult, but like Anne it is about anxiety – in her case about confrontation. She is ducking and weaving from Mark because she either gets anxious at the thought of telling him what she things and feels, or gets so confused herself between her shoulds and wants that she doesn’t really know what she thinks or feels.
Like Anne, she needs to slow it down. First, she needs to figure out on a gut level how she feels about the meeting the parents – wants to or not. If not, why not? Too soon, too anxious? If too soon, she needs to step up and explain this to Mark. If too anxious, she needs to think about what supports she might need from him to get through it.
The challenge for Sara is both learning to listen to her gut reactions rather than the rules in her head, and learning to approach anxiety and confrontation. She can do this Mark, but can practice this anywhere – not convincing herself that it’s not important when she gets the wrong change or order at Starbucks. It is about stepping up and speaking up when her anxiety is telling her to step back. With practice her gut feelings will get clearer, her ability to rely on them for information and be assertive, easier.
So, what’s the source of your procrastination? Track it down, come up with a plan to tackle it, get support from those around you.
Just don’t put it off.