4 Ways Anxiety Can Get in the Way of Getting Things Done

Do your anxiety-related thinking habits contribute to procrastination?

Posted Dec 19, 2018

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If you're prone to anxiety, you may also be susceptible to subtle kinds of pessimism that can contribute to avoiding tasks that need to get done. I've written quite a bit about how I'm predisposed to anxiety.  I thought I'd give some specific examples of how anxiety-related thinking biases manifest for me and contribute to procrastination and unnecessarily dreading certain activities. This will illustrate the general principles, and show you how these biases crop up in real life situations.

Note that these are all pretty mild thinking errors, which can make them harder to spot in yourself but also less intimidating to correct.

1.  You overestimate the time or effort required to complete tasks you've been putting off.

About a week ago l had let three days of dishes build up in my sink. Several times each day I'd been saying to myself "I need to do those dishes" and silently grumbling and groaning about it. I had a bunch of awkwardly-shaped items to wash (e.g., the molds for homemade popsicles) and wasn't looking forward to it.

In reality, it only took me about 15 minutes to complete and about half of that was washing easy items like plates and cutlery.  If you'd asked me to estimate how long the unpleasant part of the task (washing the awkward items) was going to take, I think I would've overestimated by about 50 percent. This seems a minor exaggeration (and it is) but this type of mental bias can be the difference between you just getting on with getting a task done and dragging your heels about it.   

Solution: When you're putting off a task, estimate how long you think the unpleasant part of the task will take (number of minutes) and then time how long it actually takes. Get a feel for how much you tend to overestimate by and then mentally correct for this the next time you're putting off a job.  Note: I sometimes find that I underestimate how long a task will take overall, but still overestimate the unpleasant aspect. Try measuring if you have the same pattern.

2. You underestimate work you've done already.

I have writing goals for each year.  I knew I'd fallen a little behind with these but mentally I was thinking "Maybe I only did about 50 percent of what my goal was."  When I actually did a quick count up, I was at around 80 percent of my goal.  When I assessed objectively the picture was much more positive than my subjective assessment. 

Why is this important? When you underestimate your past/existing accomplishments you'll have less confidence when it comes to taking future action.   

Solution:  Look for simple, ballpark ways to objectively count your accomplishments, as in my example. Also, try these self-reflection questions to learn to take a broader view of your accomplishments and successes.

3. You feel excessively guilty and personalize it when you've let a task slip through the cracks.

Have you ever told someone you'll do a 5-30 minute job for them, and then weeks (or even months) later you still haven't done it and you're feeling horrendously guilty and wondering how you'll face that person again? Or, perhaps you've said "I'll have that done by tomorrow" and then you don't. Even the most diligent and caring people do this type of thing sometimes. 

If you're anxious, you probably overestimate how much of a big deal this is to the other person involved, and overly personalize your behavior. You might think you're a horrible, disorganized person for putting off the task, when in reality, this is more of a universal situation that everyone finds themselves in from time to time.  

Solution:  Try recognizing that whoever is waiting on you to do the task has probably done the same thing to someone else, and is likely to be at least somewhat understanding, even if they might also be a little bit annoyed.  In modern life, we're all juggling lots of priorities and limited energy.  If you're trying to be diligent, you're a step ahead of people who don't even bother trying!  When you're not as wracked with guilt and embarrassment, you're more likely to get on and do whatever you've put off, or deal with the situation in some other responsible way.

4. You overcomplicate solutions.

I've written about this phenomenon several times before so I'll just briefly summarize it here. Calm, optimistic people tend to assume a problem will have a good, achievable solution, and it's just a matter of identifying what that is.  Anxious people often doubt an easy solution exists and might even be suspicious of solutions that seem too easy.  

Solution:  Get in the habit of looking for and trying the absolute easiest, low-cost fix to a problem, just to see if it might work. Warning: this example is a little TMI but it's the most recent, real-life instance I can think of!  My two-year-old put half a roll of toilet paper down the toilet and blocked it up. After plunging and snaking it, it still wasn't working very well. I didn't want to call a plumber so I thought I'd just give the pipes a break for a few days and use a trash can for any paper used for #1s.  This was a bit gross but it actually worked, and was far less hassle and cost than arranging a plumber.  I had thought there was about a 50 percent chance my plan would solve the issue, so I certainly wasn't completely confident about it. If any easy, low-cost solution exists, try it, even if you're not sure it will work. Anxious people dislike uncertainty and therefore will often go with worse but more certain solutions over better but less certain solutions (I've written more about this in my book, The Healthy Mind Toolkit).

Summing Up

If you find yourself procrastinating, dreading tasks that aren't particularly onerous, or getting worked up about minor problems, your anxious thinking style might be contributing. People who are anxiety-prone are hypervigilant to potential threats, always on the lookout for things that might go wrong, and dislike uncertainty. This can lead to overestimating negatives, trying to avoid any emotional discomfort, and tending to be more vulnerable to certain emotions, like guilt or embarrassment related to letting themselves or other people down. However, there are some practical solutions to turn around these patterns so they don't impact your life (including your success and relationships), and I've outlined some ideas you can start within this article.