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6 Tips for Overcoming Anxiety-Related Procrastination

Understand the six types of anxiety-related procrastination.

There are at least six kinds of anxiety-related procrastination. Here's how to understand each one—and start overcoming them.

1. Procrastination due to your working memory being overwhelmed.

For example, you get overwhelmed by all the notices that your child brings home from school. They need their swimming gear on Thursday, something for Show-and-Tell on Monday, $2 for something in two weeks on Wednesday, etc. If you're like my therapy clients, even putting things on the calendar as they come in feels overwhelming or your calendar gets too messy.

The solution to this is to find a way to be reliably reminded only at the time you need to think about something.

Some of my clients have liked an idea that comes from a book called Getting Things Done. How it works: Get 31 cardboard folders, and label them for each day of the month (1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc). I like to use "file jackets" for this purpose rather than manila folders (so that things don't fall out).

When something comes in that you need to add to your to-do list, file it in the correct folder based on the day you need to think about it. Reuse the folders the next month. Reducing the need to make decisions about what to do with new information will free up your willpower for other things.

2. Procrastination due to intolerance of uncertainty.

Intolerance of uncertainty is an important cause of anxiety problems. These are some signs intolerance of uncertainty is causing your procrastination:

  • You have a general tendency to stay stuck on pause whenever you feel uncertain about doing something (i.e., you avoid situations and tasks that involve feeling unsure).
  • You overcomplicate the issue of where to start. You don't know how to do all the steps in a task so you avoid doing the first logical step.
  • You like to mentally work through every possible scenario before you take the plunge. You get caught up in thinking about the details rather than the big picture.
  • You try to do too much yourself rather than delegate/outsource to others, because you can only be 100 percent confident in yourself.

3. Procrastination due to overestimating the number of tasks you can get done in the time available.

Sometimes people are surprised to realize they're prone to both positive and negative cognitive biases. An example of a positive bias is overestimating how much you can realistically get done in a particular window of available time. Biting off more than you can realistically chew is a common cause of anxiety and avoidance.

Try a self-experiment where you track how much you actually get done from your to-do list each day. Record this each evening for a week. The following week, write a shorter to-do list that reflects the average number of tasks you were able to complete per day.

Overestimating how many tasks you can get done may or not be anxiety-related. When it is anxiety-related, it tends to be because on some level, you're worried that it'll be a catastrophe if you don't get everything done.

4. Procrastination due to all-or-nothing thinking or unrelenting standards.

All-or-nothing thinking is a hallmark of anxiety. Could you save yourself some stress by doing a task you've been avoiding in a more moderate way?

For example, if reading 25 articles for your essay is something you're avoiding doing, would you still feel the need to avoid the task if you set yourself a more moderate goal—say, reading five articles?

Would you procrastinate less about cleaning the shower if you just gave it a quick spray and wipe and pulled the hair out of the drain hole, rather than spending 30 minutes on it?

Try: Identify one task that you'd be less likely to avoid if you reduced your standards (and where you're willing to try this).

5. Procrastination due to predicting a negative outcome.

Often when people drag their heels on a task, it's because they're predicting a negative outcome. For example

  • expecting someone will react badly to you raising an issue
  • expecting to struggle with a task
  • expecting a task to not go smoothly.

Tip: Half the battle is noticing that you're making a negative prediction. Recognize that a negative outcome is only one of the possible outcomes. Try the three questions technique (worst, best, most realistic).

6. Procrastination due to an uneven cognitive profile.

It's possible to be very smart and successful but to still have some difficulties with particular cognitive skills such as initiating, planning, or sequencing (putting together a string of steps in a logical order to complete a complex task).

These difficulties may not show up on familiar tasks. They're likely to be most obvious when a task is new, you have to make decisions about how to go about the task, and the task is in an arena you feel anxious about (such as computers) and your anxiety is sucking up some of your cognitive processing capacity.

If you find initiating, planning, or sequencing difficult compared to your general cognitive capacity, try factoring this in. Find a way to have other people give you a hand up with the things you find difficult (e.g., help you plan the steps) and be kinder to yourself.

Recognize that some of your anxiety about starting or planning complex self-driven tasks may be because you find it difficult on a cognitive level. In other words, don't misattribute your behavior to laziness or poor motivation—it will just make you feel bad about yourself and more likely to procrastinate.

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