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4 Procrastination Tips for When You're Feeling Down

Strategies for overcoming procrastination when you're sad or depressed.

Olhar Angolano/Unsplash
Source: Olhar Angolano/Unsplash

Procrastination has elements of being an emotional problem (we procrastinate when we feel depressed, anxious, or bored), and a project management problem (we don't see a route to getting things done that feels manageable.)

I've written about procrastination strategies many times before (e.g., here and here), but these are some I've been using lately when I've been feeling down in the dumps.

1. Switch up your priorities.

It's currently very hot where I live. Due to this, I usually go for a walk when I get up before it's over 100 degrees. But, getting home wiped out from extreme heat opens the door for me to procrastinate the rest of the morning. So, if I've been procrastinating and I need to break the cycle, I will skip the walk and get straight into work.

Ask yourself - "How could I break the cycle of procrastinating with (insert your important task) by temporarily demoting another priority?"

2. Take a different route to get back on track.

We often have a task we think needs to be the next thing we do. For example, I need to finish an article I've half-written. If I've psyched myself about doing that, instead I might write a new article that I can get done much more easily without it being a psychological wrestling match.

Leaving work half-finished isn't a great strategy to use frequently but sometimes it works. Sometimes we need a fresh start, and a new article I write might be better than the (temporarily) abandoned one anyway.

Similar examples: half-finished arts or crafts projects, emails, hobby or DIY projects.

3. Seize moments when you can concentrate.

I've been emotionally struggling with what has become a two-year journey trying to conceive a second child. About ten days ago, I found out yet another IVF round failed (and will probably be my last), and I've struggled to get much done since then.

If I wake up and log into my infertility support group and answer questions and chat, there's a good chance I'm not going to get back on track for the rest of the morning. I know I need to not do that.

Think about how your morning goes when it's a day you will go onto procrastination. Do you read news headlines in bed? Do you check YouTube before you do anything else? Do you take your phone to the bathroom? Know what sends you down the road of procrastination and do something else at that critical moment.

Sometimes you might need to capture a moment of energy or clear-headedness by working at a different time than you usually do. If you're dreading Monday because you procrastinated the week before, maybe you start work Sunday night and get a few things done and out of the way. If you wake up at 6am unexpectedly, get straight into work rather than having breakfast or brushing your teeth. Get up instead of trying to get back to sleep until your usual wake up time.

If you're feeling depressed, sometimes you need to make the most of moments when you've got energy and concentration, even if it's at odd times.

4. Give yourself a break from the problem that's vexing you.

Is the root of your procrastination something that's getting you down? In my case, it's my infertility. In your case, it could be a relationship you're considering ending, or a boss who doesn't see your value.

You can use self-compassion as a strategy by saying to yourself, "My problem of X isn't going away, but it's not an emergency. I can give my attention to something else. I'm not in danger."

When we feel very gripped or obsessed by a problem and it's making it hard to concentrate, it's because our brain is interpreting that as an urgent danger. Our hyper-vigilance system gets activated, like it would if we had seen bear footprints near our house. Our minds have evolved to not let us think about anything else when an immediate danger is present. We can use compassionate self-talk to remind ourselves that while the situation we're in is very distressing, it's not (usually) an emergency we can't take our eyes off. It's not like the bear footprints example.

I literally say to myself, "I can take a 3-hour break from solving the problem of how to have another baby to do these work tasks."

Compassionate self-talk often works best when you combine it with another strategy, like the other ones I've mentioned here. Other strategies may be less likely to work if you don't include compassionate talk along with them.

Summing Up

We all need to take breaks when we've experienced trauma or emotional blows. However, there comes a point when procrastination becomes stress-generating. We become increasingly stressed about all the undone tasks piling up. And, we end up ruminating about guilt or regrets, but getting no closer to solving whatever problem is bothering us. When you reach the point you need to pull it together, try some of these strategies to find what works best for you.