Procrastination is a habit that affects everyone at some point in their lives. It is the act of delaying or postponing tasks that need to be completed. While it may seem like a harmless habit, it can have significant consequences, such as missed deadlines, decreased productivity, and increased stress levels. For many of the clients we sit with at Progress Counseling, the procrastination cycle can be coupled with feelings of low self-worth, shame, and frustration with one’s self. The practical challenges, such as missing deadlines and appointments, can sometimes reinforce and amplify the negative feelings, and the feelings can do the same for the practical.
Fortunately, there are several strategies that can help manage procrastination. Therapy to deal with the underlying emotional causes is extremely important. A common refrain around the Progress Counseling group is, “if you were a robot…” where in this case, we talk about how an emotionless, button and dial operated machine would be able to complete tasks with zero challenges. However, because we are human, there are often conflicting thoughts and emotions that come up when engaging with “the object of procrastination.” This can sound as simple as, “I want to sit down and do some work, but I’m tired so I’ll do it later” or “I’d rather watch some Netflix than do homework.”
A more potent example for those of us who feeling a spike in emotions around productivity, one’s mind may anticipate doing a task poorly, then the prediction can spiral into more negative thinking — what if I do it poorly and everyone notices? What if I do it so poorly that I’m exposed as a fraud? What if I do my taxes so wrong, and so late that I lose my house? This kind of procrastination can sometimes be the outflow of perfectionism, which can be downstream from shame, traumatic experiences, distorted survival skills. Similar to this, those who struggle with procrastination sometimes have difficulty with getting their rational, logical part (sometimes “the manager part” in Internal Family Systems) to connect with the rest of their body. In other words, “If I just sit down and do it, it’ll take about 20 minutes, but I’ve been stressing about it, thinking about it, avoiding it for the last 5 months.” The overwhelm, the guilt, the frustration can bubble up, getting in the way, instead of “just doing the thing.”
What kind of procrastination do I have? And, what do I do about it? For yet another example, those who are in substance use recovery, avoiding mistakes may have been a means to maintain recovery — “I can’t make a mistake, because if I f*ck up once then I’ll end up back in my addiction.” Put another way, “One mistake could kill me.” This heightens the emotional, cognitive load around “just doing the thing.” Then, for someone with this kind of all-or-nothing relationships with mistakes, doing something even slightly risky can lead to avoidance (e.g. procrastination). That’s just another type of procrastination process, among many others. The particular flavor, form, style of procrastination varies greatly, but these cycles have a few things in common: avoidance of pain, difficulty with overcoming the avoidance, and a splitting in the parts (e.g. part of me wants to do the thing, part of me doesn’t want to).
To keep the different parts happy, to give some space for discomfort (e.g. working on something boring for a while) as well as some space for “the thing I want to do instead,” habit formation and healthy routines can be a down payment on managing procrastination. Scheduling time to work, time to play, having a predictable and manageable schedule from day to day can be helpful (see below for other steps). For some, forming new habits is a relatively easy and highly effective way to overcome procrastination. However, for many, forming new habits is next to impossible (hint: if you are ADHD or otherwise neurodivergent), and so the work of overcoming procrastination requires one dig that much deeper.
Do you want to dig deeper? It’s a real question, as sometimes the answer is “no,” sometimes it’s a “yes.” Sometimes clients will procrastinate about dealing with their procrastination. That may be you right now, and that’s okay. The procrastination itself may be, or may have been functional in some way. Sometimes procrastination itself is a valid, legitimate response — of course you aren’t excited about calling your health insurance company (again!) and sitting on hold for hours (and hours). It’s the sub- and pre-liminal process around procrastination that needs some attention, and this is not easy. The “on hold for hours for something you don’t want to do in the first place” example is one of pain avoidance. For you who are looking to start the therapeutic process, an important piece of this experience will be talking directly about pain. This can be, in some sense, embracing suffering; this “embrace” can stir up all of the emotions, experiences that “hang out with” pain/suffering: shame, inadequacy, failure, disappointment (of self and others).
Oftentimes, “not procrastinating” can mean embracing the uncomfortable, sometimes even painful (read: humiliating, humbling, boring, pointless, etc) experiences, tasks, conversations, projects.
For you who are considering therapy, help is available. Maybe, for you, the process will begin with exploring procrastination around chores and tasks, before you and your therapist reach into the deeper places that need a healing.
For those of you who are looking for some immediate, simple ways to overcome procrastination, here are a few go-to’s that may help you increase your productivity:
Break down tasks into smaller steps
One of the main reasons people procrastinate is because they feel overwhelmed by the task at hand. Breaking down tasks into smaller, more manageable steps can help alleviate this feeling of being overwhelmed. By breaking tasks down into smaller pieces, you can focus on completing one step at a time, which makes the task seem less daunting.
Set specific and achievable goals
Setting specific and achievable goals can also help manage procrastination. It is important to set goals that are challenging but realistic. This will help keep you motivated and focused on the task at hand. When setting goals, it is also helpful to include specific deadlines to help keep you on track.
Distractions are a major contributor to procrastination. It is important to eliminate as many distractions as possible to help you stay focused. This may include turning off your phone or email notifications, closing unnecessary tabs on your computer, or finding a quiet workspace.
Another way to manage procrastination is to prioritize tasks. It is important to identify the most important tasks and focus on completing those first. This will help ensure that you are using your time efficiently and effectively.
Use positive self-talk
Positive self-talk can also help manage procrastination. Instead of focusing on the negative aspects of the task at hand, try to focus on the positive. For example, instead of saying, “I can’t do this,” try saying, “I will do my best and give it my all.”
Rewarding yourself for completing tasks can also help manage procrastination. This can be something as simple as taking a break or treating yourself to your favorite snack. By rewarding yourself for completing tasks, you are reinforcing positive behavior and motivating yourself to continue working.
Managing procrastination is essential for achieving productivity and reducing stress. By breaking down tasks into smaller steps, setting specific and achievable goals, eliminating distractions, prioritizing tasks, using positive self-talk, and using rewards, you can overcome procrastination and achieve your goals. Remember, managing procrastination is a process, so be patient, gentle, and persistent in your efforts.
Curious about starting therapy? Reach out now: