Stop Procrastination and Eliminate Anxiety – Here’s How by Dr. Alicia H. Clark
It doesn’t take long for procrastination to catch up with you, leaving you vulnerable to pangs of acute anxiety, and self-frustration. Sleep can become irregular, eating patterns can drift towards unhealthy, and exercise regimes suffer in lieu of rushing to get things done at the last minute. This isn’t an uncommon time for people to seek psychological help for their symptoms, and in particular, their anxiety.
Similarly, many people who seek therapy for anxiety often admit the significant role that procrastination plays in their life. The good news is that once procrastination gives way to action towards what needs to get done, anxiety is quelled immediately, and people start to feel satisfied with themselves and their lives. Almost everyone procrastinates at some point, others have made it their modus operandi, and most are in between. Here’s a look at what’s behind procrastination and how we can climb out of this toxic habit.
1. Why People Procrastinate
There are several reasons people procrastinate, and I will detail some common reasons before moving on to solutions.
- Perfectionism, AKA Fear of Failure: I can't handle not being good enough. Fear of failure, or inadequate performance is a common driver of procrastination. People think their results won't be good enough, so they just delay even trying. From college students to high-level executives, the mentality is the same: "I won't be able to perform at the level that others expect from me." (Or what they expect from themselves). Oftentimes this fear of failure goes hand in hand with goals that might take a while to realize –a PhD, losing 50 pounds, or adopting a child. Since success cannot be guaranteed, or might take a long time, the tactic is to avoid engaging in a process that will be disappointing, and uncomfortable.
- Secondary Gain of Avoiding Dreaded End Result: It's going to be horrible to face it. Many people put off tackling a project because they are afraid of what the end result might be. For example, doing your taxes might mean a large amount is owed, and you can't afford it. Making an appointment with a recommended specialist could entail her giving you an undesired diagnosis. Searching for a new job might lead you to find out you aren't interested in any of the offerings in your field. If the final conclusion could be unsatisfactory, procrastination allows people to avoid facing the feared reality by not even beginning the process.
- Disinterest: This has no value. A third driver for anxiety from procrastination is that the project is not even worth doing. People complain that the project has no meaning, is boring, or won't make a difference. In these cases, unless you are going to quit your commitment, you will still have to do the job. The problem is that if there is no incentive for you to do the project, the will to perform can be hard to conjure.
2. Top Solutions
These solutions are tried and true for anyone plagued by procrastination.
- Just start: Do not analyze it. Do not think about the end result. As the Nike ad campaign so succinctly stated it, just do it. I have seen – 100% of the time – that once clients get started on a project, the rest more easily flows. You just have to start in order to springboard the momentum.
- Break it down into small steps to form a plan: If someone can't start, it's often because they haven’t broken the task into small enough pieces, and haven’t created a step-by-step plan for actualizing the work. Start by breaking the task into small tasks, and putting them into a general outline. Then, take the first stage and envision the steps you need to take. Finally, do the first thing on the list by going back to the tip above and just start. As you start to feel some mastery with progress, your fear of starting is replaced with feeling so good to be moving forward, that the project builds on itself. Starting the process provides the initial momentum you need for continued progress.
- Associate positive messages and/or feelings with the end result: We often let our emotions get in the way of getting things done, instead of using them to our advantage. Don’t be afraid to introduce positive thoughts, and reframe negative emotions into positive ones. If you feel afraid, envision yourself feeling excited, elated, or just simply relieved after you've finished the project. Negative anxiety and positive anticipation are separated only by one’s perceptions and how one thinks of something. Imagine replacing a feeling of failure with a feeling of success. Take time to believe more positive thoughts, which will help you feel more positivity – focusing on positive alternative thoughts will help you embody more positive feelings.
- Tie it to a purpose: Focus on what can be gained from doing this project. Especially in the case of disinterest, it's crucial to come up with a reason to incentivize yourself to move forward. Think about how the task will help you keep your job and therefore pay your bills and support your philanthropic interests. Consider how you might do the task better than someone else who would have to perform it in your stead. Tell yourself that if you quit, you won't retire as soon as you had planned. And if the issue is not of disinterest, but rather fear of failure or of the end result, think about the positive aspects of the project itself.
3. Possible Obstacles
Several obstacles are common for increasing the likelihood of procrastination. Awareness of these phenomena can help you handle them in order to avoid procrastinating.
- Boredom: Boredom is one of the most undiagnosed symptoms of procrastination. When people are bored, or have a sense of disquiet or unrest – they might just be looking for anything to do besides what's in front of them. A sense of wanting something to distract you from what you're feeling signifies that low-level anxiety which occurs when having to face something you don't want to face. These days, social media, web browsing, and email can be dangerous temptations towards distracting yourself from what you have to do. If procrastination is an issue for you, put limits into place.
Fatigue: Oftentimes we are just lacking energy and therefore put off projects.
Consider how you might adjust your lifestyle in order to feel more energized. For example, nutrition, exercise levels, sleep, and hormones all affect our energy levels, so consider getting recommendations for professionals to work to improve your daily health regimen.
- Trying to Do Too Much: Plenty of projects don't get done because you feel like you should be the one to do it, or you think you don't have the money to pay someone else. However, organizing ways to delegate might serve your purposes just as well, and perhaps even better. Can you hire temporary work for all the backed-up files? Schedule a maid once a week? Budget for an assistant, at work and/or at home? Clearing away what can be outsourced will allow you to be freer to tackle the tasks that are really only yours. If finances are an issue, ponder the value of having the project off of your plate – you might find it's money well spent.
Procrastination is the result of avoidance, and both the result of and driver of anxiety. Anxiety associated with procrastination continues to fester and grows over time. Anxiety can become so uncomfortable that we seek relief for it, hoping there is some better way to tolerate things left undone. Chasing the tail of anxiety, or rather trying to quell the anxiety caused by procrastination, is ultimately time wasted and energy consumed without anything to show for it. Recognize that avoidance always makes a task seem more daunting than it is.
Alternatively, by getting started and associating positivity and purpose with the project, you will see your work pay off and your anxiety dissipate, if not completely disappear. In addition, knowing that boredom, fatigue, and trying to be a superhero can all trigger procrastination will keep you on your toes to prevent it. Anxiety is a common symptom of procrastination, and like all anxiety it is best remedied through action. Handling procrastination through the above simple steps is a quick and surefire way to return anxiety levels back down to normal.
Alicia H. Clark, PsyD, PLLC
Licensed Clinical Psychologist
Washington, DC Private Practice since 1999
Assistant Professor, The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, Washington, DC campus
National Register Credentialed since 2008
Member, American Psychological Association
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