- Melanie Lopes, MFT
Procrastination is a Coping Strategy
“I’ll save it to the last minute because I do well under pressure.”
“I’m too lazy…I have no self-discipline.”
“I’ve been too busy...”
“I had this other thing come up...”
Sound familiar? If you are someone who procrastinates, you’ve probably said one or more of these…over and over and over again.
You also are probably well aware of your tendency to put things off and most of the time you can recognize when you’re in the midst of procrastinating. You might even be able to predict that you will procrastinate on doing a task as soon as you hear about it.
You also already know that this habit can be problematic because putting things off until the last minute, missing deadlines, or never quite completing tasks leads to more stress and anxiety, frustration, disappointment in yourself, as well as disappointment and frustration from others.
But despite all that, it’s a tough habit to break.
If you are someone who has really struggled with procrastination, you’ve probably tried different tips and techniques for time management and increasing productivity, and MAYBE it’s helped a little, but in the end, it’s easy to fall back into old familiar patterns and you still end up procrastinating more than you would like.
The reason why those things don't tend to work is that procrastination is not a time management or productivity issue. It has to do with emotion regulation - the way you manage and respond to an emotional experience.
Procrastination is actually a coping strategy.
Yep, that's right. It’s a way of dealing with the difficult or uncomfortable emotions that come up when you're faced with certain tasks. For instance...
You might find the task boring or unpleasant or not a valuable use of your time.
You might feel anxious and insecure about taking on the task.
You might not believe you can do it or do it well enough, which brings up a fear of failure or fear of criticism and judgment from others.
Perhaps you feel confused, frustrated, or overwhelmed by the complexity of the task or you’re simply not sure how to begin.
You might be too tired or distracted or overwhelmed by other significant events and circumstances in your life.
You might not want to get started because you don’t want to feel the pressure of taking responsibility or be held accountable for getting the task done.
All of these feelings are difficult to sit with so the natural response is to move away from them and do what you can to avoid feeling that way. We are hard-wired to move away from “threats”, and that includes threats to your emotional well-being and self-esteem. So whenever you put off doing a task or you find something else to do that feels more enjoyable or valuable or “productive”, it's an effort to protect your well-being.
And it works...sort of.
Procrastination provides you with some relief. But of course, that relief is temporary. As you know, procrastination often leads to increased stress and anxiety and you can feel bad about yourself for creating more stress in your life…again.
And even though you know that there are consequences to procrastination, that temporary relief is still relief, which is like a reward. Once you get that reward, you are inclined to keep doing the same thing to get the reward and it becomes a habit - you create a habit of procrastination as a way to find relief from stress and other uncomfortable feelings.
So, like breaking any habit, the best thing to do is find a different way to “reward” yourself or find some sort of incentive to change your behavior, right?
Well, in this case that would mean finding a different way to provide yourself with some relief from anxiety, stress, or whatever feeling you are trying to avoid.
Finding different coping strategies to put into place is a good idea…
It can also become yet another way to procrastinate and put off doing the task at hand.
So yes, taking time to take care of your needs and calm and soothe yourself when you are feeling stressed or uncomfortable is a smart move, but it’s important to pay attention to how much time and effort you are putting into it.
With paying attention being the key.
The first step toward breaking the procrastination habit is paying attention and observing your behaviors, urges, and tendencies, and then practicing self-compassion.
Take the time to slow down, observe and acknowledge how you are feeling when you think of starting the task. Notice what you are doing, or what you are feeling the urge to do. When you catch yourself procrastinating, stop and ask yourself: What feeling am I avoiding?
Try to stay away from judging or criticizing yourself and instead offer yourself understanding. It’s ok to feel stressed, uncomfortable, frustrated, or unsure and it makes sense that you would want to find ways to avoid feeling that way.
Next, try to talk yourself through it. If you’re feeling stressed, anxious, or scared, offer yourself reassurance and support. If you’re feeling unsure or doubting yourself, remind yourself of some of your past successes or things you’ve accomplished to give yourself a little confidence boost. If you’re simply not interested in doing the task, remind yourself of the benefits of completing the task and the negative consequences of putting it off.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by a job or a project that has a lot of steps or complexity, you've probably been advised to break it up into smaller steps and then create a to-do list to provide you with guidance on where to start. This makes sense and it does help in some cases, but sometimes creating a list can feel even more overwhelming because then it’s all laid out in front of you and it may seem like you’ll never get through it all.
Instead, keep it simple. Start by simply thinking about the next step you would take to get started and leave it at that. Try to remain focused on that next step and that next step only, and then do it. Don’t wait for the “right” time or mood. Do it. Once it’s done, think about the next step in the same way and then do it.
Oftentimes you can get stuck thinking that you need to build up your motivation in order to do something, but the truth is, once you do something, you can build momentum and your motivation increases.
Lastly, do what you can to set yourself up for success. This may mean scheduling time for the task or even setting a start date. It also means removing any obstacles that stand in your way of getting a task done.
This includes removing any temptations or distractions that might get in the way or putting yourself in an environment as free from distraction as possible. Go into another room, remove certain apps and notifications from your phone, turn your phone off (gasp!), turn off the TV - whatever you can do to keep yourself focused on the task at hand.
And remember, breaking old habits isn't easy and there's no miracle cure for procrastination, so be patient with yourself and continue to offer yourself self-compassion through the process. Most people procrastinate from time to time, it's just a matter of finding ways to manage it effectively so that you can minimize the negative impacts it has on your livelihood, your well-being, and your relationships.
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