Two questions to ask yourself when procrastinating.Aug 28, 2022
Do any of these sound familiar?
- Emails are left unopened so long that they become irrelevant because the sender has emailed you again.
- Home projects are on hold for 2yrs until you get the "right" storage containers.
- You wait until the night before a big project is due. You end up working all night and getting tired the next day, and your hand in work doesn't reflect your best.
- You keep overpaying for months by continuously putting off calling on an insurance question.
- You have been having leg pains regularly but haven't made an appointment to see your doctor because you fear what she will say.
- You have always dreamed of going back to school for an advanced degree. You tell yourself you'll save enough money for an advanced degree. Then you need to wait until the kids are in school. Then you find yourself waiting until they leave home. You feel you are too old to achieve your dream.
What quickly follows is that you criticize yourself for these or similar scenarios by reflecting that you have low willpower, lack self-control, or are lazy. The result of this type of response is usually that we now feel sad, angry, disappointed in ourselves AND still procrastinating. Have you considered that these acts of procrastination aren't character flaws but just a feeling of doubt?
Procrastination is DOUBT in a different form. When we experience doubt, it activates our threat system. Our brain begins telling us it is better not to do anything or choose an alternative action due to perceived risk, and boom, you're procrastinating.
Our threat system (limbic or lizard brain as named by neuroscientist Paul McClean) is about the present moment, not rational, thoughtful problem-solving. Our problem-solving skills and executive function are in a different part of our brain, not accessible when experiencing a threat. It's an excellent system when encountering a grizzly bear or semi-barreling toward us in a crosswalk. But when presented with the insurance company and a twinge of worry, they won't be able to fix the situation.
And then we find ourselves frozen, unable to open the piece of mail, or we avoid distraction or creating some arbitrary hurdle. These are procrastination versions of flight or freeze. Our minds believe they are being helpful and keeping us safe. However, we need a different type of response for an emotional worry than we do for life or death physical danger.
When we avoid, procrastination often takes the form of other tasks, not just delays or paralysis. Procrastination can show up in these different forms:
Organizing, Planning, learning, and working aren't harmful activities but can be hard to overcome as we're telling ourselves that it's not so bad because we are being productive. And we are socialized to believe productivity is one of the essential things in life.
When you procrastinate, you've tried motivating yourself through drill Sargent tactics. You've told yourself you prefer procrastination because the adrenaline helps you perform. You might have tried the 5-minute rule where you try doing it for 5 minutes, and if you can't get it done, you can at least say you tried. These tactics might work as a one-off but don't get to the issue's root.
Here are two new questions to ask yourself to change your relationship with procrastination. First, we will no longer try to stop procrastinating but rather understand what's happening and why. Then we can respond with an individualized approach rather than throwing spaghetti and hoping one of them gets you out of a procrastinating funk.
The two questions are as follows:
What am I doubting?
(Hints at possible answers: my overall ability, the importance of the task, a specific skill, that I can perform the way I want to or the way I'm expected to by others, that the result will be correct or perfect)
Why is this a task/job/thing I want or need to do?
(Hint the answer is probably none of the things you listed above.)
When we can pinpoint where our doubt lies and then follow that up with understanding the purpose of the task, it will create a pause. And when we can make a pause in our thoughts, it gives us space to use tools like stress management, self-compassion, mindfulness, etc. This also shifts our focus away from criticizing ourselves to action to resolve a problem.
You can begin using these questions right now. What have you been putting off? What have you jumped through hoops to avoid it? Or paralyzed to start? You can rid yourself of shame. There is nothing wrong with you. Your threat system gets dialed up, and we can turn that down by reflecting on your doubt.
Once you've created the pause, use your favorite stress management strategy with some slow deep breaths, and then get started.
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