Procrastination, My Old Friend

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I think most of us are familiar with concept of procrastination. As motivated as I can be, I am not immune to struggling with chronic avoidance of important tasks that need to be accomplished.

It often goes like this: I know I need to get started. It is time to begin a project, a task or an assignment. Or maybe I know I should have started that new healthy habit (like daily meditation). Sometimes, it is far past the time I should have started. And yet, here I am, finding every little thing I can to distract me from getting to it. Even though the deadline is approaching or pressure to start something new increases with every passing minute, I still seem to find many ways to avoid doing the thing I know I need to do. Why is procrastination such a beast to conquer, even in times when I know this thing I need to address is positive for me?

Procrastination is something we all struggle with. It may be something like our daily chores or it could be something bigger, like having a hard conversation with a friend. It is understandable when we procrastinate around undesirable tasks (doing laundry falls into this category for me) but even more often, we procrastinate around activities that would be considered positive or healthy, like beginning to meditate or cooking at home. Why is that?

Some argue the benefits of procrastination include increased motivation, in that the pressure of diminishing time encourages some people to perform better. However, many who have studied procrastination behaviors have found that it is much more than a time- management issue. Some psychologists find that procrastination effects most of us negatively and is an emotional-management issue, rather than a behavioral issue. Our primitive brain can work to protect us by creating emotional responses such as fear, anxiety and irritability when faced with a task. The responses created can signal danger in those primitive parts of our brain, creating a drive to avoid the task in question. In our modern day, this discomfort and fear can often develop from fearing possible failure or feeling inadequate. What if we don't do a good job? What if we are really uncomfortable while we are working on that task, habit or activity? What once may have been a “protective” mechanism leads to inaction, compounding negative emotions and encouraging the cycle of delay. According to research published by Timothy Pychyl of Carleton University, in Canada, people who procrastinate carry more feelings of guilt, shame and anxiety when they decide to delay. The more a person waits to start, the more those feelings increase and the less likely we are to begin to take action.

If we can look at procrastination as a maladaptive lifestyle and extend some compassion to ourselves, it may be possible to over come that habit of waiting to do something that is being avoided. Working with our awareness can actually be the antidote to procrastination! When we are aware of how our emotional brain drives our decisions, we can choose to acknowledge it, assess the real risk and move ahead anyway. Do you think 10 minutes of meditation every day will be hard? It may be, but will you survive the discomfort? Yes. And every time you do it, it will get easier. Will starting a new exercise routine be hard? Always! But when it is over, your body will feel one step closer to being healthier and stronger. Noticing this cycle takes practice. Spending time with a mindful, curious eye on our behavior is the first step to changing habits.

I see this frequently in my work with those who are navigating the challenge of making changes in their daily routine. It is common that I work with people who want to feel better or change some aspect of their health. But, when presented with the roadmap to change for the healthier, they find many reasons to delay starting. This is normal- change is hard and procrastination is easier! As a companion on the road of evolving, it is my job to point out the procrastination. It is my client's job to be kind to themselves (maybe with some cheerleading from my side) and approach the task when they are ready to move past the fear of failure or being uncomfortable. This is a team effort and I support my clients along the way.

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Next time you notice yourself delaying a task, try to check in and ask yourself what potential discomfort are you avoiding or what fear are you letting take charge? It may not change your behavior right away but mindful awareness is the first stage of conquering procrastination. Want to go one step further? Deborah Lynn Blumburg shares some “next steps” about how to take that mindfulness to the next level and take action with some techniques borrowed from the practice of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

Start with awareness of procrastination of small tasks and see where it can take you! This can be one step closer to being more connected with your greatest potential.