Writing these blog posts is one of the easiest parts of my job to put off until later. They require some unstructured thinking time (which is fertile ground for distraction), are unstructured themselves, and there always feels like there is something more important (read: easier and less personally exposing) I could be doing with that time.
Recently I read a fantastic article in the New York Times on exactly the process I’m describing. Most people call it procrastination. I really, really think you should read the article now because if you’re reading this one already, chances are you’re putting something else off.
If you don’t feel like doing that, the basic idea is that mainstream science has come to embrace an idea that makes intuitive sense to many of us: procrastination has much less to do with laziness, lack of self-control, and disorganization, and much more to do with emotions. For example, it is often the case that the task at hand will bring up a disquieting uncomfortable feeling that we often barely notice. Therefore, procrastination is about protection: we keep ourselves safe from feeling (for example) our own self-doubt or shame by doing something unrelated, whether it is productive or not. This has the effect of a short-term boost in good feelings (TV is fun!) but is often counterproductive in the long term. For example, these blog posts give me some anxiety, because I never know who is reading them and what I might be sending into the public eye that might not be good enough, or that I might even end up disagreeing with myself a year from now. So I often find something else to do.
Along these same lines, there is a much more complex system of underworkings at play in our decisions than we think. We in the mental health field love to talk about the brain (how its fear center causes us to react in response to stress, for example), but according to good recent research, there are mini “brains” around areas such as our heart and gut that make them function as powerfully as our heads at times. Daniel Siegel is a big proponent of this, and you can also read more about this at Heart Math here.
To return to the article (here’s a link to it again!), it encourages self-compassion, which we counsellors also love. Having grace and compassion for our own mistakes is one of the best tools out there. The article offers three other, very simple tips for when you find yourself the victim of procrastination:
- Be curious. Take a breath and allow physical sensations, emotions, and mental processes to come and go, observing them like you were watching a new TV show. Notice what happens to the sensations, feelings and thoughts as you observe them. What are the feelings that might be bringing up unpleasant feelings?
- Hypothetically imagine the next step: “If I were the version of myself that wasn’t procrastinating right now, what would be the next thing I would do?” Just thinking about this might make you more likely to take action despite your feelings. Many pros agree that motivation often comes while doing something, and not before, so you might need to kickstart things a touch.
- Make temptations more inconvenient. Hide the TV remote, put a screen time blocker on your phone, etc., etc. This also increases the timeframe for you to become aware of what’s going on, and makes your reward for procrastinating less immediate.
I would add a few of my own tips as well:
- When you feel temptations arise, take a deep breath and allow yourself to be tempted, noticing the temptation to do something gratifying at the moment. This is called many names, but I learned the name urge surfing: you are riding the wave of your temptation and letting it run its course without trying to push it away or make it less intense. This fits really well with tip #1 from the article (Be curious!). Often, the urge will go away in 10-12 minutes, if not much less.
- If you must, try to give yourself more productive ways to procrastinate. For me, I take a few minutes and stretch. This often makes me feel a little better about myself physically, mentally, and emotionally, and makes me feel better equipped to take on the original task. You might also choose to journal about your inner experiences at the moment, which will help you understand and articulate them (this removes some of the power those impulses have).
- Building on #2, you could also call a trusted friend and chat about the fact that you’re putting something off. This will help in a number of ways. It will give you a sounding board for your thoughts and feelings, normalize your experiences, and make you feel generally supported (little motivates us as well as reminding ourselves of our supportive relationships).
Lastly (as I say with most of these articles), you can always feel free to talk to a professional helper, as they are often equipped with specific skill sets that can help you tackle something like the above, or help get you in position to tackle it. These include professional counsellors like us at Alongside You, but can also be something like a pastor, priest, social worker, or support group. Investing time in caring for yourself the right way has the best interest rate of any investment (by a huge margin). If you have questions about this process, please call our office, and you can even email me directly through my profile by clicking here – I will take the time to respond as best and as soon as I can.
Good luck, and now that I’ve written this, I’m off to do something fun.