You Are Not So Busy, Part 1: You Are Procrastinating
Last week, while reaching for a piece of paper to write a number down, I picked up a sealed envelope—it was an old water bill. I moved to another stack of papers only to realize it was just more mail. By then, I forgot the florist’s phone number that my sister had dictated to me a minute ago. Surrounded by little stacks of bills, magazines, and cards, I thought to myself, “I really need to organize my mail! I have to start using the color-coded filing cabinet I put together last year! I have just been so busy…”
Am I really that busy? I certainly feel frantic moving from one project and chore to the next until the day ends. But, I am not SO busy. I know plenty of industrious people with uncluttered countertops and organized mail. I just need to stop procrastinating.
If you, like me, have been having trouble with procrastination—whether you have had a blank Word screen up for 4 hours or have been avoiding the dentist for 5 years—it is necessary to understand, assess, and tackle the problem now.
What is procrastination and why do we procrastinate?
A 2013 study by Dr. Timothy Pychyl and Dr. Fuschia Sirois found that procrastination is not a time management problem, it is an emotional regulation problem. In their own words, “procrastination has a great deal to do with short-term mood repair and emotion regulation.”
Simply put, the reason I do not organize my mail is because I’d rather do anything else. And my brain loves me so much, it gives me a gazillion and one excuses to not do tasks I dislike. My mind insists that I use my time for more pleasurable past-times: “Why not peruse social media or eat another snack?”
Procrastination is a coping mechanism for anxiety, stress, and other negative feelings. The irony is, of course, that the more we procrastinate the more anxiety, stress, and negative emotions we feel.
How do I stop procrastinating?
- Reduce your general anxiety. Research tells us that people with more depression or anxiety (poor emotional regulation) procrastinate more. Therefore, you should take steps to reduce your overall feelings of anxiety. Meditation, prayer, exercise, and therapy are some of the most recommended ways of reducing general anxiety in your life. You can start small, and try one or two techniques then adjust to see what works best for you, and which ones you can adopt in the long term.
- Break down the project into small actions. The smaller the action, the smaller the anxiety related to it. If you are procrastinating a 5-page article, start by writing an outline instead; then, fill out the outline with examples, phrases, or other content you want to include. As you see the words on the screen, you will feel more confident in writing the article and less likely to procrastinate. People who procrastinate from exercising could sleep in their workout clothes, set their alarm, and make a goal to eat a small breakfast. If you only think about waking up and eating breakfast as your goal, the next step of getting in the car and driving to the yoga studio will be much easier. Once you are awake and already moving, you are more likely to “just do it!” than if you set out to accomplish the vague and overwhelming goal of “working out tomorrow morning.”
- Break down the project into small time periods. Some projects are daunting because they seem they will take forever. Set a goal of working on the task for 10 minutes (or a small period of time that you can handle) and then take a break and do it again. This approach, similar to the Pomodoro technique, is widely used by writers and beginning marathoners. When they suffer from writers’ block, an author will set out to write “whatever comes to mind” for 20 minutes and then stop and take a break. It is a more attainable goal than “writing chapter 9 this morning” and will usually get them in the writing groove. Similarly, Jeff Galloway introduced a marathon training method that has helped many beginners cross the finish line at 26.2 miles. “You have never run more than 3 miles? No problem,” says Jeff Galloway. “To run a marathon, you only have to run for 3 minutes.” The idea is that you run for 3 minutes (or 5, or 8) and then walk for 1; repeat the process until you reach the finish line. The mindset shift to run for just 3 minutes instead of 4 hours will make your brain happy and make you more likely to begin.
- For very high anxiety-inducing tasks, reward yourself. The dentist can be as daunting for some people as organizing the mail is to me. But we know we must do it. We have to rip off the bandage and take the pain. If this is your level of anxiety, I recommend you plan ahead—set out time for it and think of a way to reward yourself when it’s done. For my mail chores, I am thinking of taking a morning off from work (when I have the whole house to myself), putting on some relaxing jazz music, organizing and filing for two hours, and then getting a pedicure and a latte as a reward. Put this way, the plan does not sound so bad anymore. We may not be proud of making some tasks into “such a big deal” but, you know what? Sometimes you have to do whatever works…
- For extremely high-anxiety tasks, ask for help or hire it done. This option is not for everyone or for any task. You cannot hire someone else to go to work, exercise, or go to the dentist for you. However, I still wanted to mention this option because too many of us don’t get the help we need because we refuse to give ourselves permission. If you can afford it and it will restore peace of mind and balance in your life, hire the accountant, the tax expert, the nanny, the assistant, the gardener, or whatever it is that you want done but is causing extreme anxiety in your life. There are more and more services that cater to this need such as food prep and delivery services for those that need help in the kitchen or laundry services that take your dirty clothes and return them cleaned and pressed.
Still so busy?
Please share in the comments your best tips and tricks to combat procrastination. And stick around for next week’s blog, You Are Not So Busy, Part 2: You Have Priorities.
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