I struggle with procrastination which then leads to anxiety, depression. How do I deal with it?

I am really struggling with chronic procastination. I have moments of productivity but fall back into old patterns. This cause extreme anxiety and low mood. What is the best way to NOT procastinate?
Asked by Nora

Hello Nora! What a great question! Thank you for asking! 

Procrastination is a problem for many people. You are definitely not alone. There are a number of theories about the causes of procrastination. Probably, the most likely answer is that it is the result of a number of things combined with each other.

1. We procrastinate doing a task when the task seem to be too big or overwhelming. For example, I am going to put off cleaning if I believe I have to clean the whole house in one day. My brain is going to say, "That is way too much for me to do. I don't even know where to start!" Then my brain is going to say, "Let's just not do anything!" What is the answer to this problem? Most likely, the answer is to break the task down into little manageable pieces. I might feel much better about cleaning one room than cleaning the whole house. I am more likely to see that one room is do-able. I might be more willing to get started if I realize that I am going to be done in a short period of time -- not the whole day. And one of the payoffs to breaking things down into bite-sized pieces is that a lot of times we will keep going once we start even if we had previously decided to do just one room. Many times, it is just getting going that is so difficult and once we start, we keep going. Energy begets energy as the saying goes. But even if we don't want to keep going after we do the one bite-sized piece, we still have accommplished that one piece. 

2. Another theory suggests that we procrastinate on those things that we fear we might not complete satisfactorily. Sometimes we have our own unrealistic standards that we think we need to live up to. Sometimes, it is someone else's unrealistic standards. Either way, if we think we cannot meet those standards, then we might convince ourselves that it is better not to even get started or try to do the task rather than risk the feeling of not having done it "perfectly" (which of course is impossible). The answer to this problem is to really come to understand how we think about ourselves and others. We need to gain some awareness of our core beliefs or what I call our scripts and rules. Are the standards that we have set for ourselves -- or the standards that we believe others have set for us -- reasonable? Could anyone actually meet those standards? It is one thing to strive for excellence but another thing to strive for perfection. The latter is not possible but if we believe it is, then we might feel paralyzed by the fear of not meeting this unreasonable standard, and we might not even start the task. We have to be able to talk to ourselves with compassion and remind ourselves that no one is perfect and it is okay to do the best we can on this task or project.

3. Another theory suggests that we do not like to feel whatever feelings are connected to this project. Perhaps the project seems boring or frightening or anxiety-provoking. If we are not willing to tolerate the uncomfortable feelings that go along with this particular task, then we might put it off as long as possible. A homework assignment might sound boring and so we wait until the last minute because we don't want to feel bored. Maybe we need to create a presentation but the idea of the presentation raises our anxiety. Maybe we don't tolerate the feeling of anxiety very well and so we put off putting the presentation together because we don't want to feel anxious. The key to this particular problem is learning to identify and tolerate our feelings. Feelings are normal human reactions to situations. They might be uncomfortable but there is a reason for our feelings. They are like little messengers that are telling us something -- maybe a warning, a need for something, some kind of message. So, the key is to learn to listen to our feelings, understand what they are telling us, and increase our ability and willingness to tolerate uncomfortable feelings. If I can learn to tolerate the anxiety that goes along with creating a presentation, I am more likely to dive in (maybe break that presentation down into pieces that I do a little at a time) and get it done rather than putting it off.

4. Another theory suggests that we do not have very good time management skills. Perhaps we are not that great at planning and organizing. So, rather than setting aside a designated time to get the task done, we just don't even think about it until it is almost due and then we panic. So the answer to this dilemma is to keep a calendar that is big enough to write down when you are going to do certain things on certain days. So if I have a big project that is due in a week, I might break it down into four parts and designate a block of time to four separate days in the upcoming week. I will write that on my calendar so I don't forget. I also have to be willing to commit to doing what I wrote on the calendar.

5. Then there is the theory that we are just too distractable. We can't stay focused on one thing so it just doesn't get done. We are not really procrastinating. We are just not getting the task done. The key to solving this problem is going to use the tip from number 4 -- blocking off a period of time and writing it on the calendar -- plus another tip which is turning off all of the potential distractions when it comes time to work on the task. Put the phone in another room so we are not tempted to look at it. Turn off the television. Create a space that is quiet and is not going to be distracting.

These are just a few ideas that might help you understand why you procrastinate and what to do about it. I have a library of handouts, podcasts, and YouTube videos that I like to share with people on specific topics and procrastination is definitely one of those topics. I hope you have found this information to be helpful!