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Three Strategies to Overcome Procrastination

August 29, 2019

Author

Dr. Jennifer Chain is the President and Owner of Thrive for the People.

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Living with a pattern of procrastination can be difficult because it is often a silent, invisible, and shameful inner struggle. You may feel that there is a cloud of dread hanging over your head at all times. As the deadline looms, the sense of dread can grow until it becomes too much to bear. You may say to yourself, “This feels awful and I will never do it again!” Only to find yourself back in the cycle of procrastination the next time a deadline comes around.
Procrastination can be both draining and costly to our mental health and have significant consequences for our relationships, school, work, and life. As I mentioned in a previous post on cultivating self-discipline, I struggled with severe procrastination through undergrad and into graduate school. What finally broke the cycle for me was not better time management strategies, the newest productivity hack, a fancy planner, will power, or self-control (I had tried them all without success). What helped in the end was understanding that procrastination was the result of unattended emotions, shame, and perfectionism and that addressing those issues resulted in significant behavior changes and freedom from the cycle of procrastination. In this blog post, I want to share with you three strategies that have worked for me and my clients.

Procrastination is Related to Emotion Management

Research on procrastination has shown that procrastination is related to a deficiency in emotion management skills rather than time management skills. Recent articles in the New York TimesForbes, and Fast Company provide helpful overviews of the current research. In sum, we use procrastination to manage our negative emotions of boredom, doubt, insecurity, anxiety, and overwhelm. It is a way to avoid the negative emotions related to the task in the short term. The task then becomes associated with negative emotions as well as shame for having engaged in procrastination behaviors. As you can imagine, the cycle of negativity can gather speed quickly and lead to more negative outcomes such as low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety. So how do we break this cycle? 

Identify Your Thoughts and Emotions

The first step in pausing the cycle is to take a moment and notice how you are feeling. Ask yourself,

  • “What is it about this task that is so dreadful?”
  • “What am I afraid of?”
  • “What am I feeling in my body right now?”

Taking time to identify your emotions and thoughts can help you become clear of what you are avoiding and therefore find ways to soothe yourself that is healthy and will ultimately make you feel better rather than worse. In graduate school, I worked with my therapist on identifying my fears of failure and my fears of success. Putting a name to those emotions helped me notice them better when they came up as I sat down to write my dissertation. I would say to myself, “Ah, here is the fear again. This tight feeling in my stomach and these thoughts about cleaning my apartment are my fears trying to protect me.” I would then text a friend for some validation and affirmations, which soothed my fears and helped me get back to writing. 

Practice Radical Acceptance and Self Compassion

Radical acceptance is the practice of accepting ourselves just as we are, even when we want to change. Practice saying to yourself (even if you do not believe it at first), “It is not right or wrong that I am procrastinating. It is not good or bad that I am procrastinating. I just am.” Accepting the current reality will help us move forward with what we need to do change. Self-compassion is the practice of being kind, gentle, and forgiving of ourselves. Shame is the gas that keeps the procrastination cycle running strong. The antidote to shame is self-compassion. There are three key components to self-compassion, according to self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff, Ph.D.: being kind and understanding of your struggle, reminding yourself that you are not alone in your struggle, and holding your struggle lightly so that you do not identify with it. An example self-compassionate statement can be, “This task is really boring and hard for me. I would rather be doing something else. Many people in my situation would have a hard time with initiating or completing this task. This does not say anything about my goodness as a person.” 

Reward, Reward, Reward.

Procrastination patterns can be hard to break because avoiding the difficult task to focus on something else is inherently rewarding. So the best way to break a cycle is to reward yourself even more for a different behavior. Breaking the procrastination cycle changes the connections in your brain. Reward-based learning is a powerful psychological system that we can tap into for behavioral change. Small rewards given often for each positive behavioral change and a large reward for completing the task are extremely helpful. When I was writing my dissertation, I came up with a list of 10 rewards that are easily accessible such as a cup of tea, a small piece of chocolate, 10 minutes of Facebook, etc. I would set a timer to write for 25 minutes and then take a 5-10 minute break to give myself a reward from that list. When I finished a chapter, I would reward myself with something bigger such as dinner out with friends or a massage. At the end of my dissertation process, I rewarded myself with a trip. Pretty soon, I found myself writing past the 25-minute mark and skipping my rewards because the writing process became less dreadful and even fulfilling. ​What are your 10 rewards?

What Strategies Work for You?

As a psychologist, I understand that it can be extremely difficult to find ways to get your tendency to avoid tasks under control. Have you tried other strategies that helped you break your procrastination cycle? Share with me in the comment section below.

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