I can’t stop procrastinating. I feel stuck. What can I do?

We’ve all been there: there is a task to get done or a project to begin working on, or we have an idea for something that we’d like to achieve but… nothing. Where it would be prudent to start work, we simply do not. Instead, we find ourselves inexplicably and frustratingly unable to get down to business. This avoidance is known as procrastination – the action of delaying or postponing something. Some of us often procrastinate, others not so much. Some of us procrastinate when it comes to big changes or tasks, others regularly, no matter how daunting something might hypothetically be.

Procrastination is both a cause and symptom of depression and anxiety; we procrastinate because we are anxious about the task or don’t have the confidence to begin. The more we procrastinate, the worse we start to feel about ourselves. We belittle ourselves, disappointed that we can’t just get to work or get something done, which worsens our relationship with ourselves.

There is no question that procrastination can disrupt our thoughts and emotions, as well as our routines and plans. It can get in the way of even the simplest of tasks, looming over us and adding unnecessary stress and pressure to our lives. Even though we know that procrastination is a negative behavior, many of us find ourselves dealing with it and wondering why we can’t simply make ourselves get started or get something done. There are a few reasons why we avoid or delay taking action with our tasks and goals, and understanding them gives us better insight to allow us to tackle the issue!

Why do I procrastinate?

1. You are emotionally attached to the outcome. When you feel emotionally heightened, you procrastinate.  

This will sound counterintuitive, but the more invested you are in an outcome, the greater the urge to procrastinate can be. You might think that being excited and motivated should overcome any anxiety you have around the task, but that is not necessarily the case. This is because of the brain’s negativity bias. Specifically, when it comes to negative, unpleasant emotions, research has shown that the brain detects and stores negative emotions differently than positive emotions. As a result, the fear of failure or fear of disappointing others trumps the sense of pride, joy, and excitement we expect to feel if and when we accomplish something, causing us to delay and avoid obtaining that outcome.

2. Procrastination becomes your excuse:

Despite wanting to succeed, our fear of failure can cause a bit of self-sabotage, and procrastinating is a great way to do so. While we are procrastinating, there is a part of our awareness that knows that if we don’t do well, we can blame it on the fact that we didn’t have enough time. 

Whether we are tackling a big presentation for work or improving our fitness, we take solace in the fact that if the outcome doesn’t meet our expectations, we can tell ourselves that it was a lack of time that derailed us and not our incompetence or inadequacy.

3. You experience Analysis-Paralysis:

This specific type of procrastination gets us stuck in the rumination phase. We tell ourselves that we need more input from others, or to sleep on the idea some more, or to think about it for a few more days. In doing so, we put things off indefinitely, or, in the case of tasks that have a deadline, until the last minute. When we reach our deadline, we are now faced with a pile of work to sort and unpack in record time. We get lost in multitasking and feel more stuck.  In the case of our dreams, we may never begin to work toward them; the more we delay, the more we lose the connection and the determination. As we distance ourselves from our aspirations, we distance ourselves from our purpose and can lose sight of who we truly are. We don’t recognize the person we see in the mirror because it has been ages since she worked toward her dream job or participated in one of her passions or hobbies, such as yoga, or art, or kickboxing, or knitting!

4. Your past experiences feeds into the procrastination: 

If you’ve spent time in your life working hard for little or no reward, your past experiences might impact your willingness to jump in on new projects. If this is the case, you may need to do an inventory of any life experiences you have had around goal completion. Think as young as your childhood: at home or school, what kind of pressure was placed on you to set and achieve goals? How were your accomplishments celebrated vs. how were your shortcomings punished? If you can identify that your best was never good enough, you may be able to see why you tend to avoid putting in the effort now. Perhaps you like to give yourself the excuse of not having had enough time, or maybe you are paralyzed at the idea of beginning any task because you are convinced that you will disappoint yourself or others in the end.

We may find ourselves procrastinating because of any or all of the above reasons at any given time or when it comes to specific tasks or projects. Sometimes, we may experience all four reasons when we are faced with certain objectives. Because of this, we may have some trouble tackling each reason for our procrastination, finding that unpacking one doesn’t alleviate the other, etc. In this case, it is helpful to try to rank your reasons in order of importance and tackle them either from least significant to move or vice versa. Breaking them into pieces is a way to simplify what you are dealing with and implement the tools you have available to overcome your procrastination.

In individual therapy in Woodland Hills, you will work closely with your therapist to explore what is behind your procrastination. Once you identify the factors that feed into your procrastination, you can move on to the four skills necessary to overcome procrastination so you can learn to get unstuck and move forward. 

4 steps on how to overcome procrastination:

1. Control your thoughts that lead to procrastination:

This is where understanding the source of our procrastination can be especially helpful. Still, there is also a universal and straightforward thought that most of us experience: “I’ll do that later.” 

How many times have we looked at the pile of laundry to be folded, or the dishes next to the sink, or the report we need to read, and thought to ourselves that we would get to that task later? How many times have we thought about our goals and dreams and said, “I’ll start tomorrow”? When these thoughts come to mind, you can respond to them. “No. I’ll do that now.” or “No. I’ll start today.” 

This is about being firm with yourself because you are worthy of living in a tidy environment, not hard on yourself because you are inclined to leave the dishes. Holding yourself to the standard that you should do what you are able to do to live the quality of life you deserve is a form of self-love and self-care. You can remind yourself of your intention by reminding yourself why it matters: “Every time I pass that pile of dishes, I feel stressed out. I deserve to relax, so I will do them now and not have to worry anymore.”

Other, more subtle fear-based thoughts might come to us as, “I’m not sure where to begin,” or “I think this is going to be a lot of work.” We might worry over our perceived ability to succeed while we are still in the process of considering beginning. Intercepting these thoughts and reminding ourselves not to worry about the end but to pick a place – any place – and begin will help us get moving. It’s like they say about exercise: “The hardest steps are the ones you take out the door.”

At Embracing You Therapy practice, the therapist utilizes Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to guide you in uncovering the underlying negative and unhealthy thoughts that lead to procrastination. By changing your thoughts, you can change your behaviors. 

2. Create a routine that works for you and keeps you on track:

All the ambition in the world won’t help if you don’t create a routine that actually works for you. Your routine won’t stick if it doesn’t bring you joy or if it is not aligning with your values. If it is not realistic, it won’t stick; depending on your work situation, the ages of your children, your other family obligations, the needs of your day-to-day living need to be individualized for your circumstances. 

Yes, it is going to be hard. You need to get used to it. Stop thinking that if something is hard, it is not meant for you. A challenge does not indicate a sign from the universe that you should stop what you are doing. One of my favorite quotes from Rachel Hollis says exactly that: “A setback is not a stopping point.”

I know it has been said multiple times, but it is important to reiterate the importance of identifying small steps when talking about routines and procrastination. As you identify the moving pieces of your life, identify the time of the day you are most likely to work on your goals. Some people prefer to exercise first thing in the morning before they’ve done anything else. Some prefer to exercise at the end of the day to decompress from any stresses that piled up. Figure out what you prefer and also what is practical for your existing schedule. If you’ve got a little one who wakes up very early these days, then perhaps you need to do a quick twenty-minute workout in the morning and then a relaxing walk in the evening instead of an hour-long morning HIIT routine. Maybe your partner can be on kiddo patrol three mornings per week so that you can get your workout done. Remove all distractions like phones, TV, or family members, as much as you are able to.

3. Know your “why?” to fight off urges to procrastinate: 

Why do you want to achieve this goal? Setting aside the end result you are aiming for and beginning at the literal beginning can help start. Removing the focus from a distance and bringing it into the here and now is the best way not to become overwhelmed or get ahead of yourself. 

Most of the time, when we set a goal, we have a reason. “I want to train for this triathlon because I want to challenge myself” or “I want to buy a condo because I want to invest in myself,” or any number of goals and reasons. When you focus on your “why,” your mindset changes from, “I have to go for a run to train for my triathlon” to “I want to achieve a strong result in my triathlon”; this way of thinking enforces our worth of achieving our goal, rather than our lack of having achieved it already.

Of course, there will always be times when you are tasked with something that doesn’t have any sort of emotional connection for you. Sometimes, the “why” can seem to be lacking in emotional value at first; for example, if the task is something routine that has to be done as part of a job description. “I have to do this to keep my job” isn’t a very emotional reason. But if you push yourself to think beyond your “job,” you can find all sorts of reasons. 

You can make it a bit of a game to complete your least favorite task at work – maybe if you get it done by a certain time per day or a certain day per week, you give yourself two points, and when you get it done at all, you give yourself one point. Whenever you reach twenty points, you buy a fancy coffee from the fancy coffee place, or whenever you reach fifty points, you buy a new board game. Or any number of “rewards” that might mean something to you that you can do because you have a stable income and you are doing well at work. 

It might sound silly, but framing mundane tasks as part of a bigger picture for the life you want to lead can make them seem more valuable, and therefore make it easier to do them. It’s also kind of fun to track points and finally reach your goal. Sometimes, work is boring. There’s no rule that says you can’t find a way to make it a little more exciting.

4. Celebrate any actions you take towards your goal, big or small: 

Focus on what you are learning while you are pursuing the goal rather than evaluating how close you are to achieving the goal: celebrate the journey, not the destination. Celebrate how far you have come, not how far you have to keep going.

Sometimes, we can fall into the trap of waiting until we see the result before deciding if working on the project was a good use of our time. But the truth is that any project that you work on or goal you work toward is a worthwhile endeavor because you have the opportunity to learn and practice skills that will undoubtedly be handy again in the future. Even if you don’t achieve everything you want to accomplish on a specific project, the skills you gained can be taken with you to your next goal!

By celebrating along the way, we remind ourselves of all the value we get from participating in our lives and improving ourselves. We make the process of trying new things and building new ideals more fun, which makes it far more likely that we will continue working. The fact is that no great achievement is one singular event but a series of smaller victories that also took time, energy, imagination, and dedication to achieve. On their own, many of these milestones are worthy of feeling proud of, so why not treat them as such? Honoring and celebrating yourself and your wins breaks the project down into frequent opportunities for happiness and keep your attention present in the moment.

Some of us feel that we “work better under pressure,” and of that group of the population, a smaller group of the population is correct. These are the types of people who thrive in high-pressure situations, such as emergency surgeries or search-and-rescue missions. That does not mean that every aspect of life needs to be framed and executed as a high-pressure situation, which is exactly what procrastination does. It can be tempting to wait until the last minute and ride the wave of adrenaline to finish that project that you’ve had a month to work on when that is the only way you know how to work on projects, but that method is not the healthiest route for strong physical and mental wellbeing.

A willingness to deconstruct procrastination as a “way of doing things” and begin to pace out our lives in a more manageable way is a great first step toward living a life that feels more organized, more peaceful, and more spacious. The mental and physical clutter of delaying tasks can become unmanageable if we let it and decrease our quality of life and ability to nurture ourselves. While it may not seem like a big deal to always have three things on the back burner, the difference we are able to feel once we create a routine that allows us to be efficient with our tasks and projects is monumental. 

We are all worthy of knowing that sense of peace and stability.

Embracing You Therapy Group Practice

Here at Embracing You Therapy Group, we invite you to explore with us how life would be different if you had more control over your thoughts and emotions, and we invite you to consider that it is possible to accept things just as they are, EMBRACING imperfections to create a gentler place for CALM in your life.

At our mental health practice in Woodland Hills, CA, we offer individual therapy and couple’s therapy. Both Dr. Menije and Cindy Sayani, AMFT offer virtual therapy to treat mental health concerns include Anxiety, panic attacks, OCD, phobias, and stress; Mood disorders including depression; Relationship issues, both in couples therapy and with individual clients; Perinatal mental health issues such as postpartum depression or anxiety. 

If you are ready to learn more about ways perfectionism is showing up in your life, Dr. Menije has a self-study digital course on Breaking-up With Perfectionism

Let’s learn what drives your unique perspective on anxiety and stress, and then let’s find the tools-your unique tools-that help you respond to life in a healthy, calm way. Contact us today.

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