We've all been there: opening up a new document file with every intention of writing our essays, papers, or any assignment. A word or a sentence is formed, then something else catches our attention. Maybe it's an email, a text, or a habit to check the latest news online. Before we know it, an hour has flown by and it's time to have lunch. We may find ourselves repeating a similar dance for days until a deadline creeps closer and the consequences of not completing an assignment lead to anxiety and feeling stressed, pushing us to pull an all-nighter. Once completed, we feel a sense of relief of having closely averted a negative consequence, and we vow not to procrastinate in the future. Somehow as we reflect back, we can't pinpoint where the time has gone and why a seemingly doable task wasn't so doable after all.
The Anxiety Connection
Procrastination, when we put off doing something we are supposed to, is a form of avoidance. Like other forms of avoidance, procrastination can feel right or justified. Unlike social anxiety, phobias, and other forms of avoidance, however, it can be difficult to pinpoint when it is happening. We naturally gravitate toward doing things that feel more pleasant or neutral. So, if opening up that file and staring at it cause you to feel even a slight discomfort, you are likely to find other things to do or be distracted by. We clean up our workspace, answer emails, read the newspaper, text a friend, or work on less emotionally low-priority taxing tasks instead of doing what we planned on doing.
If left unchecked, procrastination can become an incapacitating habit, fueled by anxiety, which in turn can fuel more procrastination. A vicious cycle ensues. Hence, it is no wonder that many people who suffer from anxiety disorders also struggle with procrastination.
One way to tackle the problem of procrastination before it gets out of hand is to be more mindful of our feelings and behaviors, however subtle or innocuous they may seem. Here are a couple of suggestions to combat procrastination.
1. Set reasonable, achievable goals. This requires an honest review of your past behaviors and patterns. If you've never been able to write five pages in one sitting, then that's probably not an appropriate goal for you. Try two pages and designate the time to complete it. Similarly, it can help to break down projects like papers into outlines, paragraphs, sections. Working on a project is more daunting than working on an outline. Estimate how long it will take you to complete each task. Now double the amount of time. This will ensure that you do not underestimate how long each goal will take. Once you complete the task, you are more likely to feel good and this positive feeling will motivate you to continue.
2. Keep a prioritized to-do list and a schedule. Write down specific tasks and organize them by priority. Also, schedule when you plan on tackling specific tasks. This way, you won't forget to deal with less pleasant high-priority tasks by keeping yourself busy with low-priority tasks. If you find yourself repeatedly not tackling these tasks or running out of time, you'll be able to revise your goal settings and scheduling.
3. Eliminate distractions. Were there times when you felt you tackled an assignment well? Identify factors that helped and hindered your work. Do you work better in a quiet place? At home? In the morning? Afternoon? Perhaps it would help to disable the Internet on your computer or tablet, or turn off your cellphone so you are not reading the news or answering emails instead of working. It can also be a good idea to let others know that you do not want to be disturbed during this period.
4. Review tasks accomplished and reward yourself. Take stock each day of what you are able to accomplish and document this. If you are able to meet your goals, reward yourself with a small treat or a kind word. This will help generate more positive feelings associated with the task.
Don't underestimate the effort it takes to break the habit of procrastination. If it were easy, it wouldn't be one of the popular items on a New Year's resolution. As I mentioned in my previous post, by embracing challenges and reducing avoidance (of which procrastination is a form), we improve our self-efficacy, feel more content and capable, and feel less anxious. Visit the Anxiety and Depression Association of America at www.adaa.org to find a mental health professional to help you with anxiety, procrastination, and related avoidance challenges.