How to Stop Putting Things Off, Part 1

LEARN NEW SKILLS AND CHANGE YOUR WORKING LIFE 

 

Putting things off is a common problem

A friend of mine just left a full-time job that expected her to be on the clock for forty hours a week. Now working for herself, she needs to set her schedule and hold herself accountable for finishing projects. It has been a struggle not just to stick to her plans, but it’s also been a shock that she’s less happy now than when she had a boss she didn’t like!

This phenomenon is a lot more common than I ever realized before I ran into my own problems with it. Working in private practice means no one else determines when I do my work or how much I get done. The absence of outside accountability means that other priorities intrude all the time. My dog wants a walk, my kids get home from school and fill me in on their day, a friend calls, or the laundry beckons. Those are just the distractions that come from outside myself! I also tend to think that I’m doing something useful as long as I’m sitting at my computer. I do much better if I write on paper for a while when I first sit at my desk, but I almost always flick on my glowing monitors and gravitate toward distraction. 

Autonomy is great! And then it’s not

So many people find themselves in the same boat: students, the self-employed, artists, writers, retirees, and stay-at-home-parents all face this challenge. 

In an office, the setup usually contributes to (more) focused work. 

  1. Having a boss who might stop by or check in,
  2. Attending meetings and answering for deadlines,
  3. Knowing there’s a chance someone will walk by and see us wasting time.

So we stay on task to avoid the pain of embarrassment or even a bad performance evaluation. So if you’re home with no one tracking your progress but yourself, how do you get yourself to accomplish your most odious tasks? 

It’s getting easier than ever to keep putting things off

 

More people have joined these ranks in the last few years as the pandemic shifted work; working from home is now ordinary instead of exceptional. Work-from-homers might still report to a boss, but the structures, routines, and rewards of working in an office have changed drastically.  

Procrastination and Depression


One of the things therapists ask about to determine whether someone is depressed is to ask if they feel motivated and productive. When those feelings are low, people usually feel depressed. Does that mean that achievement is the opposite of depression? No!

Feeling productive and motivated aren’t necessarily connected to status, money, or achievements. We feel motivated and productive when we’re satisfied with how we spend our time and have the energy to do more of it. You could feel productive and motivated when making a grilled cheese sandwich, taking a nap, or going for a walk. As long as you believe it’s a good use of your time, you’re likely to feel good about it. The two options to generate that feeling if you don’t already have it are: 

  1. Change the ways you spend your time or
  2. Change your perception of how you spend your time.

 I opted for both.

Working with others is one way to fight the urge to put things off.


It feels like I can’t stop procrastinating

 

Another link between procrastination and depression for me is when I tell myself there’s something wrong with me. I start to believe I’m alone and should be able to get back on track with a snap of my fingers. One of the most painful features of procrastination for me is that I feel as though I’m at war with my self. 

I no longer have an antagonistic relationship with a boss who makes me angry and upset. When my day is over, I’m frustrated, discouraged, and disappointed in me.

It sometimes even feels scary to feel I have so little control over putting things off. 

Noticing How Procrastination Works


Before doing anything to change the situation, I just paid attention. I took notes on what was happening with my level of focus during my workdays. 

Putting things off usually feels like an unconscious move. 
 


Distractions are short-term pain relief.


A sequence like the following happens several times every day: I have a goal to make progress on a task. I start on the task and focus for a while. I eventually have a feeling I don’t like (boredom, frustration, shame, or anxiety, for example). I don’t want that feeling to last, so I send my mind in a different direction. 

The roulette wheel of emotional turbulence is a readily available route to distraction (and relief from boredom, frustration, or discouragement).

Whatever comes up, I can effortlessly replace the emotional flood with another one! They might not be good, but they will be different. 

Putting things off is rewarding (for a while).


Scroll through Twitter and notice that your brain rarely catches up with whatever you’re feeling at a given moment. Read one tweet and feel happy, sad, joyful, confused, angry, or guilty for half an instant before reading another and feeling an entirely different emotion. 

There are parts of that experience that are incredibly valuable. All my distracting activities are also ways of learning more about the world, myself, and other people. They’re how I get news and stay connected to the big human picture. 

The roulette wheel plays a vital role in adding flavor and excitement to my day. I love being able to distract myself. I am human, and I move toward pleasure and away from pain. 


We have good reasons to procrastinate at work. 


Sometimes my work is dull or discouraging. Giving myself breaks shows I’m realistic and have compassion for myself. It’s reasonable to acknowledge that I need breaks and want to feel connected to other people. 

I also need social interaction. I work at home and spend a lot of time alone. I benefit from seeing cute dog pictures and personal life updates, reading weird jokes, and rolling my eyes at hot takes. It doesn’t replace a real-life social connection, but parts of it are essential to me. 

Noticing that cycle wasn’t enough to change my habit on its own. However, noticing has been one piece of what’s helping me continue to work. Noticing and articulating what’s happening in these moments has made me feel more reasonable, less alone, and more competent. 

Annnnnd…putting things off creates an inherent tension.


As much as I feel compassion for myself, I hate ending a workday and noticing that I spun my wheels but didn’t get much done. There’s a difference between intentional rest and accidentally resting while being mentally committed to something else. 

Taking a break or two is essential. Taking a “break” that lasts almost an entire day is demoralizing. The ways I spend my time when I’m not working aren’t genuinely fun or restful. I don’t create relaxation or happiness by sitting at my desk and not working.   

So. If I want to change the way I’m working, what is there to do?

Everyone struggles sometimes with putting things off. 


Step One: The Magic Wand Question


What would I wish for if I could wave a magic wand and change something about my work and procrastination habits? 

My first and second wishes aren’t available in real life. I would be thrilled if I could wave the wand and have work done without my doing it! Failing that, I would love to have a team of people to keep me on track, cheer me on when I’m struggling, and check my work to make sure it’s high quality. 

Given that I can’t have those impossible wishes, my realistic goal is this: 

As scary as it feels, I would want to like myself and enjoy my life before achieving my goals. I would choose to motivate myself with carrots instead of sticks. I’d be able to plan and act and, most importantly, get out of battle with myself. 

What’s your goal? 


My goal might not be your ideal outcome. Before reading more, pause and write down your goal. If you could wave a magic wand and change how procrastination works in your life, what wish would you make? 

Note: This post is the first in a four-part series by Feeling Good Therapist  Cheryl Delaney. Cheryl has helped many clients with procrastination. Recently she started struggling with it herself. This series walks you through the entire process she used to conquer her own procrastination so you can apply the same skills in your own life. The original article is published here.

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