As human beings we are hardwired to approach tasks we find enjoyable and avoid those that produce negative feelings. And many of us use procrastination as a means to feel good and avoid pain. Such avoidance mechanism is ultimately harmful for it not only increases stress, but also reduces resilience and keeps us stuck in chronic procrastination loops.
When we avoid certain tasks in the moment, most of the times we are also aware that doing so is probably not a good idea. We do so inspite of having negative consequences. If you are someone who waits until the last minute to complete your tasks, you are a chronic procrastinator; meaning you are most likely to procrastinate at home, work, in relationships and more. The reason you might be engaging in such irrational cycle of chronic procrastination is because of the negative emotions around a task.
And yet, many of us focus on tips and techniques to be productive rather than addressing the root cause. Productivity isn’t always about time-management, but is more about coping with stress and negative emotions induced by certain tasks—boredom, anxiety, self-doubt or resentment.
Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task –William JamesTweet
The connection between stress and procrastination
Most of us procrastinate and assume it is normal to feel like at times. But sometimes putting off your important tasks can be because of stress and root emotions under the surface. When you are stressed, you are more likely to avoid not just the task at hand, but the negative emotions you might experience around that task as well. Many of us do this because of the bias we have toward the present and prefer the immediate reward of feeling good.
The nature of avoidance depends on the given task or situation. For instance, when we are stressed with mountain of work to be done, then everything else might appear so much more appealing. Similarly, when facing a task or project that is challenging than usual, feelings related to the task, such as self-doubt, low self-esteem or anxiety might lead to procrastinate.
And so is if a task appears to be no fun. We reason ourselves into thinking that particular task won’t make us feel good. It may be due to something inherently unpleasant about the task itself—exercise routines, daily chores like cleaning or organising that are less challenging.
The moment you put off an important task and focus on something that is more comforting or rewarding in the moment, you might feel some relief. But you are still haunted by the unfinished task at hand that might be constantly playing on your mind at some level. And this invariably increases your stress levels thereby negatively impacting your well-being.
Avoidance only compounds negative associations we have with the task, and those feelings will still be there whenever we come back to it, along with added stress of missing deadlines, unfinished work and self-blame.
Some stressors that cause chronic procrastination cycles
When a person dwells on ruminative, self-blaming thoughts and lack self-compassion, this can further perpetuate procrastination. Also the anxious thoughts we have about procrastination further increase our distress. Avoidance of negative emotions contribute to stress-procrastination loops. You put off things when—-
- You think the task is not worth your time. Then you may find yourself struggling to accept a project and perceive it as boring, has no meaning and unpleasant.
- You think a particular task has no immediate reward or has no instantly gratifying outcome. This makes you procrastinate and get comfortable with not taking action.
- You worry about not meeting the required results. That is if you fear of negative outcome or when you worry about your ability to perform a certain task.
- You put off tasks because you are afraid of not achieving perfect results or for the fear of being criticised. You may procrastinate out of fear of being judged or social anxiety.
- You resent tasks you had been comfortable doing. This may transfer to other daily activities and work related tasks.
- You feel pressure of the task, you tend to rationalise your actions in various ways, such as devaluing the importance of task or waiting until last minute or to miss on deadlines.
But the momentary relief we get when procrastinating is what makes the cycle more vicious. Relief in immediate present makes you do it again. This is how it turns into a chronic cycle of stress-procrastination.
Some ways to better manage your stress
Many people however do not realise that their procrastination may have emotional underpinnings. Over time, chronic procrastination not only lowers your productivity, but negatively effects our mental and physical health. The key to breaking out of the stress-procrastination cycle is to focus on key parts of your life where you repeatedly put things off and to take small action steps to address the stress related issues causing it.
When unfinished tasks loom large on our minds, guilt becomes more of self-judgement. Try not to be harsh on yourself when you do slip up and procrastinate. Forgiving yourself for putting off a specific task makes it more likely that you will complete that same task in future.
Instead of self criticism and negative self-evaluations, self-compassion involves taking a kind, compassionate and accepting stance towards self. It involves self-kindness—being kind rather than critical, common humanity and being mindful—taking a non-judgmental approach to one’s emotions rather than becoming over identified with negative feelings/thoughts.
How you talk to yourself makes a difference in getting something done. Saying to yourself, ‘I have to do something’ means you don’t want to do it. Instead, be specific in choosing what you want to do. Like for instance, if you have a large project that feels overwhelming, choosing to create an outline, finding relevant resources can help you initiate it.
Use cognitive reframing
Stressful thoughts create cognitive distortions or irrational thinking patterns that can lead to procrastination. For instance, emotional reasoning can cause you to give into a stressful thought. In order to avoid this, become aware of thought patterns that influence your emotions. Once you Identify a stressful thought, challenge your thought and reframe instead of accepting it as fact. Reflect on its cause and effect which will help you understand it better.
Consider asking yourself, Is this thought true for me? Does this bring peace or stress? Is it helpful? Checking for the validity of the thought leads you to find a new positive thought that is more helpful in managing your stress. Reframing isn’t about tricking yourself out of a stressor, but is to find a solution or a new perspective.
Identify the sources of stress
By recognising the sources of stress, you can better manage your procrastination habit. To do so look closely at your excuses, feelings and attitudes towards your goals. Are you constantly worried about deadlines? Is the task too big and overwhelming? Do you have too many to handle at once? Or Are you stressed because of people or outside events?
Fear too contributes to stress. This could be fear of failing, fear of making mistakes or fear of not being good enough. Challenge your faulty beliefs that are stress inducing. Journaling can help you figure out regular stressors in your everyday life that are triggering the procrastination habit. Keeping a daily log will enable you to see the patterns that are impacting you physically and emotionally. By addressing the fear that is keeping you from getting started, you can begin to overcome your procrastination habit.
Overcome your avoidance coping
Sometimes, we may consciously or unconsciously use procrastination to avoid tacking difficult, uncomfortable, or challenging tasks. Avoidance coping might seem like a great way to become less stressed. But however, actively managing or dealing with the problem proves to be more effective coping mechanism than avoiding it.
When you catch yourself using avoidance behaviour, work on replacing it with active coping strategies. Reframe your thoughts and identify resources that you didn’t realise you have. Approach the problem from a standpoint that doesn’t involve avoidance. See the benefits of handling it now rather than later. One way to overcome avoidance is to ask yourself, What’s the next action I’d take on this if I were going to do it?
Be realistic when setting goals
Setting realistic expectations for yourself reduces stress and improves your overall ability to tackle your goals. The idea of tacking a stressful task can feel overwhelming. Similarly, when faced with a big project, you might feel daunted, intimidated or feel helpless looking at the sheer amount of work involved. Start by creating a to-do list and breaking down such tasks into series of small manageable steps.
Create a balanced schedule between work, personal life, social activities, pursuing your hobbies and having certain hours for your downtime. Whether in your work or personal life, taking on more than you can handle leads to stress. Cutdown on your to-do lists by dropping tasks that aren’t necessary. Distinguish between the ‘should’s and must’s and learn to say ‘no’ to taking on too many. Focus on one manageable step at a time, rather than taking on everything at once.
Overcome your perfectionist tendencies
Perfectionism is a major source of stress. While perfectionism-striving makes you set high standards, believe in quality outcomes, and helps you to persevere to go that extra mile in order to be better, it also results in avoidance coping. Putting lot of emphasis on perfecting things leads to stress when something doesn’t conform to your expectations.
Focusing on every detail stops you from getting things done. It is important to ask yourself whether the details you have been obsessed about are essential to your end goal. If no, it is time to set them aside. Check in with yourself when you are striving too hard for something that does not affect your overall performance.
“If we wait for the moment when everything, absolutely everything is ready, we shall never begin.”Ivan Turgenev
Reframe the negative things you are saying to yourself as to whether the need for perfection is self-driven or is it driven by your need for others to approve you. Adjusting your expectations and becoming task oriented directs you to take action and thereby reduces the stress.
You don’t have to be perfect to set out to succeed, instead just getting started without worrying that you are good enough is also important. Planning, scheduling and delegating can help reduce perfection induced procrastination.
Questions For Self-reflection
To identify emotional responses,
What feelings are eliciting my temptation?
Where do I feel them in my body? What is causing these emotions?
How are they effecting my ability to get work done?
To identify your triggers,
I procrastinate on my tasks because they are challenging/boring/overwhelming/stressful?
Do I have enough resources like knowledge, time or skill to complete the task?
Is my perfectionist attitude or the deadlines causing me stress?
To better manage your stress,
How realistic are my set goals and schedules or am I overestimating the time required to complete a task?
Am I self-compassionate? How are my irrational thoughts inducing stress in me?
Does this thought bring me peace or stress?
How can reframing my thoughts help me in getting things done? What’s the next step that would work best for me?
To sum up,
Almost everyone procrastinates from time to time. However, if it interferes with the quality of work you are doing or life you are living, it is time to tackle your root cause rather than getting stuck in a negative cycle of self criticism and poor productivity.
So, next time you put off things for later, be aware of your stressors that are stopping you from doing that task. Use and apply the above strategies to identify the root causes. Breaking your stress-procrastination loop frees you up to do more of what you long to do.
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