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Peeking Behind the Procrastination Curtain

How to live with it, how to deal with it.

Key points

  • Procrastination is a tool that people use to feel good and avoid pain.
  • Avoidance of pain through procrastination is ultimately harmful as it reduces resilience and keeps an individual stuck in procrastination loops.
  • To address procrastination, one must look at the root emotions beneath the surface, rather than focus on tips and tricks to be productive.

We all do it. We look at our mountain of work to be done and the feeling of dread settles in. Suddenly, everything else you could be doing begins to look so much more appealing.

Heck, I’m doing it right now. I just sat on the floor and played with my dog for five minutes before writing this next paragraph—because of course.

What’s the deal?

The short of it is that we want to feel good. We want to feel good about our capabilities, our decisions, and ourselves.

When facing a task that is challenging, this can begin to make us question all of the above. When we begin to procrastinate, that is, doing a task other than the task at hand that we set out to do, we also begin to feel a sense of shame about the act of procrastination itself.

“Why can’t I just do this simple thing?” we may tell ourselves. And while this question is a valid one, it contains judgment and derision. It makes us question our goodness.

Why tips and tricks alone fail us

Knee-jerk reactions and recommendations to procrastination can focus on making lists, downloading apps, setting timers, etc. While these are good tools and ones to not be disregarded at the jump, they don’t show the whole picture of how to think about this all-too-common and frustrating phenomenon.

After all, if simply making a list could solve the problem of procrastination, then there wouldn’t be so many articles on it or conversations about it in therapists' offices.

Rather, we need to also address the feelings that roil under the surface that both lead to procrastination and stem from it.

If we look at a task—and let’s be honest, it is not a fun task (say, doing the dishes, paying that dental bill, cleaning the dog's food bowl)—we do an internal assessment and deduce, that task won't make me feel good. Again, ultimately we want to feel good, so what do we do? Anything other than that task. So what’s the solution here? Waiting until the problem is so bad that we have no choice? Not exactly.

What if instead, we begin to welcome the idea that unfulfilling and unrewarding tasks are also acceptable? The mundane is manageable. The necessary but grating is needed. In a world where instant gratification and self-fulfillment are shoved down our throats, we forget that a large part of being human…is just boring. And that is ok.

Compassion's role

Compassion can and should be invited in as well. When we begin to procrastinate, we know it. We are very acutely aware that we are not doing the task we set out to do. That very task is still looming large in our minds and on our (ever-growing) to-do list. While it sits there, it festers like old milk, getting more sour by the minute—and with that sourness come notes of shame and self-judgment.

Release that. It is not useful. We can be aware that we are procrastinating and that can be it. We need not layer the act of procrastination with the act of self-derision.

How does one have compassion for oneself in the midst of this? One way is to remind yourself that your worth does not depend on the work that you do. Your essence as a human being does not diminish if dishes are in the sink or the car has crumbs in it that date back to 2014.

Procrastination can and will continue to happen because we live in a busy world where tasks will roll your way and you will need to deal with them as they come. Sometimes they pile up, and oftentimes they overwhelm, but when the lists and techniques for better organization fail, don’t be surprised. Return to the root: the emotions and the compassion for yourself that you are capable of.

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