People & Human Resources

Procrastination, paralysis and big mental logjams

Eve Ash /

There are times in our lives when we just feel unable to do what we need to do. As much as we strive to be super-efficient and get everything done on our priority list, the reality is often very different. Some things, at some times just feel all too hard.

Procrastination!

It’s a word we sometimes share with others and smile knowingly. But at other times we can get quite stressed, anxious and distressed. We are fully aware of things we can and should be doing, but we are deliberately or inadvertently putting them (or one big it) off.

We all find ourselves suffering some form of procrastination at various times in our lives. Our ability to get out of this state quickly is what can ensure we don’t get into a more damaged psychological state, like depression, eating disorders, high anxiety, etc.

The specific reasons for our mental paralysis can vary, but there are a few things you can do to overcome procrastination.

Stop making and breaking promises – move to problem-solving mindset

Nobody ever wakes up in the morning and deliberately sets out to procrastinate. It is something that creeps up on you. You find yourself doing the strangest of unimportant tasks (cleaning your computer’s desktop, writing complaint emails to utility companies, offering to help people that seem stuck) until you hit that awful realisation that the day is nearly over and your intentions haven’t been met.

It’s a really disappointing feeling, and for some it can really cut to the core of who they are. It’s understandable really, when you make promises to yourself that you don’t keep there is a feeling of betrayal, but it is so important to move past that discomfort and shift into a problem solving mindset so that this broken promise doesn’t become a part of how you see yourself as a whole.

Recognise the hidden drives – refocus on goals

There are some that explain procrastination as your mind taking over and enforcing rest. The tasks you avoid are usually uncomfortable or daunting, and your mind will steer your behaviour away from these tasks, as you succumb to a path of least resistance.

During a procrastination phase, have you ever found yourself talking on the phone to people for much longer than you normally would? Maybe you are engaging in more games of Words with Friends, more coffee shop meetings? Surfing online from news stories to travel deals to real estate to YouTube clips? It is part of a latent need to break from work so you get some social or ‘freedom’ uplift, or an injection of fun in what has probably been a fairly hectic and unrelenting period.

The problem, however, is that avoiding these tasks adds to the stress and pressure you feel. It can create a pretty damaging thought/behaviour loop that locks you in. You don’t take a break to energize properly because you know you have a lot to do, so you might find yourself doing little ‘distraction tasks’ like checking your email every couple of minutes or so.

Refocus on your goals. Remind yourself of what you need to achieve and why.

Stop bargaining with yourself – commit to turn it around

The games we play with ourselves are quite amazing.

We have the incredible ability to make ourselves feel okay about putting off important tasks that have been causing us stress anguish.

We can haggle internally over the delay before we start work, or how some insignificant tasks will be great to get out of the way so we can approach the big daunting task with a fresh head.

We can tell ourselves that a quick cup of coffee will help us build the fortitude to break the back of the workload, but that coffee turns into a half hour event by the time we check emails and make some calls.

You may be nodding in agreement to your own silly internal games, but now it’s time to get to the cause and to provide some help on how to overcome it.

Make a commitment to turn it around.

Don’t just look at the behaviour – be mindful and reframe

Like most efforts of behaviour change, mindfulness is essential. So often people focus only on the behaviour. They tell themselves that they need to do something, they need to work harder, they just have to get it done – but this is rarely enough to create motivation.

Looking deeper at the thought loops that hold you back can be very revealing. Here are some common self-sabotaging procrastination thoughts:

It’s too hard

It is just such a boring task!

I’m tired

I’ll make some time for it next week instead

It’s overwhelming

I just can’t get motivated

I’ll leave it for later

I’ll just watch some TV

I shouldn’t even be doing it; it should be someone else’s job

Overcoming these thoughts can be as simple as reframing your perspective. For example, so many procrastination behaviours are ‘reward before effort’ thoughts. Things like “I’ll just take tonight off and get into it tomorrow” are examples of this. A much more constructive and motivating approach is to think “if I finish this whole job now I can really enjoy my weekend properly!

Here are some other scripts that you should consider weaving into your psyche:

I’ll break this down into bite-sized parts and start right now

It will feel great to have this completed

This is another chance to do something great

I will finish this today

So often it is just one, tiny thought that redirects us from the procrastination rut back into a hard-working, effective, productivity machine. It is a little blast of excitement or interest that replaces the groan and apathy that was there before.

When you meet highly effective people that always seem on top of everything it is quite amazing to hear what motivates them. They typically open up with thoughts that drive their behaviours.

“I just can’t stand having loose ends not dealt with”

“I can’t relax properly if I’ve got a big job hanging over my head”

“I feel a lot better when I’m in control of everything”

“I plan, break things down and work through one by one”

So next time you find yourself burning time and not getting the important things done, take a moment to examine your thought-stream honestly. Are you telling yourself it’s too hard? The most influential voice in your life is the one inside your own head, so take charge and build a productive relationship that will help you to achieve a lot more.

Eve Ash has a wide range of resources and books that can help people change their thinking and habits in a constructive way.

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Eve Ash

Eve Ash is a psychologist, author, filmmaker, public speaker and entrepreneur. She runs Seven Dimensions, a company specialising in training resources for the workplace.

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