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Procrastination – do we even need this word?

I started the day feeling fairly confident in myself and now this: My seemingly great ideas are not going anywhere, one after another. I am hitting a wall again and again. And where there was some motivation to begin with, the more walls I hit, the more my motivation drops, until it feels like there is literally none left. I am so disappointed in myself and my situation. I just want to go to bed and sleep it off. I fantasize that if I only sleep long enough I will wake up to find that all of my problems have suddenly disappeared. I most certainly don't feel like trying some more and getting another heap of disappointment!

What has all of this got to do with procrastination? you may ask. So let me explain. Procrastination is a word I often hear in the therapy room, and recently a lot more so. It describes the act of delaying or putting off something despite potentially negative consequences. In the situation mentioned above, going to sleep in order to avoid a task and its associated feeling of disappointment could be classified as procrastination.

Since starting out in private practice over a decade ago, there have been a number of clients coming to see me with the hope that I may help them to procrastinate less. However, when I began to explore this issue, what I came to realize is how firmly the concept of procrastination can be connected with someone's identity. Can you see a potential problem here? If I am calling myself a procrastinator, if I have adopted this label to define myself, how likely is it that my therapist is going to be able to eradicate it?

One important point to highlight is that there is only procrastination if we describe it as such. This is why I am asking myself if we even need this word. I seriously doubt that calling myself a procrastinator is helpful. Conversely, what I have noted is that by adopting this label people seem to screen themselves more frequently and vigorously for instances of procrastination. This in turn leads them to find more of these instances which they then use both to confirm their identity as procrastinator and to put themselves down for it. All this does in essence is to make us feel worse about ourselves: I did it again. I just can't help it.

So, how do we get ourselves out of this vicious cycle? First of all, it may be beneficial to ask yourself if this label of procrastination is actually serving you. If it isn't, ditch it! There can be many reasons why we are taking our time in doing something or coming to a decision. There may be complex thought processes going on in the front or back of our mind that simply require more time. We may feel very strongly about something and want to sleep on it to see if the feeling prevails. We may feel overwhelmed by a task or our workload and need a break to summon up strength. We may feel legitimate anger in relation to our work or working conditions – anger which highlights that something needs to change. We may experience conflicting demands or needs within ourselves or coming from others that are difficult to acknowledge or reconcile. Covering up all of these possibilities with the label of procrastination isn't telling me much about myself. Instead it closes the door on any further exploration and limits my opportunities for self-awareness and understanding.

Now, let's be honest, even if I ditch the label of procrastination, my motivation doesn't miraculously reappear. After all, I have actually hit these walls. However, acknowledging that there may be deeper reasons for me not to progress with certain tasks certainly reduces my self criticism and reopens my mind. I may choose to set aside some time to reflect on these deeper reasons while continuing with the task at hand. I remember what I suggest to my clients in these situations: Do something … anything! Even if I feel overwhelmed, my rational mind knows that doing anything right now is better than sitting here and feeling disappointed in myself. I hear myself saying to my clients: The motivation comes with the doing, so the doing needs to come first. What is the smallest task you can think of?

I know it works as I have propelled myself back into action multiple times in this way, and so have many of my clients. And still sometimes it is incredibly hard to overcome that first hurdle. The secret is to start small, very small, tiny baby steps kind of small. And the lower your motivation and the higher your self-doubt, the smaller the first task needs to be. Also, if you have hit rock bottom, it really doesn't matter where you start. All that matters is to show to yourself that you can do it. It could be a bit of cooking, it could be tidying up a small section of your desk or filing something, it could be setting up the washing machine, anything really – as long as you can complete the task quickly and easily and see an immediate result.

When we are feeling low, it is all about rebuilding our self-belief. And one way to do it is through action: I am demonstrating to myself what I am capable of by successfully completing a task. Once that task is completed, I can use the sense of achievement, however small, to set myself another, ever so slightly more challenging task. In this way, I am transforming the vicious cycle of self-doubt into a positive cycle of self-empowerment. And I am gradually restoring and increasing my motivation levels. I would be delighted if this can also work for you. And you may even find your favourite feel-good task.


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