Today, I'm delighted to share a guest post from Dr. Christine Li.
Procrastination is a such a chameleon.
One day it’s a friendly sidekick, staying next to us while we make our way through the day. A bit of procrastination helps us to tolerate the anxiety and stress that work tends to bring. Procrastination in these instances might even help to keep our overall productivity relatively high.
The next day, procrastination might feel more like an annoying roadblock, just when we need to get on our way more quickly. In these situations, our anxiety starts to climb as the procrastination starts to feel like a stressful situation unto itself.
Then of course, there are days when procrastination can be downright suffocating. It can cause us to feel like we are drawing a blank creatively. It can make us feel like we don’t really have any willpower or say in where our work might be headed.
I should know. I have been a vibrant procrastinator my whole life. It feels like I’ve experienced every reaction known to man as the result of my procrastination. It appears I have a natural inclination to make things take longer. To overwork the simplest matter. To apply drama where there otherwise is none. It’s just who I am.
But I too, am a chameleon. Because in addition to being a world-class procrastinator, I enjoy everything life has to offer — the sights, sounds, and messes, the highs and the lows. I like being engaged, with people, with new things, with ideas, and with the universe.
I’ve dealt with the conflict between my constant impulse to procrastinate and my desire to live fully by spending most of my waking hours figuring out how to help myself and others cope with the ever-challenging twin forces of resistance and procrastination. I have, over the last decade, woven my interest in procrastination into my professional work as a psychologist and coach. I have carefully observed all the ways in which procrastination can take hold in our lives and I remain consistently fascinated by this process.
Procrastination is a way we express ourselves
By focusing on procrastination so intently, I’ve seen how procrastination is an expression of our many unique and personal qualities. No two procrastinators act exactly alike. The way we procrastinate is a reflection of how we relate to ourselves. We might be perfectionistic. We might be sadistic. We might be self-critical or self-sabotaging. We might be avoidant. Of course, this list is as endless as our personalities are complex.
Procrastination also reflects how we relate to other people. We might be anxious. We might be fearful. We might worry about being judged or rejected. We might feel voiceless, powerless, or helpless. We might be caught in the drama of thinking we need to flee.
Procrastination also indicates how we relate to the broader world and universe. We might think that we are too insignificant to make a change. We might think our contributions are unworthy of attention. We might feel if we did show up more fully in our lives, we’d somehow find ourselves in trouble.
You might have noticed that the descriptions I just paired with procrastination are real downers. Procrastination is a force of restraint, of fear, of keeping small, and of negativity. All of these factors are not in line with our natural capacity to deal with and to grow alongside change. That is why fear and worry (and procrastination) can feel so awful. When we procrastinate, we have to sit with our unwillingness or inability to change.
When we are not burdened by procrastination, we feel in flow with ourselves, other people, and the universe — and we know it. We know it because our minds and hearts are clear. We know it because we feel charged with energy, even if it happens to be a quiet, soft energy. We know it because it feels like a bright, warm, autumn Sunday. We know it because, in those moments, life truly feels boundless.
So why do we procrastinate when we wish for something more?
The space in between procrastination and flow is a type of blank space. The blank space might represent openness, possibility, wonder, beginnings, movement, beauty, and freedom. Blank space might just as easily represent emptiness, stress, expectation, lack, deprivation, pressure, fear, discord, doubt, and unease.
Sometimes we hold ourselves back from moving into the in-between blank space because we fear the unease and the uncertainty. We just don’t like not knowing where we are going.
The problem is, when we keep ourselves still, we still don’t know where we are going. Turns out that blank space is often where we learn the most about ourselves — the good, bad, the ugly and the beautiful. Procrastination, by keeping us immobile, keeps us from knowing important aspects about ourselves.
Our childhood, family, and cultural backgrounds may have played a role in our reluctance to go with the flow. Some of our origins may not have been particularly joyful or easy. We may have been taught to stay on the side of fear and under the cover of procrastination. We may have been cautioned against being too open-minded and doing anything too risky. Our early training may have made us doubt our inclinations to think, feel, and act differently than how we think others expect us to.
Many children grow up having to orient themselves to the different states of fear, blankness, and fullness with little support. Many are not given the opportunity to learn a range of skills to cope with stresses such as conflict, confusion, and lack of communication successfully. Procrastination starts to appear, in childhood, as a seemingly smart option when we find ourselves in situations that bring up old, lingering, undefined, and uncomfortable feelings.
It’s no wonder we end up procrastinating. We all need our defenses against stress, instability, and uncertainty. We procrastinate as a natural reaction to stress that can feel overwhelming.
But we get ourselves into trouble with procrastination when we bring those defenses too rigidly into adulthood. Our defenses of avoidance, perfecting things, overdoing things, and worrying too much become blocks to our health and well-being. We cling to them because they are familiar and because they have worked for us in the past. But they do not allow us to grow as we need to.
What makes it so hard to make the changes necessary to stop procrastinating?
It can be mind-boggling how we keep procrastination around even when we know we are capable of better. Here are some reasons why we can end up feeling shackled to procrastination:
1. Changing the way we act leaves us open to the unknown future. Most of us are taught, from an early age, to avoid the unknown. We are taught to seek certainty, in our schooling, relationships, professional life, and in so many other major areas. Although certainty has its merits, we benefit from being open to chance, to change, and to the surprises life brings us. Living fully requires this kind of openness.
2. We can be swayed by the illusion that we can have control over our lives. If you’ve ever faced the loss of a loved one, you know. You know that our ideas about having total control are just pleasant fantasies and lovely wishes. When we procrastinate we deepen the fantasy, acting as if we are not actually affected by the passing of time. As if we won’t suffer any consequences if we keep our heads down, stay hidden and quiet, and don’t look up too often.
3. The effort to change feels too great. When we feel overwhelmed, we feel much more unable to make significant transformative change than when we are not stressed out. That is how procrastination ends up taking our mojo away. With each additional day we remain inactive and disengaged, we lose a bit of traction against the creep of procrastination into our lives.
We are reluctant to face what we will find out about ourselves if we stop procrastinating.
- Will we find a blank space?
- Will be able to handle the absence of activity and stress?
- Will we be able to direct our own decisions and choices — our lives?
Though the thought of changing how you do things might feel daunting, I want you to know (and you know already in your heart) that it is okay to want more. It is okay to want to handle stress more effectively. It is okay to want to thrive without procrastination.
We are worn down by procrastination, but we can renew our energy
Chronic procrastination in adults can be a sign of weariness from life’s ups and downs. Loss, failure, hurt and trauma can affect our ability to be resilient and to bounce back. Our minds and bodies know too much.
But being open to change is also part of being fully alive. There is too much within us that needs to be shared with others for us to hold back in procrastination and fear. We can use the following things to protect us instead:
- Our support — friends and family, coworkers and others in our daily lives
- Professional support — sometimes all we need is someone there for us no matter what condition we find ourselves in
- Easing our own expectations — understand that there will be good days and bad and taking them each as evenly as possible. Let’s not get rattled by the small stuff.
- Experimentation — taking a new route for yourself, like delegating to avoid doing everything yourself and like doing things more quickly so you don’t lose so much time to perfectionism
- Meditation — practicing living with the blank space with increasing ease
- Playing — not just making time for play on the weekends and during vacation, but finding ways to be playful with yourself and with others everyday. Easing up in general.
- Leaving — there are times when we have put enough of our time and energy in. Leave the relationships and organizations that you’re done with. It is okay to find new space for yourself. Do not stay in just to answer to your guilt feelings or because you don’t know what else awaits you.
Decide for yourself and surprise yourself
Procrastination is such an utterly human activity. There’s no way to escape it completely. But you can grow and change to a point where it is one of the least likely paths you will take in any given situation. You will need to consider some of these questions in the change process:
- What do I want to do?
- What do I want to leave be?
- How do I want to change my relationship with procrastination?
- How do I want to change my relationship with myself?
These questions are not small ones. Find your way through, with patience and kindness towards yourself. Surprise yourself. Don’t assume this process needs to be stressful or difficult. Do assume it will require some courage.
You can get to a place where you know what feels right for you and what does not. If you feel you are having difficulty knowing the difference, seek help from a therapist or coach. The reflection from another person who is interacting with you for your benefit can serve as a stable bridge between the life you have known and the life you have yet to experience.
Knowing how to withstand the emptiness, how to coexist with it, or better yet, how to thrive in it is a quiet rite of passage into adulthood. Living fully while not knowing or controlling everything and leaving procrastination behind are ways to realize the power you have within yourself, just as you are. No more chameleon-like hiding. Understanding that life is a mixture of the heavy and the light. You will regain your own sense of confidence and you will move closer to the people, activities, and events that are aligned with your interests — a beautiful surprise indeed.
Have you been bothered by procrastination? What has helped you? We would love to hear in the comments.
About the Author: Christine Li, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and an expert in the area of procrastination. A recovered procrastinator herself, Dr. Li uses her own experience combined with techniques she has developed over 20 years of professional practice to help her clients successfully break their reliance on procrastination. She has found that when we no longer depend on unhealthy behaviors of stress, avoidance, and delay, our productivity and self-confidence expand naturally. Dr. Li shares simple, but effective strategies for operating at your best at ProcrastinationCoach.com, her website and blog. Download her free 5-part report: “The Procrastination Coach Road Map: How to Examine What is Blocking You from Being Productive” here if you are interested in getting started on your own journey away from procrastination.
Thank you for being here. If you enjoyed this article, please share it with others, every share makes a big difference. Thank you! May you be well, happy, and safe – always. With love, Sandra