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Procrastination – Overcoming the emotional block that stops you getting things done

People often think their procrastination is a time management issue. That they’re just not prioritising their tasks correctly or are wasting time fiddling about rather than focusing on the job in hand. In fact it’s all about emotions, or more specifically, overcoming the emotional block that stops you getting things done.

What makes it worse is that by procrastinating, not only does the unfinished task eat away at your energy all day, quietly nagging you from the corner of your brain. You may also find yourself starting the task at the end of the day (because you have finally got close to the deadline) which may be when you have least energy to do a good job. If this is you, then you’re pretty much setting yourself up for failure, or at least making the task a whole lot harder than it needs to be.

When working with my clients on procrastination, I’ve noticed the issue is usually not a time management one, it’s actually about overcoming an emotional block that’s getting in the way.

It might be because the task ahead of us feels boring or tedious (we simply don’t want to do it); it might be a fear of ‘being seen’ – if we’re successful does that set us up for people to have huge expectations of us in the future; it could be a fear of failure, and risking potential humiliation; or perhaps that we’ve taken a risk and tried things in the past and they didn’t work out, so we want to avoid the disappointment of them not working out again.

It can be helpful to think about what your own personal underlying reason for procrastination is. Once you’ve identified it (or them!) then you can do something about it.

Here’s a few tips to help understand what’s actually going on, and what to do to start moving things forward again

Step One: Notice

  • Pause for a moment and take a few deep breaths when you realise you’ve gone in to ‘procrastination mode’
  • Scan your body and notice where there’s any tension, tightness, any uncomfortable feelings or sensations that you may be aware of
  • When you find those spots of uncomfortableness, focus your breathing there. So, if you feel your chest is tight, focus on breathing down into your belly and then visualising your breath floating gently up into that tight spot in your chest. If it’s your shoulders, you can do the same thing, breathe down into your belly and then visualise the energy of the breath moving up to the tight or stiff point in your shoulders, allowing yourself to gently relax on the outbreath
  • It can help to place your hand on the place that you feel tight

As you’re noticing, try to identify what the feeling or sensation actually is – whether it’s that fear of getting it wrong, the desire to avoid disappointment, the worry that doing well might set up you to fail in the future, or simply that you don’t want to do it because it’s boring and does not feel like a good use of your time and energy.

Step Two: Identify and tackle the emotional block

Now that you’ve got in touch with the feeling that’s behind the procrastination, connecting to what’s really going on, you can start to make some informed choices about what to do next.

  • If it’s a fear of getting it wrong, see what you can do to minimise that risk (perhaps looking for a previous example of where the task has been done that you can use as a template or model for your own attempt at it; thinking about what you have done in the past that’s similar to the new task and drawing on that experience; or asking someone for help or guidance)
    • If it’s a fear of getting it right and setting unrealistic expectations in the future, try flipping the story around, thinking about how if you are able to do this task then what can you learn from how you do it to help you be successful again in the future
    • If it’s boredom or the thought of having to do something tedious, then take a look at the bigger picture to create some motivation – how is doing this tedious task helping you achieve something that might be more exciting or bigger in impact? how is it a stepping stone to future success?
    • If it’s about disappointment, well, unfortunately, if you try to protect yourself from any disappointment in life, you’re unlikely to try anything and so will likely always be disappointed. Try ‘stepping away’ from the disappointment, recognising that many disappointments are actually about the filters we’re using to judge success or failure, what is right or wrong in our lives. If we can bring more acceptance and non-attachment to the outcome, then we can go into new tasks and challenges without placing a huge burden on ourselves to determine the outcome (often we don’t have control over the outcome in any case). Instead focus on what you do have control over, which is how you bring yourself to the task and what you want to get done.

These are just some ways of thinking about the emotional issues behind procrastination, often we need to dig quite deep to understand what’s really going on, and it won’t always be the most obvious answer.

Once you’ve started to deal with the emotional block behind the procrastination, you can take some practical steps to get things moving.

By taking even one tiny action towards completing the task, it will seem more manageable. Often, even when we’re not sure what to do, just by doing something, anything, it makes the next steps clearer, but we can’t get that clarity until we actually do something, and instead stay stuck in a kind of brain freeze!

Step Three: Take Action

  • Start by brainstorming on post-it notes or pieces of paper all the steps you need to do to complete the task
    • Write each smaller task down on a separate piece of paper
    • Put them into order
    • Check if you’ve missed anything, or if there is anything that needs to be done before you can complete a particular step
    • Then pick a small task or activity to start with (Note: this does not have to be the thing that you put first in order, sometimes there’s an easier thing we can start with that may even be in the middle of the process. At this stage it doesn’t matter, what we’re trying to do is break the feeling of overwhelm and just to get started, then we can go back and do things in order)

As you become more aware of the emotional block that drives you into procrastination, you’ll find it easier and quicker to break through those blocks, improve your focus and get things done.