When you have an assignment, presentation, or a job interview, you know it is essential that you prepare for it. Yet, getting started feels like a monumental task. You may check your email and feel like you need to respond right away, or your friend texts, and you feel the urge to reply. Maybe you go on social media for a few minutes before you embark on the task at hand. You fidget, get a drink and a snack. You get another text, and your assignment just keeps getting further and further postponed.
Procrastination is king when individuals experience anxiety, maladaptive perfectionism, and other mental and emotional challenges. But we all procrastinate at one time or another.
Why does our mind lead us to play stalling games? Why can’t we just take matters into our hands? We could just say, “Thanks, mind, you are doing a good job at helping me stall. I’ll just get on it!” It is easier said than done. Sometimes we just don’t seem to have the motivation to get started.
We may rationalize and justify the delay with statements such as, “I hate this. It’s so boring!” “It’s going to take so long.” “I don’t think I’m made out for this.” “Who cares anyway?”
The procrastination games may end up entangling you into a big mess. Your mind may say, “If I cannot do it perfectly, why should I do it at all? Others will think less of me.” Your mind may advise, “There is simply not enough time, after all. I’ll most likely get caught in the minutiae, so it is best to avoid that trap.”
The judgments and evaluations the mind provides may be well intentioned. Remember, you mind is looking out for you. It wants to protect you from possible danger, discomfort, and unpleasant feelings. Unfortunately, the mind’s intentions backfire as you end up with sleepless nights, increased anxiety, and possibly discouragement, hopelessness, and depression.
Take a few minutes to answer these questions:
- Am I avoiding the task itself or is there something else I am avoiding?
- When I think of the task, what are the specific feelings that come up?
- Are my perfectionistic tendencies and anxiety causing the delay?
- Am I avoiding any possible judgments from anyone? Whose judgments am I preventing?
- What will be the consequence if I fail?
- If my mind’s advice is helpful, does it have to do with avoiding anxiety?
Your answers may be an indication that you are fused with the thoughts related to the situation. Is anxiety or other unpleasant emotions getting in the way? If this is the case, remember that when your mind sets up “should’ve, could’ve, would’ve” statements, you may be fused with them. Are you also creating high expectations because your mind is saying so?
It doesn’t have to be that way. Remember, your mind doesn’t have all the information. It is simply doing its job, and you are the one that can see the whole picture when you become aware of what’s happening.
The following exercise can help you become untangled from your thoughts when the mind leads you to procrastinate.
Sing the Thought*
Write down what the mind is saying. When you discover the stalling is related to anxiety or other unpleasant feeling and not the task, separate yourself from the unhelpful thoughts. You can sing the thoughts to a tune of a childhood song or any other song you’d like.
For example, you could use the Happy Birthday tune with these thoughts: “I worry and worry. I may fail my test. I hate feeling anxious. So I’m not going to start!”
You are not trying to make fun of the situation or diminish it in any way. You are only trying to change the context and meaning of what is happening.
Your judgmental mind may add additional thoughts such as, “I’m so lazy.” “I’m irresponsible.” “I’m not smart. Otherwise, I would have gotten this done by now.” Use the same song or another song with those thoughts to continue to separate from them.
As you practice this exercise, you’ll realize that those thoughts are just a bunch of unhelpful words produced by your mind. When you untangle from them, you can then move towards what matters most in your life.
You don’t have to believe everything your mind says!
* Hayes, S. C. 2005. Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.