Procrastination may be the reason you’re reading this post, but the reason you’re procrastinating in the first place might actually be anxiety.
It took me a long time to start writing today: first, I had to check all three of my email accounts, Twitter, Instagram, text my dad about something I remembered, get a glass of water, then check my email again. My procrastination habits are what’s keeping me from taking over the world, I’m pretty sure. I’ll figure it out as soon as I Google what year Julia Child was born.
For those of us who have a habit of procrastinating, especially when it comes to something important, it might be more than just ‘goofing off.’ The urge to procrastinate is connected to a “fight or flight” response in our brains, per an article in Quartz at Work on how anxiety is stopping us from finishing important projects. The procrastination is the “flight” response in action. Here are some ways to figure out if you’re anxious—not lazy—and then get out of the hole.
Recognize the symptoms
Maybe you’re feeling relaxed and enjoying a day of ignoring laundry or other chores—great! That’s probably not anxiety. Psychologist Andrew Rosen, founder and director of the Center for Treatment of Anxiety and Mood Disorders in Delray Beach, Florida, told Quartz at Work that you can tell it’s anxiety if you’re spending a lot of time rationalizing your behavior or even dismissing the thing you’re supposed to do as meaningless:
Humans are remarkably creative when it comes to finding ways to avoid that bad feeling, be it procrastination (“I’ll do it tomorrow”), diversion (“I’ll just check Twitter first”), or self-sabotage (“You know what? It’s a dumb idea anyway.”) This last one is particularly popular among analytical or cerebral types who may not even realize the extent to which their hyper-rational reasons for abandoning a dream are influenced by fear.
If you are spending a lot of your procrastination time up in your head, justifying why the thing you have to do is stupid, it might mean you’re not really comfortable with avoiding it.
Examine your justifications
As long as you’re procrastinating, do so in a way that can fight back the anxiety. If you’ve been making up lists of reasons why you can’t do something, take that list and make it into a new list—one that examines the legitimacy of those justifications. Robin Yeganeh, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, had a great exercise for that:
“We often get in the bad habit of choosing actions that are more comfortable over behaviors that are good for us based on ‘reason giving,’” Yeganeh said. “For example, ‘I work hard so I shouldn’t have to do X’ or ‘I am too tired to make progress on X.’ I would suggest listing all the reasons for not engaging in higher priority behaviors and then challenging the credibility of each reason. Decide if these rules have led to successes in life or if they need to be upgraded in favor of success-oriented reasons for making decisions.”
This is a gentle way to face what you’re doing: avoiding responsibilities. It might be enough to snap you out of it, so you can move on to what actually needs to get done.
Examine your feelings
At the heart of all this is the reason why you’re feeling anxious in the first place. If you’re cleaning under the fridge to avoid a project that might lead to a promotion, there’s probably something deeper going on, according to psychologist Leslie Connor:
Every success comes with tradeoffs—more exposure, more pressure, less freedom—and ignoring worries about those can come back to bite us.
“If we only connect with the affirming feelings, and push down the ambivalence or fears, they will come out. But sometimes they will bang on the door,” Connor said.
And then there is the big one: the fear of failing.
If you’re finding this is a constant issue in your life, you might need to speak with a therapist about your anxiety, because no one should have to live in this state no matter their obligations. But, for some, acknowledging fears and anxieties might be a start to breaking the cycle of procrastination.