We have all experienced it. You write something on your to-do list, and it stays undone, getting transferred repeatedly to new lists. The inability to follow through just feels bad. The neglected list item can serve as visual evidence to support limiting beliefs such as:
“I can’t accomplish what I need to in order to get what I want, so I’m doomed.”
“I’m stuck. Something’s wrong with me and my life.”
“I’m lazy. Why even try?”
I’m not a fan of the term “lazy.” Whether you can see it or not, everyone human has a stuck area of their lives. Does being stuck on a task mean someone has the character flaw of laziness? I think using this “L word” is a distraction. If you were truly lazy, you wouldn’t be reading this.
When we are frozen with a task, the other place we tend to go in our minds is feeling shame. We can easily beat ourselves up for being stuck, chipping away at our own self-esteem. Then maybe you try really hard to not feel ashamed. This circular pattern of struggling with self-criticism can distract us from getting to the actual solution for procrastination.
You know when you are on a flight, descending toward your destination airport and you need to go through a layer of clouds before you can see the city and runways below? Let’s look under the cloud layers of “laziness” and self-criticism.
RULING OUT THE PHYSICAL
A social work mentor of mine would say, “Always rule out the physical first.” A story about my friend Sam illustrates how the solution to getting unstuck with tasks might simply be a physical one.
Sam had been mentioning for months that she felt lethargic, kind of low, and just couldn’t get much done. One day she told me that she had no libido and had crazy dry skin. I asked if she had any immediate family with thyroid issues, and she said, “All three of my siblings.”
I nudged her to go to the doctor to get tested. If you have one immediate family member with thyroid issues, you have a 50% chance of having them yourself.
Two weeks later she called and said, “I started on a thyroid med, and it’s like someone turned on lights that had been off for a long time.” It was a fresh start for her. She no longer felt overwhelmed and became efficient with tasks. She found herself enjoying daily life.
Overwhelm and procrastination can also be classic symptoms of depression for many people. Maybe you have inherited genes for some chemical depression and need to take medicine to balance neurotransmitters. Or maybe it’s December, and you tend to feel low during the shorter days of winter. A solution might be to make sure you get more daytime light exposure either outside without sunglasses, by a sunny window, or by using a bright light device.
Another physical solution to procrastination could be as simple as noticing and accepting that when you get to sleep early enough, you have way less resistance to tasks. Or when you don’t drink much the night before, you have a lot more focus.
After tending to any physical needs, the next question is: “Why am I avoiding that task?”
Sometimes avoiding doing a task is actually partly a good thing.
We can “should” ourselves into thinking we have to do things that actually don’t feel really right to us. When we keep procrastinating on something, sometimes a wise part of us who knows better is actually creating the resistance.
Maybe the task isn’t truly the best next step for you to take…. Here are a few questions you can ask yourself:
1. Does the task truly belong on my list? Maybe it is actually someone else’s job or time for someone else to share the load.
2. Is now the right time for this task? Perhaps you are pushing yourself too much lately, and the task is actually not what you need to be doing at this time. Or maybe there are other higher priorities that need your attention more.
3. Do I need to first make a change to the scope of the task? Maybe you used to be OK with doing all the cooking and also the kitchen clean-up. Now you notice that you keep avoiding cooking dinner and have been spending much more money on take-out. Once you and your partner agree to split up the duties, you find yourself actually looking forward to creating nice dinners for the family. Once we become aware of what adjustment in direction we need to make, procrastination’s power can weaken.
4. Might you be having trouble moving forward because there is another desire that you might be dismissing that needs your attention? Maybe you are feeling paralyzed with applying to college. You keep not working on your college application because you know in your heart that you want to first take a year off from school and work for a non-profit before you start school. You haven’t told your family because you are worried they might disapprove. You get the guts up to talk with your parents and they actually think it is a good idea. You no longer feel like you are slogging through mud. Your willingness to tend to the college application goes way up once you start researching volunteer service programs that cover participants’ expenses. You feel excited and motivated to get accepted to college and defer for a year.
5. Is there something else I need to do first in order to do the task well? Maybe your anxiety that you don’t know how to do the task well enough is reasonable. Procrastination might be happening because part of you knows that you need to first do some research before you are ready to move forward. Or perhaps the actual first step is to ask someone for personal or professional help in order to do the task well. Martha inherited a sizable chunk of money and is embarrassed that another month has gone by and it is still sitting in a very low-interest savings account. She keeps meaning to invest it, but gets stuck. The thought that keeps going through her mind when she thinks about researching a financial advisor is “I should have done this sooner!” She cringes with shame, checks her Instagram, finds herself in a rabbit hole, and another day goes by without tending to the money. Martha is from a family that believes that asking for help is a sign of weakness. This led the family to be isolated and become much more dysfunctional than they would have been if they had reached out to others. Systems and humans don’t do well in isolation. Martha swallows her pride and reaches out to a friend with lots of experience managing savings. The friend is delighted to be asked, feels valued. She offers to help Martha through the steps of selecting between two advisors that she respects. The friend’s help makes everything feel so much more doable, and soon Martha chooses an advisor she feels solid about, and invests the money well.
6. Is there a conversation I need to have with someone who is involved in the task? So many of us are afraid of conflict. Perhaps it’s fear of causing future tension with the person, or hurting their feelings, being disrespectful, making them angry, or risking negative consequences to our financial security.
Jen finds herself repeatedly forgetting to pick up the beer her husband enjoys. When shopping, she remembers everything else except for a couple of cases. Every night he winds down with a few beers.
Lately, she has had moments of noticing that there is more empty cans in the recycling than before. She quickly dismisses the concern she feels and says to herself, “Andy doesn’t have a drinking problem. You’re such a worrier.”
She also begins noticing that he has been grumpier in the evenings, less patient with her and the kids.
Jen mentions this to her counselor and realizes that she really is concerned about his drinking and that she hasn’t said anything to him because she’s afraid there will be a fight.
You can write the next part of this story yourself. Maybe Jen and Andy have a heart to heart, and he says he’s a little concerned about the drinking too. He knows that his job is getting worse and worse and that rather than trying to numb his dissatisfaction, he needs to begin to look for a new position. He and Jen work as a team to support his search.
Or maybe Jen brings her concern to Andy, and he gets furious that she would imply that he isn’t in control with his drinking. He says he can quit anytime and therefore doesn’t have a problem. Jen joins an Al-anon 12 step group to get support for how to cope with the situation. Eventually, enough people in Andy’s life confront him about his drinking that his denial weakens. He admits he’s afraid for his future and gets willing to get help.
Sometimes, our wise unconscious can get us to forget to do something that doesn’t feel right. Thank goodness Jen found the courage to speak with Andy about his drinking. That conversation – though potentially very messy – can hopefully end up helping everyone.
We can all feel out of control or a little crazy when we keep procrastinating on something. Sometimes procrastinating comes from a non-crazy, wise part of us who knows we should be going a slightly different direction. We just need to be willing to ask ourselves questions and be willing to take an honest look at what truly is needed now.
If you would like help navigating your particular life challenges, please contact me for a free phone or video consultation to see if working together feels like a right next step. I can be reached at email@example.com or by text or call (303) 819-2099.
Very best wishes to you,
Judy O’Neill, MSW