There was an interesting discussion on one of my LinkedIn groups recently, about procrastination. A fellow Therapist asked if it might be linked to Loss and Closure – a client of hers had recently suffered several losses and difficult events, and was now very badly stuck and not completing or even tackling certain tasks that she needed to get done. This Therapist asked the group if we felt the procrastination was masking the client’s fear of completing the tasks, as for her it would represent the end of a period of her life, which in the context of the bereavement and illness she had suffered, would move her to a different place where perhaps she perceived she would have to ‘stop grieving’ and ‘move on’.
There was a good response to this post from the group, most of whom are Therapists. In the main, it was felt that no one ‘reason’ underpinned procrastination – people procrastinate for all sorts of reasons, conscious and sub-conscious.
I was particularly interested because I would previously have classed myself as a serious procrastinator, but I don’t any longer because I brought it to supervision* once, and during the discussion with my Supervisor, we determined that I procrastinate for four reasons:
1. It’s not procrastination, it’s my form of time and task management. I work better under pressure, so the nearer the deadline, the more likely I am to focus and get something done.
2. I rely heavily on my gut instinct, which rarely lets me down. I will often delay doing something and be aware that I’m putting it off. I now check in with myself mindfully when I realise I’m delaying something, to see how I feel about doing that task. If it doesn’t feel right, I don’t do it, and invariably something will then happen to either change the nature of the task, or cancel the need for me to do it altogether. So by waiting, I often end up with a shorter, or different ‘To Do’ list than I first had, and this saves me time and effort.
3. Being honest, I really dislike administrative, paperwork type tasks, and I also hate inefficiency. So if the Bank ask me to print off a form, sign it, and post it back, the fact that I can’t scan and email it on the spot annoys me so much, that I react like a petulant child and delay doing it. It usually has more of a negative impact on me than the Bank, who don’t care, but it still happens. So if a task like this arises now, I try to overcome my own annoyance at the Bank’s ‘stupid system’ and just do the task.
4. There are other tasks I just hate doing, like ironing. So I now pay someone to do my ironing and I am a much happier and less stressed wife/mother as a result.
Bringing my procrastination to supervision was one of the most productive things I’ve ever done, because I now no longer beat myself up about not getting things done. Instead I check in with myself and ask myself which reason is at play. Then I either (1) schedule the task for near, but not too close to, the deadline; (2) wait and see what happens; (3) grit my teeth and do it; or (4) pay/ask someone else to do it. No guilt, no stress, no letting others down or running into trouble later for not doing something.
Procrastination and Eating Disorders
Working with clients who struggle with food, weight and body image, we talk about procrastination a LOT. In fact, it was a discussion with a client that prompted me to bring the issue to my supervision in the first place. Many of my clients have long lists of things they want to do, and accomplish, but they are all in the future – an imagined future where they have overcome their binge eating, or lost two stone, or have gone back to a size 12, or are ‘in a better place’. For example:
“I really hate my job, and I actually always wanted to be a teacher, but when it comes to applying for the course I never go through with it because…..
“I’d love to have a nice boyfriend/girlfriend, but I don’t put myself out there because…..
“I really want to do my Masters, but I haven’t finished my research proposal because….
“We’d love to start a family, but how can I be a good mother when….
“I’ve always wanted to travel, and I’ve been saving for several years but….
And it impacts on everyday life too. Clients really struggle with getting simple things done, and although there are a variety of reasons, there are some common ones:
1. FEAR. If I don’t try it, then I don’t risk failing.
2. TRUST. If I enter into a relationship with someone, they will probably end up hurting me, and I don’t want to be hurt.
3. BOUNDARIES. Someone else is having an impact on the client and preventing the client from being able to be assertive, and clearly ask for what they want/need.
4. SELF-WORTH. I don’t deserve to be happy, this goal is just a dream – it will never happen in real life.
5. CHANGE. Something about the vision or completion of the task, big or small, suggests that the client will be in some way different to how they are now (sometimes including the felt sense that they will have overcome their ED), and that’s too scary a thought – who would I be without this?
How to Stop Procrastinating
If you procrastinate, take some time to sit down and have a long and honest chat with yourself, or someone else, about it. You should be able to resolve at least some of your reasons for putting things off by doing this, like I did. If you make a profound connection between your procrastination and something that is going on or did occur in your life, like the client in the Therapist’s example earlier, then I would recommend you seek professional help from a Therapist to resolve that issue. If you are nervous about getting help for some reason, then you might want to listen to this Podcast I recorded previously on Getting Help for the First Time: Asking for Help with ED
If you are putting things off whilst you wait for something else to happen e.g. to overcome your ED, to stop bingeing, to lose weight, to feel better, I would ask you to try one or both of these exercises, just to see if they shift your perception a little.
Write down what it is you want to do (Activity). “I want to travel”
Write down why you are not doing it (Excuse). “I don’t feel good about myself/confident I can do it”
Now write ”Even though (excuse) I don’t feel confident that I can (activity) travel on my own, (PLAN) I am going to start looking into it and begin to put together a plan for going”.
Then pick a date when you might envisage yourself doing the activity, and work from there. Whenever you find yourself making excuses, write an “Even Though” statement and see what happens.
Finally, if you are really conflicted about letting go of something, from a full blown Eating Disorder to Yo-Yo dieting, or just constantly weighing yourself and stressing about your weight/body, then try using this tool to clarify what’s going on for you, and decide what you can do NOW to begin introducing change.
Don’t put it off, do it NOW.
*All Therapists are required to attend supervision regularly with a more senior, experienced Therapist, to ensure they are delivering a safe and ethical service to their clients. During supervision Therapists review their case work and check in with anything that has come up for them personally as a result of working with clients.