Procrastination - do we even need this word?


I started the day feeling fairly confident in myself and now this: My seemingly great ideas are not going anywhere, one after another. I am hitting a wall again, and again, and again. And where there was some motivation to begin with, the more walls I hit, the more my motivation drops, until it feels like there is literally none left. I am so disappointed in myself. I just want to go to bed and sleep it off. I fantasize that if I only sleep long enough I will wake up to find that all of these walls have suddenly and miraculously disappeared. I most certainly don't feel like trying some more and getting another heap of disappointment!


I am not actually feeling physically tired though. It is more of a mental and emotional weariness from being unable to solve these issues and from the judgement that comes with this. Now, what issues? you may ask. What issues could a therapist be facing who just gets paid for listening to people? Sounds pretty easy to me... And yet, even for therapists with all the theories and techniques they should know about life doesn't go swimmingly all of the time. There are family issues, health issues, technological issues, practical issues, relationship issues... and the list goes on. And what I found is that many times, some pretty big issues have the unpleasant characteristic of showing up at our doorstep at exactly the same time. Why couldn't they be so kind and take turns please?


It is not surprising then when we respond by feeling overwhelmed and doubting ourselves. Now, what has this got to do with procrastination? you may ask. So let me explain. Procrastination is a word I have often heard in the therapy room, and recently a lot more frequently. Many times, self-declared procrastinators are coming to me as clients with the hope that I may help them to 'procrastinate less'. Can you see where the problem lies here? If I am calling myself a procrastinator, if the concept of procrastination is firmly built into my identity, how likely is it that my therapist is going to be able to eradicate it? Highly unlikely, I would say. Now I am not arguing that those people who are telling me about their struggles with procrastination have come up with this idea all by themselves. Many times, this concept is handed to us by parents, teachers or well-meaning friends or we 'self-diagnose' with the help of magazines or self-tests.


And isn't it nice to have a word that tells me what my problem is? Doesn't it already feel seductively lighter when I am sharing this issue of procrastination with so many others? What can I do? I am a procrastinator, I can't help it. Once the identity of being a procrastinator has become established, this narrative is regularly fed: Oh, I was badly procrastinating today, clients tell me at the start of a session. I am not quite sure what they want me to do. Are they expecting me to tell them off?


I would argue that there is only procrastination if I am declaring it as such. So, do we even need this word? I seriously doubt that labeling myself as a procrastinator is helping me or anyone. Conversely, what I have noted is that adopting this label makes people screen themselves more frequently and vigorously for instances of procrastination. This in turn leads them to find more of these instances which they then use both to confirm their identity as a procrastinator and to put themselves down for it. All this does in essence is to make us feel worse about ourselves: I did it again. I just can't help it.


So, how do we get ourselves out of this vicious cycle? First of all, it may be beneficial to ask yourself if this label of procrastination is actually serving you. If it isn't, ditch it! There can be many reasons why we are taking our time in doing something or coming to a decision. There may be complex thought processes going on in the front or back of our mind that simply require more time. We may feel very strongly about something and want to sleep on it to see if the feeling prevails. We may feel overwhelmed by a task or our workload and need a break to summon up strength. We may feel legitimate anger in relation to our work or working conditions – anger which highlights that something needs to change. We may experience conflicting demands or needs within ourselves or coming from others that are difficult to acknowledge or reconcile. Covering up all of these possibilities with the label of procrastination isn't telling me much about myself. It just closes the door on any further exploration and severely limits my opportunities for self-understanding.


Now, let's be honest, even if I ditch the label of procrastination, my motivation doesn't miraculously reappear. After all, I have actually hit these walls. However, acknowledging that there may be deeper reasons for me not to progress with certain tasks certainly reduces my self criticism and self doubt and reopens my mind. I remember what I suggest to my clients in these situations: 'Do something … anything!' Somewhere in the background, my rational mind knows that doing anything right now is better than sitting here and feeling disappointed in myself. I hear myself saying to my clients: 'The motivation comes with the doing, so the doing needs to come first. What is the smallest task you can think of?'


I know it works as I have propelled myself back into action multiple times in this way. And still sometimes it is incredibly hard to overcome that first hurdle. The secret is to start small, very small, tiny baby steps kind of small. And the lower your motivation and the higher your self-doubt, the smaller the first task needs to be. Also if you have hit rock bottom, it really doesn't matter what the task is. All that matters is to show yourself that you can do it. It could be a bit of vacuuming, a bit of cooking, it could be tidying up a small section of your desk or filing something, it could be setting up the washing machine, anything really – as long as you can complete the task quickly and easily and see an immediate result. As I have shared with you in my post on personal pep talking, when we are feeling very low, it is all about rebuilding our self-belief. And this time round, I am doing it through action – I am demonstrating to myself what I am capable of by successfully completing a task. Once that task is completed, I can use the sense of achievement, however small, to set myself another, ever so slightly more challenging task. In this way, I am transforming the vicious cycle of self-doubt into a positive cycle of self-empowerment. And I am gradually restoring and increasing my motivation levels.


Exercise:

If you are a self-declared procrastinator, reflect on how this label is serving you. Sometimes a simple list of pros and cons can be effective in convincing ourselves to let go of a certain label or identification. The next time you feel yourself hitting a wall and are close to giving up, practice shifting into a positive cycle of self-empowerment: Identify a small and easy task that you can complete quickly and that has a noticeable impact. This task can be completely separate to the area you are feeling stuck in. What matters is that you are able to generate some sense of achievement to counteract any negative narrative. It is this sense of achievement that can help you to rebuild self-belief and that other, more challenging, tasks can be built on.


Feedback:

Can you share a personal success story of when you changed a cycle of self-doubt into a cycle of empowerment? Do you have a particular go-to 'feel good' task that helps you to restore or even increase your motivation?