Why Do You Procrastinate?

Procrastination is an interesting topic to work with in therapy. A client is usually quite self-aware when they seek therapy for procrastination. They have tried many different tools to try to keep themselves “in line,” “on task,” or focused. Sometimes they are genuinely confused as to where their time goes, or why they find themselves drifting to email or random web searches.

True, we are usually aware of when we are procrastinating. My college bedroom was completely clean every time I sat down to write a paper. I’ll do almost anything to avoid folding laundry or emptying the dishwasher. And these are fairly unimportant tasks without much repercussion. What happens when you are self-employed and need to be entirely internally motivated?

First consider a few reasons why you might be procrastinating, and see if any of the solutions might work for you:

You haven’t clearly defined what you’re doing. Do you avoid an item on your to-do list even though it’s been there for days or weeks? Try to break it down only to the very next step. For example, “get in shape” becomes “pack running shoes for work”. “Write econ paper” becomes “write down specific terms to query or articles to read.” “Fix bathtub” becomes “Look at Yelp and choose a plumber to call.”

You have no idea what you hope to accomplish when you begin. We usually procrastinate until we have just enough time to not attend to the undesirable task. Try estimating the amount of time for that first task that you’ve just defined. For example, I had a client once who routinely avoided doing the dishes until one time he decided to time it. Knowing that it took him 12 minutes start to finish even with a full sink made the task doable.

You have magical thinking. There is that little voice inside all of us that says, “You don’t really need to do that now. Just watch another episode on TV and then you can start it.” This voice will convince you that almost anything is possible in the future and that now is not the time. Try coming up with some challenges to this voice in advance. (Some people keep them on post-its on their computer; I also teach cognitive thought charts to control this voice once and for all). What can you say back to this voice that is determined to sabotage your time line, business goals, and final paper? Tell it to go away.

You are overworked. Your procrastination might be necessary down time that you are not allowing yourself! It is very difficult and possibly even inefficient to concentrate at a high level for more than 90 minutes. Many high achievers like college students and the self-employed think more is better. When you don’t build in some allowed diddling time, or make plans to leave your desk and meet a friend, your brain tries to make this happen and procrastination is one of its tools. Try allowing yourself some down time and scheduled breaks and see if it isn’t easier to focus afterwards.

For procrastination that doesn’t improve with dedicated techniques, you might consider looking at the symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder, which affects adults too.

Two Favorite Qualities About Happy People

There are two qualities that I notice that clients master as their happiness increases. When I look at other people in my life, I notice that my happiest friends and family have these in abundance. They are adaptability and flexibility. Even though they sound similar, they have separate and important functions in mentally healthy people. Adaptability is often about things you cannot control, whereas flexibility is being able to welcome others’ preferences even when they are not your own.

nature's mantra: adapt and be flexible

Why Adaptability and Flexibility?

Let’s first look at a class of people who have a very hard time navigating life: those with personality disorders (Borderline, Narcissistic, Avoidant etc. — there are 10 types).

Personality disorders are pervasive and enduring character issues that are extremely difficult to treat. And they all share a common characteristic: these people have only one way to be. They might appear normal or relatively well-functioning in a few areas, but this is mainly because their “one way of being” is well suited for that area.  They cannot adapt to others’ needs, and they have rigid ways of seeing themselves and others. Because they experience the world in such a restricted way, they have a lot of trouble with relationships, problem-solving, and coping.

Therefore, it is not surprising on the flip side that people who demonstrate an increased ability to adapt and be flexible are happier and better adjusted. In session, I help clients see different ways to approach problems, and we come up with possible solutions that feel comfortable to them. But it is always an exercise in getting them to adopt a more flexible viewpoint of themselves and the people around them.

Increase Your Adaptability

I think of adaptability as a personality trait, but one that you can increase with focused effort. When approaching your life’s tasks, try considering how many possible outcomes would be satisfactory to you. For example, if you discover that your favorite restaurant isn’t open on your birthday, can you move on from that disappointment quickly? If you get assigned your second (or third or fourth) choice room in your sorority, task at a work event, part in a school play, daycare location for your child — can you adjust? How long does it take you to accept your new situation and do your best with it?

When things don’t go as planned, allow yourself some time to be disappointed, but then gather your perspective and try to focus on the positive. Adaptability is mind-over-matter arm wrestling of your brain.

These sound like small examples, but we are faced with needing to adapt many times throughout the day, and someone you know would truly lose their cool over a situation above. It’s not that we can’t allow disappointment or frustration over these situations, but the quicker we can adapt, the happier we will be.

Increase Your Flexibility

Flexibility in the moment is crucial to turning difficulties into minor blips throughout your day and is more action-oriented than adaptability. Flexibility is a great quality to have when dealing with others (provided you are still able to exert some framework — nobody likes to hear, “anything is fine with me” TOO much!) It is fun to eat out with flexible eaters who like many kinds of food. It is great to sit down for TV with a flexible partner who likes both baseball and reality shows. When we are running late, we are relieved to be meeting a flexible friend who says “no problem” because that friend is adaptable and flexible, too.

To increase your flexibility, think about some of your strongest preferences, how you exert them, and how you might try being more flexible on occasion. If you are always the one choosing the restaurant, the daycare, the home decor, the movie — ease up. Increasing flexibility often begins by asking questions, being curious about others’ preferences, and open-minded about their choices.

To increase your happiness and decrease stress, think about how you can become a more adaptable person AND use more flexibility with others and yourself.

Book Wisdom: The Price Of Privilege Teaches Practical Parenting

This parenting bible is about “how parental pressure and material advantage are creating a generation of disconnected and unhappy kids.” Madeline Levine, a Marin-county based psychologist wrote this bestseller, which begins with a broad definition of privilege: the “relatively affluent”, or a family that earns $75,000 + annually as a household. These are America’s new at-risk kids, and since privilege is a relative term that envelops so many families, it’s worth taking a look at what problems these teens have, and how we can address them (or better yet, prevent them). These aren’t just “rich kid” issues anymore.

What is creating this generation of unhappy kids who are spoiled with material wealth and opportunity? According to Levine, many are denied the opportunity to develop a “healthy self”, which at its core is a feeling of lovability — NOT worth reinforced by achievement. She believes that parents pressure children to be outstanding, while neglecting the very process by which outstanding children are formed.

What is that process?

It begins with a self-efficacy, which is the idea that we can successfully impact our world. It starts in infancy, with warm and responsive parents. Parents who can avoid anxiety and allow for children to engage in creative play without intruding, managing, or becoming overinvolved help teach their children a sense of “agency,” which helps them try out new and challenging experiences.

Healthy selves are able to develop other skills essential for happiness and success. The most important of those are self-control, frustration tolerance, impulse control, paying attention, and delaying gratification.

Levine includes chapters that address developmental ages with suggestions for how to parent in order to help kids develop healthy selves. She explains why the self-esteem movement (a trophy for every participant, a graduation for every grade) has been damaging to self-efficacy and why praise is often a bad form of love.

I think what I like best about this book is that it helps parents understand what to do instead — she doesn’t just describe a problem and then the ideal teens who didn’t grow up with this problem. It’s very practical and based on hundreds of clients of experience.

Buy it here.