In Part One of this series, you learned that procrastination is your brain’s way of helping you feel better temporarily when you are perhaps feeling angry, anxious, or overwhelmed. But it can leave you in a holding pattern of “probably”.
In this post you’ll learn a simple technique to manage emotions that may lead you to procrastinate. This can help reduce the chance that you will form automatic avoidance behaviors where procrastination becomes a habit for short-term comfort.
Do you ever stop to notice the thoughts that may be reminding you just how you feel about tasks you are putting off? Darius put off difficult conversations. At home this included negotiating who would be doing the grocery shopping, laundry, or mowing the grass. “It will be easier if I just do it myself,” he often thought. This trait made him a dependable co-worker who readily helped out, and he had recently been promoted to his first leadership role. At work, Darius was well-liked and he wanted to keep it that way.
As a leader, Darius’ conflict avoidance extended into dodging difficult conversations with co-workers. He laid awake at night trying to script the best way to deliver tricky news to his team without creating hurt feelings. He scheduled meetings with the team and then didn’t seem to find the best time to slot in his concerns. He empathized with a direct report’s point of view and imagined them thinking less of him.
Seeing procrastination as an emotion manager
Darius was also angry at times that he should need to have difficult conversations at all. In the interview for his promotion, when he was asked how he would handle a challenging situation with a co-worker, Darius came up with a creative solution. He showed that he knew what to do. Once he was in his new role, procrastinating made it possible to have difficult conversations intermittently, and during his first year as a new leader, Darius felt anxious but still well-liked.
Take a moment and ask yourself, why was it so difficult for Darius to handle a challenging situation head-on? Perhaps he was thinking:
It’s not fair. _____________ is not in the job description.
I should not have to do this. I’d rather be doing ________.
I just want to be liked.
You might think Darius needed some anger management work, or that he lacked the ability to focus on leading. What helped him was coaching. Focusing on how much you dislike a task, blaming whoever arbitrarily assigned it to you, or imagining what will happen if you don’t complete it can make you feel both angry and anxious. When Darius climbed into his thoughts (see the graphic at the top), reframed his negative moods, even temporarily, and climbed back out of his thoughts, he was able to feel calm wash through his body. This was his key to busting the procrastination cycle. It gave Darius the gift of time to calm and focus.
Creating opportunities for action
Managing your negative mind-chatter is one way to improve your mood relatively quickly. Your first step is to stop procrastination in its tracks and create opportunities for action.
Darius needed to recognize that his present feelings about the undesirable task were bolstered by his own thought stories. These might have been coming from his beliefs about fairness (Why should I have to do this?), and his fears of the future (If I do this ____ may not like me). You have mind-chatter stories, too. Here are some common ones among my procrastinating clients:
What if I fail? I’ll never be able to _______________.
It’s too late to do a good job. I might as well _____________.
I’ll never be good enough no matter how hard I try. Why bother?
Every behavior of yours is a decision to actively do something, to actively not do something, or to be passive and do nothing, relatively speaking. Successfully approaching less attractive tasks instead of avoiding them will benefit from a calm and focused mind and body.
Getting present with what you can do
To beat procrastination, try shifting your focus to what you can do, no matter how small this may be. Treat action like bits of exercise where you can get started mastering what’s challenging for you.
It might help to think of the approach I’m going to describe like it’s interval training for increasing physical strength. In HIIT (High-Intensity Interval Training), people participate intensely for a brief period of time, take a brief rest, and then move on to the next exercise. You can try what I call Mindfulness Interval Training (MIT). These mini-mindfulness practices help keep your head in the present, and calm both your emotions and body. Then you can focus your attention on the task at hand.
Here are five Mindfulness Interval Training mini-practices that together can spot-repair negative mood in just five one-minute bits of time. The example below is organized as a set of steps that adjust your mood (Calm-Energize-Nourish-Refresh-Focus) so you are ready for taking calm and focused action:
- Calm: Take action by doing one small thing for one minute that will help you improve the way you feel. You might rub your palms for several seconds unti they are warm, and then cover your eyes with them. Inhale…Exhale.
- Energize: Take a one-minute energy/exercise break. Try running in place while moving arms in a punching motion. Inhale…Exhale.
- Nourish: Slowly chew small pieces of a protein-rich snack over one minute. You might cut it up at home so it is ready to go.Inhale…Exhale.
- Refresh: Sip a cup of water slowly over one minute, and stop to feel it wash coolness into your body. Inhale…Exhale.
- Focus: Practice a mindful breathing technique for one minute. Choose the technique ahead of time. Inhale…Exhale.
This was Darius’ approach. He noticed his mind-chatter, used MIT to calm and focus, and felt less reactive. He was able to beat procrastination by shifting his focus to the conversations he could have, no matter how small they were at first. He was increasingly more willing to do things that were potentially unpleasant, but also necessary. This improved his self-awareness, which made it easier to express vulnerability about potential conflict in conversations. Darius was able to skip “probably” and anticipate how good it would feel to see his team successfully growing through challenge.
Here’s the quick summary of this series:
Part One in this blog series looks at the beliefs and emotions that may be underlying your procrastination. Instead of “probably” getting around to things, manage the emotional cues that deceive you into procrastinating.
Part Two teaches you how to notice, reframe, and exercise new thoughts. Get started by using mindfulness interval training to capture and maintain your focus while you manage barriers to action.
Part Three shows the importance of repeating your most desirable habit-forming behaviors by building micro-habits that can bust procrastination and increase your bias for action.
Learn more here: “Chapter 8: Manage Executive Functions and Procrastination” in my bestseller The Effort Myth), where you can also explore the “Three Rules for Adulting”.
Sherri Fisher, MEd, MAPP, executive coach and learning specialist, uncovers client motivation and focus for improving competence, choices, and self-direction. She has decades of experience working with students, parents, and professionals who face learning, attention, and executive function challenges at school, home, and work.