Procrastination: listen to your own cry for help
I’ve been meaning to sit down and finish this post for the last two weeks or so. I am finally doing it now because my friend Alex has offered to act as an accountability aid by sitting with me while I screen-share on a video call and watching me write these words. (She has done the same thing many times before, as have several other friends over the last two years—without them, I would never have gotten anywhere with this blog.) Yesterday night, I stayed up until 4am reading, which is a semi-regular occurrence. In short, I am a procrastinating mess, and the irony given the topic of this post is not lost on me.
I am so fed up. I’m fed up of this project, I’m fed up of feeling worried about it, I’m fed up of avoiding it via procrastination. I am channeling my fed-up-ness into just sitting down and doing it, but even after I successfully finish this post today and win myself a little breathing room—a moment to feel better about myself and my prospects of eventually finishing this blog one day—I know the anxiety about it won’t have let up for long. Pushing through my procrastination out of pure spite is not a sustainable or reliable option.
This endless cycle of feeling shitty about not doing things but still not doing them is frustrating as hell, especially because there doesn’t seem to be any good reason for it. The whole issue would disappear if I just worked for about twenty minutes or so every day on the project I said I wanted to work on. Why do I find it so difficult to do that? It doesn’t make sense!
Procrastination is talked about as if it is a monolithic problem, instead of a symptom of something else. For years I just thought I had a problem with procrastinating, when what I really had was a lot of anxiety. And what is anxiety? A form of fear. What am I so scared of? Well, in my case I think it comes down to some deeply knotted feelings about being able to meet expectations in order to prove my worth, and what it means about my worth if I don’t meet them. (It means Bad Things.) Procrastination provides the greatly-needed stress-release valve, letting me hide from the expectations which scare me so much. Of course it isn’t a good solution, but it still isn’t the worst coping strategy going.
The odd thing is that I managed to miss the glaring fact of my anxiety for so long. But while I’m procrastinating, I’m not aware of feeling much of anything, really, apart from mild amusement or stimulation from whatever form of entertainment I’m consuming, and the compulsion to keep watching more videos or reading more stories. The whole point is that procrastination is a way to distract myself from noticing how I’m feeling. If I can avoid being in touch with my emotions, I will. And if you put your mind to it (and let the algorithm hijack your addictive tendencies), then you can be in a state of escapism pretty much constantly.
My self-sabotaging behaviours (like going to bed so late) seem to be absolutely senseless, but it only feels that way to me because I am so out of touch with my inner motivations and emotions. These behaviours actually always signals to me that I must be feeling anxious about something, even if I can’t tell what at the time. There are good (if sideways) reasons for me to act the way I’m acting. For instance, if I can put myself in a state of sleep-deprivation, I have an excuse not to meet my own high expectations the next day. If I looked after myself well, then there’s a tyrannical part of me that would then put me under even more pressure to achieve, since there’s no ‘legitimate’ reason I couldn’t.
Fundamentally, all this anxiety around achievement and expectation comes back to trauma. I’m no expert on trauma, but what I have come to realise is that it’s at the root of huge swathes of psychological issues and mental health struggles. If we all understood trauma better, I think we’d be able to level up as a society. (If you would like to learn more about trauma, then the absolute best starting place would be to read The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk, and then Healing the Fragmented Selves of Trauma Survivors: Overcoming Internal Self-Alienation by Janina Fisher.) In my case, what took me ages to get my head around was that even though I was lucky enough not to have any adults in my childhood deliberately set out to traumatise me, it can still happen accidentally—and bullies of my own age were deliberately cruel. When we imagine trauma, we might think of a dramatic one-time horrific event, but for a vulnerable young child, it doesn’t have to be something large or obviously violent to be plenty traumatising. It is more about long-term exposure to traumas within an environment, and children having no way of escaping those environments (mainly home and school) that they are placed in.
Children, while very vulnerable, are actually astonishingly resilient to trauma. There are a number of mechanisms that we use to cope. Probably one of the most basic of these coping mechanisms is dissociation. This is a way for your brain to distance yourself emotionally from the trauma, and from the part of you that experienced that trauma. You split yourself off from the traumatic thing, but by doing so you also split yourself. We disown parts of ourselves which we don’t want to feel, and so we can end up with one part of us saying that we do really want to get this work done, but some other deeper part is doing everything it can to stop us from working on it, to protect itself from a perceived threat (such as failing to meet an expectation). We are not just one singular entity, but a jumble of these parts, working more-or-less (often less) in unison.
Our body’s alarm system (the amygdala in the brain) will guide us to either freeze, fight, or flee. Whichever one of these your brain picks the first time, it will then re-use, as it learned that the response worked to keep you alive. So, it will repeat this same response when faced with similar threats in the future. Without something like therapy, it is very difficult to unpick this engrained response that your brain literally grew up around. Our coping mechanisms for trauma form a major part of how we see the world, and this is how childhood trauma can end up having such long-term consequences all the way through adulthood.
For me, I gravitate towards the ‘freeze’ response. When I realised that my behaviour—lying lethargically on the sofa all night scrolling through YouTube instead of going to bed—was actually because at least a part of me had been triggered to freeze, leaving me in a state of psychological paralysis, it was a huge revelation. With this new trauma-informed perspective, suddenly my procrastination doesn’t seem like such a stupid or trivial thing, or something which I should find simple or easy to overcome. Despite how illogical it seems, there is a very powerful underlying reason for why I behave the way I do.
And here’s another reason why someone might be procrastinating: it might be a symptom of, say, undiagnosed ADHD. If your executive functions aren’t up to snuff then what you’ll get is a fair amount of procrastination.
The point is that there is a reason you are procrastinating, and that reason IS NOT ‘I’m lazy.’ The reason for your procrastination is valid and probably hidden from you, so it’s worth trying to find out what it is.
It may well be true to say that your procrastination is holding you back from doing things you truly do want to do. However, in general it is a good rule of thumb that if you have a ball and chain around your ankle, the way to deal with that ball and chain is not to soldier onwards regardless, shouting abuse at yourself like a nasty drill sergeant to ‘just get on with it’ or to ‘work harder.’ The better way of dealing with a ball and chain is to stop, turn around, and figure out how to detach it before you carry on. In the case of procrastination, this means stopping to listen to those parts of you that desperately need help, either to feel safe, or to be more supported to work around an executive-function deficit (perhaps by asking others to do Home Scrum with you).
So, be careful not to treat your procrastination as some great personal failing with which you can beat yourself up. Remember, self-compassion is the solution to a huge array of mental health problems. Coming at your state of mind with curiosity and patience and kindness will undoubtedly lead to more answers than screaming at yourself to stop wasting time and start doing more important things.