Are you putting off an important task you know you have to get done? If so, are you busy scolding yourself for procrastinating yet again? Stop scolding, and ask yourself a simple question: Are you putting off this task because something about it frightens you?
There's a good chance the answer is yes, writes Alice Boyes, PhD, in an insightful Psychology Today blog post. "Sometimes this is obvious to the person experiencing it," she writes--for instance, when you put off asking someone out that you really like. Other times, it's not so clear that fear is what's stopping you from doing what you know you should.
Her analysis has made me rethink my own so-called procrastination. For example, a few months ago I spent hours in my garden digging up invasive blackberry plants instead of calling to make an appointment for a routine mammogram. Currently, I'm putting off some long-overdue tasks around our household finances. I was thinking that was because I had too much work, but reading Boyes's post made me question that assumption. The truth is more likely that I'm terrified of having things go wrong with our finances, especially since I know I would beat myself up over that much more than I currently am over procrastinating.
Are you "procrastinating" over tasks or projects because you're really afraid to get started on them? According to Boyes, here are a few tell-tale signs that you are:
1. You're blaming someone else for your delay.
You would have gotten that work done, but your partner kept interrupting you. Or your co-worker hasn't yet supplied the latest data. So you focus on your annoyance at the people you live or work with instead of acknowledging that you there are things you can do to prevent or limit interruptions or that you could write the report with earlier data and then tweak it when the new data arrives.
"There might be an extent to which others are contributing to your problem or getting in the way, but focusing on this can obscure self-responsibility and give you an excuse not to do the proactive behaviors that are available to you," Boyes writes. Ask yourself honestly whether your anger at others is really masking your own fears about the task ahead.
2. You've done this before, but now something's changed.
In the 1970s TV series Kung Fu, an old monk challenges a young acolyte to walk across a board balanced on two low bricks without touching the ground. He accomplishes it easily, several times over. The monk advises him to practice because soon he will have to cross that same board over a pond full of piranha.
Sometimes a simple job that you've done many times before becomes frightening because the stakes are different than usual. You're working with a new customer that you really want to keep, or you know you're being evaluated for a possible promotion. Because you're experienced at this task, you might not recognize your fear and mistake it for procrastination instead. Again, ask yourself honestly if there's something different that's making a familiar task frightening this time around.
3. You're trying to make it absolutely perfect.
Sometimes perfectionism is fear in disguise. I remember years ago, when two friends of mine decided to start a business together, something neither had ever done before. They rented themselves an office but then spent day after day there, well into the evening, discussing the intricacies of their business plan. They had to have every detail exactly right, they explained to me earnestly, before launching into the market.
You can probably guess what happened. They wound up with an elaborate business plan and no customers. It's a shame, because if they'd been able to admit that they were frightened and confused and didn't understand how to proceed, they could have approached things very differently. They could have looked for mentors or advisers, taken a course on how to start a business, or maybe joined a trade group in their industry to learn what they needed to know. The lesson is this: If you're trying to make sure something is done perfectly right, ask yourself honestly if that level of perfection is really needed. Then ask if something might be making you anxious and preventing you from getting the job done.
Awareness is the first step.
You may have noticed a pattern here--the first step is always to stop and ask yourself what's really going on. There's a reason for that. "Once you've labeled a problem as anxiety-related, then you can use your anxiety management strategies," Boyes writes. "For instance, you might break a task down into smaller chunks to make it more manageable. You'll still feel anxious but doing little bits at a time can help that feel tolerable." That's usually a much better approach than struggling with yourself over what you think is procrastination.
Besides, most people find that when you name what you're afraid of and consider the worst possible scenarios and how you'd cope with them, scary things become markedly less scary. There's a neurological reason why naming what you're afraid of reduces your fear: It pulls you into the language center in your brain, an area driven more by thinking and logic than by feelings.
Self-compassion is the second step.
Once you realize that fear, rather than laziness or self-sabotage, is holding you back from doing something that needs to get done, you can change how you think about it and how you talk to yourself about it. It should be clear that yelling at yourself for screwing up probably won't help the situation. If you were dealing with a frightened child, you wouldn't yell at that child to just get on with things. You'd offer comfort, provide some gentle encouragement, and help the child get past those fears. You would probably be patient and not try to rush things.
Part of being a mature adult is learning to be an effective parent to the child each of us still carries inside. So ask yourself if fear is holding you back, and if it is, try treating your procrastinating self with understanding and gentleness rather than recrimination. You may just find that simple change is enough to help you push past the procrastination and give you the strength you need to get the job done.