This model for overcoming procrastination driven by anxiety illustrates some of the emotional and behavioural “knots” underlying some forms of procrastination.
- At the core, anxiety and feelings of overwhelm feed one another. The more overwhelmed you are, the more anxious you feel; the more anxious you are, the more overwhelmed you feel.
- Experiencing overwhelm drives a need to escape—to seek out distractions. When you feel overwhelmed, you avoid your fears by doing something else. This, however, leads to guilt, which further exacerbates anxiety.
- In addition to guilt, finding a distraction also delays the procrastinator from facing their fears. This further drives the anxiety at the center of the problem.
- If and when you eventually push through your fears and make some headway, you build up momentum. If successful, you may reduce your anxiety, and limit the power of the dominant loop—if only until more anxiety/overwhelm build up!
In this article:
Solutions for anxiety-driven procrastination
The dominant loop here is the cycle of anxiety and overwhelm.
Anxiety is difficult to address directly. Thus, we have to look elsewhere for leverage points in this system. I see three tempting options, but the first – limiting distractions – is actually a wild goose chase, not a fundamental fix.
It may be tempting to address distraction. However, this is a flawed fix. It does little to mitigate the anxiety and overwhelm driving procrastination.
Anxiety is like water: it has to go somewhere.
Suppose you have hidden all of your typical distractions – you still feel too overwhelmed and anxious to start your work!
Most likely, you will find something else to allow you to avoid your fears.
Enable pushing through
a. Break down the work you fear as much as possible. “Good” work looks like feasible chunks: whatever tasks will easily produce tangible outputs in one sitting.
b. If the task is in the inception/planning stages and procrastination is happening, aversion is probably rooted in a lack of meaning in the task. So, ask, “Why is this important or exciting?”
The procrastinator may also anchor to the benefits to their future self. Use mental imagery: imagine yourself after the work has happened. How does it feel? What did you do? Why are you better off for it?
Or, if the task is in the action stage and procrastination is happening, the problem is likely that it is poorly defined, making it hard to start on. Break it down some more (see the previous point).
Practice emotional intelligence
Acknowledge your anxiety: tell yourself that it’s okay to feel anxious. At the same time, empathize with your future self: appreciate that you will feel less anxious if you start, not more.
Say “I know I feel overwhelmed, and that’s okay. However, I’m not going to feel less overwhelmed if I engage with this work.”
Again, use mental imagery. Imagine yourself in the future having made some progress and feeling less anxious as a result.
a. You are probably setting yourself up for failure taking on all the world, all at once. You aren’t going to do everything on your task list right now. Fall back. Breathe deep. Accept this, and acknowledge that even if this is unfortunate, it is still true.
Remember that we often overestimate what we can do in an hour, but underestimate what we can do in a lifetime.
b. Regularly review your obligations and responsibilities. Create a list of what’s on your mind (a “mindsweep”). Then divide and conquer (see the points above about breaking work down into feasible chunks).
This problem is non-linear. You cannot achieve the goal of no longer procrastinating.
You can only create personal systems that minimize the core drivers of why you’re procrastinating: the experiences of anxiety and overwhelm that lead you to avoid your work.