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Friday, June 19, 2009

Overcoming Procrastination

Just hearing the word "procrastination" is enough to make some people cringe with guilt and feel judged, defensive, and annoyed. Unpleasant memories of school papers not being turned in on time, missed deadlines at work, missed payments on credit cards, and other consequences of procrastination come to mind. 

Overcoming Procrastination

But before you decide to put off reading this article, take a deep breath and calm yourself. This article is not meant to judge--it's meant to provide helpful information that might help you to stop avoiding the things that you find unpleasant.

What is procrastination and why do people procrastinate?
Rest assured, you're not alone. Procrastination is a common psychological defense to avoid dealing with certain tasks, people, or situations.

I'm sure that we can all think of many examples, whether they're related to ourselves or to someone that we know: waiting until Christmas Eve to go Christmas shopping, putting off doing taxes until April 14th, receiving credit card bills and shoving them in a drawer and not paying until after the due date, avoiding having an important discussion with a spouse or partner, putting off going to the dentist, and so on.

In our rational minds, we know that avoiding the unpleasant task will only make it worse but, somehow, we trick ourselves into believing otherwise: "I'm too tired to do that now--I'll do it tomorrow" or "This can wait until after I watch my favorite TV show" or "I'm hungry. Let me me have something to eat first."

All the while, there's that wise part of us that is urging us to go ahead and take care of whatever needs to be done. But how often we ignore that wise part--usually to our detriment.

How to overcome procrastination
So what can we do about this?

First, when you feel the "competing parts" in your mind in conflict about what to do, learn to listen to that wise part of yourself that usually knows what's right for you.

Overcoming Procrastination

This usually takes practice, especially if you've become accustomed to ignoring that part in favor of the other parts who urge you to avoid handling important matters. You might need to start by "sending" those well-meaning but, ultimately, misguided parts on "a vacation" in your mind's eye.

You might say, "What does she mean by that?" But if you think about it for a moment, you'll realize that it's not unusual for all of us to have mixed and competing feelings about many situations where we have to make decisions about what to do (see my article: How Parts Work Therapy Can Empower You).

Usually, we'll weigh the pros and cons in our minds to come up with a decision. When we make decisions that are not good for us, we usually know on some level because the wise part of us is gentling nudging us to take another course of action.

But how easy it is to ignore that wise part. So, I'm suggesting that, rather than giving in to those well-meaning parts that urge us to avoid, invite them to step back and take "a vacation."

In your mind's eye, send them to Tahiti for a much-needed rest. And while they're sunning themselves on the beach and having Pina Coladas, allow the wise part of yourself to have a stronger voice in your decisions. The well-meaning parts will be back soon enough to challenge the wise part and you might need to send them on another vacation for a while.

In the meantime, listening to the wise part of yourself, take a large task and break it down into smaller, more manageable subtasks.

Write it down. Be specific.

Now, talk to a friend about the task and make a commitment to your friend as to when you will complete each of these subtasks. Ask him or her to write it down.

Overcoming Procrastination:  Make a Commitment

Now, a word about how to choose the person who will be holding you accountable: Choose someone who will be supportive but firm. Don't choose your friend who is "very nice" but who won't challenge you a little if you need it. Also, don't choose someone who will be too bossy about it. Either extreme isn't good.

Once you've chosen a friend, offer to help your friend with something that he or she might be avoiding. Plan in advance when you and your friend will have your check-in session (by phone or in person) to talk about how you fared in terms of completing the subtasks. Also, plan to give yourself a small reward for each subtask that you complete. (If you don't complete the subtask, no reward.)

If you don't complete the subtask or if you completed part of it but not all of it, don't berate yourself or give up. Just make a new agreement with your friend and stick with it. Often, starting is the hardest part, so once you're on a roll, you may find yourself on an upward spiral, creating new and healthy habits by tackling situations that you used to avoid.

When Procrastination is a Sign of Deeper Issues
Sometimes, procrastination is not just avoidance but a sign of more complex problems like unresolved trauma, depression, anxiety or problems that you're unaware of because they're unconscious.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you follow the tips offered above, but you find that you continue to have an ingrained and persistent pattern of procrastination with detrimental consequences in your personal or work life, you could benefit from dealing with these issues with a licensed mental health professional to understand and work through them.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples. 

To find out more, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 or email me.

Also see my article:  
Overcoming Procrastination and the Need for Certainty in an Uncertain World