Procrastination as an attachment

December 3, 2015


Many people need help with putting off what they know they need to do, but can’t seem to bring themselves to do until it’s almost too late. Some people take it as far as paying late fees, penalties, and missing opportunities that would have been available had they acted promptly in the first place. So if procrastination is an issue for you, you are not alone! Many of us have a natural tendency to avoid the pain of confronting something head-on and getting it done, whether it be difficult emotional states, an interpersonal interaction they dread, a physical challenge like losing weight or exercising, or a task that is just plain boring or difficult. Remember when you were in school? When you were a kid, homework was probably the last thing you wanted to do.

As time went on, however, many of us developed the ability to delay gratification and rewarded ourselves when we did something hard. For example, when we completed a task we didn’t want to do, we might go see a movie or go out to eat with a good friend. These are the ways that we ripen into maturity and teach ourselves to get things done. But sometimes forces that seem outside of us get in the way. Have you ever noticed that you have a project you need to do, but you can’t seem to tear yourself away from a video game or the Internet? Or you have homework for a class but cleaning the house seems so very important to do at that moment instead? We know we need to do the task, and we even beat ourselves up for not doing the task, but it still doesn’t get done. In a way, we extend our pain by thinking about the task and not doing it. We are attached to an unpleasant task even longer by avoiding it!

Observing our inner chatter about the task is a good place to start to change this pattern. For example, what do you tell yourself about this task, and your seeming inability to get on task? Do you insult yourself, or make the task into something that seems to overwhelm you? For instance, when people cut down on the amount of calories they take in, they might say, “You’re such a failure! You can’t even go a day without stuffing your face!” When saying things like this, you are less motivated to carry out your goal. Shame makes most people shut down, not forge ahead. Alternatively, when you start to feel any discomfort as a result of making the change, you might say, “This hunger is intolerable! How can anyone live like this? I can’t stand it!” This is another way we talk ourselves out of change without even realizing it. We assume that any discomfort is a stop sign rather a natural part of the change process. Unfortunately, any change you make, even if it’s a good change, involves some discomfort and uncertainty. You are stepping into a new state of being, by choice.

This can trigger self-doubts to kick in, and threaten the status quo. Even if you don’t particularly like your current status quo, you also really don’t like change. Procrastination is an attachment to the unwanted task.  For instance, if you keep putting off exercise and good diet for a long enough time, it becomes a damper on your health.  In the short run it ruins the delight of lying around eating junk food. You can’t hold the two ideas of “I’m going to enjoy this behavior” with “I should be walking the dog and eating better” without creating internal tension. This tension leads to stress, and the stress also leads to poorer health. That attachment is not healthy because  you can’t enjoy what you’re doing without feeling bad about yourself. By postponing the task, you are increasing the life cycle of your involvement with the task.  You worry, fret, cajole, harass and finally berate yourself for not doing it. So you might as well just do it, right?

When you set out to do a task you can ask yourself what the life cycle of the task will be.  Will it take less time just to do the task than spending time  fretting, obsessing and beating yourself up about eventually doing the task?  If the time it takes to do the task is less than the berating cycle you might consider just doing the task and saving time. This saves time and reduces the emotional toll of the task.   Recognizing that it’s a choice and that it adds to the length of time you actually spend engaged with the task can make it a little easier to just get up and do it. Let me know what you think.