What Procrastination Is Trying to Teach You
Why befriending your procrastination is better than judging it
One of the most common issues folks bring up in therapy is procrastination. Most often, clients are hardest on themselves when they find themselves procrastinating the creative tasks they really want to do. They approach procrastination with a lot of self-blame, and the narratives that we get into around procrastination tend to be narratives that involve guilt, shame, and self-criticism.
Culturally, I think we often see procrastination as laziness, but as a therapist, it’s clear to me that laziness is rarely, if ever, at the root of procrastination. In therapy, we learn to approach things from a difference lens. It’s more helpful to think about what the purpose or function of engaging in procrastination is. Put more simply: What is the act of procrastinating protecting you from?
When it comes to our creative lives, there is a lot of pressure. To get it right. To be brilliant and original. To express ourselves fully, authentically, and perfectly. To say interesting things, and to move people. To be seen by them (and adored by them) through our creative work. To create outstanding and meaningful art. To risk showing ourselves, vulnerably and with intimacy, to strangers, and risk being judged.
Extremely high stakes.
So if you, like me, find yourself procrastinating, here are some things to try if you want to get to know your procrastination a little better, see what it might be protecting you from, and move from fear and survival mode, to safety and play, and see what shakes loose.
Do You Actually Want to Do the Thing?
First off, ask yourself if you actually want to do the thing you’re procrastinating. Sometimes, we get ourselves stuck in The Shoulds, and we procrastinate because we don’t actually want to do what we tell ourselves we should do. I should sit down and re-write my YA New York City Zombie Apocalypse Little Red Riding Hood retelling (an actual thing I wrote for NaNoWriMo in 2013). But if I ask myself why I “should” do this, mostly what comes up is that it would be really cool to be a young adult author, a longtime dream of mine from many years ago. This has less to do with the act of sitting down and re-writing this zombie novel itself, and more to do with how cool I imagine I’d feel as a young adult fiction author.
And you know what, it would be really cool to be the author of a YA New York City Zombie Apocalypse Little Red Riding Hood retelling. But I’m also very happy being a therapist right now, learning about what it means to be human, developing my skill as a therapist, and let myself off the hook while waiting for the novel that really wants me to write it.
What Is Procrastinating Protecting You From?
What this question is asking is: What feeling does the act of procrastination protect you from feeling? Like I said, it’s usually some variation on fear, from mild anxiety, a sense of imposter syndrome and the self-doubt that comes with it, to sheer terror: What if I try to do the thing that I’ve spent years telling myself I want to do, only to come to find that I suck at it?
If you can identify the emotion that you’re trying to avoid, sit with it for a moment, and notice: What thoughts go through your mind? What are you aware of in your body?
Tell Yourself A Story
When I was in grad school, one of my supervisors offered me an intervention called “So What?” Basically, she prompted me to work with clients by asking them, “So what?” to each of the ways their fears shaped their idea of the future. The point of the exercise is this: We tend to catastrophize, a cognitive distortion that tricks us into believing that we can read the future. Our brains hop right on to an incredibly unhelpful hamster wheel of fortune telling, and starts spinning tales that all usually end in our ruin and destitution if we, say, try to sit down and write a YA New York City Zombie Apocalypse Little Red Riding Hood retelling.
You can take back the reins from the hamster, though (part of why I don’t write fiction right now is all these mixed metaphors), by asking yourself “So what?” Or, if you’d like to use my gentler intervention, ask yourself, “What happens next?” Then, catastrophize your heart little out — of your own free will, not Evil Brain’s. Really let ‘er loose. Ruin, doom, gloom. Maybe an asteroid collides with the earth, all because you just had to write that damn zombie novel.
Check In With Your Body
For me, I know that catastrophizing mindlessly and intentionally asking myself “So what?” or “What happens next?” both feel very different in my body. The first one feels tense: clenched jaw, shoulders held up tightly against my ears, sweaty palms, wide eyes, quick, shallow breathing. On the other hand, when I try to come up with the most ludicrous story I can think of about the fear that procrastination is protecting my from, it feels different. Instead of getting swept away by how my body feels on the hamster wheel, I make myself really listen to the story I’m telling myself, which is usually a pretty unlikely one. It feels silly, playful, creative, even, and because it feels silly and playful, that’s how I know I’m safe. Our creative minds and our survival instincts don’t really exist online at the same time — we cannot create when our bodies feel like they’re trying desperately to keep us alive.
Be Gentle with Yourself
There may be other feelings here than fear here, too. Our creative projects — especially if we want to share them with the world — are also an exercise in intimacy. Wherever there’s intimacy, again, there’s risk — which can bring up fears of rejection, abandonment, and the sadness we might feel if we’ve experienced those things in real life in the past.
In cases like this, the feeling that procrastination might actually be protecting you from is sadness, mourning, grief. In cases like this, you don’t need to ask yourself “So what?” or bypass your sadness. Instead, maybe experiment with touching that sadness, a tiny bit, and letting yourself feel it in small doses. Who shows up in that sadness? Do certain relationships come to mind, or memories of yourself at different ages? What is it like to revisit them? If you have a feeling that sadness, rather than fear, is what your procrastination is protecting you from, it’s okay to go slow — and to reach out for support, if you need it.