Getting Around to Talking About Procrastination: 3 Simple Principles to Stop Delaying and Getting It Done

I have intended to write this post for 3 months now.  My process has been as follows:

Identify the topic – check.

Brainstorm an outline of what I want to say – check.

Stagnate – check.

Stall – check.

Finally get around to actually writing – check.

Granted, other things have come up that demanded my attention.  Some legitimate, some mere distractions, some blatant attempts to not do the thing that had been hanging over my head.  This is the very essence of procrastination.  I put off to tomorrow what could have been done today.  I know better.  I counsel and advise others on how to avoid this pitfall.  I know the short-term benefits of avoiding are not outweighed by the long-term consequences that will follow.  Yet none of these chiding thoughts prodded me into actually writing this post.  Up until this moment as I write, I had not followed my own advice.

I have been on both sides of the procrastination battle; both as a victim to the temptations of delay and as a victor over the siren’s song of postponement.  I can say that being the victor is far more satisfying and rewarding.  Following the three simple principles that follow will help guide you to be victorious over procrastination more often than you fall victim to it.  I know firsthand: it is simple, just not easy.  But it is well worth the effort.

Front Load the Work

We often have a lot of things that need to be done and a lot of things that we could do that would be beneficial, wise, and productive uses of our time.  Some of them are responsibilities and some are things to unwind and relax.  Most likely, the items on the responsibilities lists are the ones that will be put off to some other time.  We prioritize other activities over what should be done.  How this typically plays out is that we will engage in some other (less important) activity, all the while feeling the weight of the thing we are not doing hanging over our heads.  This tends to rob us of some of the enjoyment of what we are doing.  It is likely to be hard to fully enjoy going out with our friends if we know that we really needed to be working on a report that is due the next day.

The fix for this is to “front load” the work.  Do the thing that needs to be done first and then you can fully enjoy the rest of your time, free of the burden of knowing that work awaits you once you are done.  You will feel good about getting the to-do item accomplished and then you can engage in whatever activities that follow with a clear conscience.

If you get into the habit of doing the work first and then playing afterwards, you can achieve a balance to where you are fully productive and fully engaged in fun and fulfilling activities as well.  This balanced approach will help prevent you from feeling burnt out or overwhelmed.

 

Present Me and Future Me

               The second principle is to remember that future me is not going to be any more motivated, energetic, or capable than present me.  To understand this principle, you must first understand that you hold two versions of yourself in your mind at any given moment.  The first is “Present Me,” which is the you that you are currently experiencing.  Present Me is currently reading these words.  Whatever you are thinking, feeling, and doing in this moment makes up Present Me.  Future Me is the idea of what you are going to be like outside of this moment.  You may be thinking that Future Me is going to cook dinner, or go to that movie you have been wanting to see, or take that vacation you have been dreaming about.  Future me gets to do all sorts of things, both pleasant (like the movie or the vacation) and unpleasant (like chores, pay bills, and get root canals).

Problems with procrastination occur when we start to assign too much stuff to Future Me.  We may begin to think that Future Me is going to develop super-powers of super-human will, motivation, and energy.  Or at least Future Me would need to develop these super-hero abilities in order for them to accomplish all that is being assigned to them.  When there is this rift between what Present Me and Future Me is capable of, we are deep in the waters of procrastination.  And we are likely drowning in those waters.  We need to understand that Future Me is going to feel exactly like Present Me does.  Future Me does not like doing dishes any more than Present Me does.  Future Me does not possess an amazing ability to balance the checkbook any more than Present Me does.

Future Me and Present Me are the same person.  When we understand this, we may be less likely to heap loads of responsibilities onto Future Me.  If you use the first principle of front loading work, Present Me can accomplish some things and then go and have some fun rather than Present Me hogging all of the fun and Future Me getting the raw end of the deal.

 

Motivation Follows Action

               The final principle deals with how we perceive how we get things done.  When asked, people will often respond that they do something when they feel like doing it.  “I get the inspiration to accomplish something and then I set about doing it.”  Some things will happen in this sequence.  But if we are procrastinating, it is this process that has gone awry.  We are waiting to feel the motivation to do something before we start doing it.  And typically, that motivation just ain’t coming any time soon.  This way of thinking is what I call “action follows motivation.”  You can think of it as motivation being the engine and action being the trailer that is pulled along by the engine.

This simply does not work when we are faced with a procrastination problem.  In this case, we must force ourselves to flip the sequence and realize that motivation will follow our action.  When discussing this, I often think of how I feel when there is a sink full of dishes from dinner.  I don’t really want to do them, but I know that I want them to be done.  If I wait around to feel like doing the dishes, I would probably still be sitting here with a sink full of dirty dishes.  So instead, I start doing them and, after about the second plate, I realize that I am motivated to finish the job.  It feels good to be making progress towards being done with this chore and I am looking forward to when I can go sit down and enjoy some quality time with my family and unwind.  What has happened here is that motivation has followed my action.  And when you think about it, the flipside of that is that being unmotivated follows inaction.  The longer we avoid doing the things we know need to be done, the less motivated we feel.

Procrastinate No More

We will all likely struggle with procrastination from time to time, but now you are armed with these three principles to assist you in combating procrastination.  It may have taken me three months, but I eventually took my own advice, kept these principles in mind and completed this post.  And I feel much better for having done so.  I wish you the same success!

Edited by Shirley Sachs

Uncertainty: The Only Certainty In Life

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“If you want to be successful in this field, you’d better learn to love ambiguity.”  A professor said this to her class 12 years ago.  As a student in that class, I can almost hear these words today as clearly as they were spoken over a decade ago.  This has stuck with me because it has proven to be true.

In my job I work closely with people, come to care for them deeply, watch them struggle and triumph.  And then, in the majority of cases, we stop seeing each-other.  This is the natural progression of therapy.  In the cold clinical sense it is meet, assess, treatment plan, intervene and then terminate.  I usually invite (if not outright plea for) follow-up calls, periodic check-ins.  Perhaps naturally, seldom is this invitation accepted.  Here is the ambiguity that my professor identified.  Did this person maintain their progress?  Did that issue ever resolve?  What happened with their spouse?  These questions rarely receive an answer.

But this post is not about me or the ambiguity that therapists encounter.  It is about how we all come to terms with the ambiguities and uncertainties in our own lives.

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The Search for the Positive

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This post is aimed at helping you through struggles.  Not of the external variety such as financial stress or interpersonal problems, but targeting those struggles that reside within our own minds.  This is about the way that we see and interpret the events that are happening around us.  The manifestations of these struggles may be as mild as being in a bad mood or a bit grumpy for a small spell all the way to a full-blown depression that lasts for months on end.  While these endpoints are quite different, the same process underlies both results.

On a surface level, you are likely familiar with what this discusses.  People may have told you to “search for the silver lining”.  Others may have attempted to encourage you by saying that “things are not as bad as they may seem.”  Heck, even Monty Python told you to “Always look on the bright side of life.”  While well intended and on the right track, these suggestions and advice have likely been ineffective in pulling you out of the negative that clouds your thinking when you are feeling down.  Why is this?

Basically, this is prescribing the very thing that is most out of reach to you at that moment.  It’s like telling someone who is lost in the desert and dying of thirst to “just drink some water.”  When this suggestion is presented without appreciating the difficulty it entails, we are likely to reject it out of hand.  This is quite unfortunate, because the wisdom behind the suggestion being offered actually has some value in terms of the behavioral health benefits.  I will attempt to dig beneath the surface of what is being said when someone offers this type of advice and transform it from quickly discarded tropes to something that may be meaningful and helpful.

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Sleep 101: How to Give Yourself the Best Chance at a Good Night’s Sleep

               It’s been a long day.  From the time the alarm went off until this moment, as you lay your head on the pillow, you have been going full steam ahead.  Meeting the demands of your job, your kids, the household chores, the errands, and your social life has taken every last ounce of energy you have.   You expect to fall into the oblivion of sleep the moment your head hits the pillow.  But once you get there, “it” happens.  Your mind starts going, thinking about the things left undone, the things you worry about, the plans you are making.  Now sleep is just about the last thing you can do.  But you know you need to.  You start doing the math.  “Only 6 hours until the alarm goes off.  I have to get to sleep now or tomorrow is going to be a disaster.”  The more pressure you put on falling asleep, the more unlikely it becomes.

               If you can relate to this story, you are not alone.  The sleepless are not just in Seattle; sleep issues are a factor for nearly every client I see in my practice.  Thankfully, there are some very straightforward things that you can do to improve your sleep.  While these guidelines are simple, they are not easy, as many of our bad sleep habits are deeply ingrained.  However, with dedication, you can see some dramatically positive improvements in your sleep within a few weeks.

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Should I Stay or Should I Go: How to Decide What to Do With An Unfulfilling Job

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Chances are, we’ve all been there: dreading to go to work the next day because we just absolutely despise our job.  Perhaps it is due to the work itself: too boring/unchallenging or stressful/overwhelming; perhaps it is due to your co-workers or boss; perhaps it is due to the clientele you deal with.  Whatever the reason, nothing can be more dispiriting and have a stronger impact on your overall well-being than being stuck in a job you hate.  The connection between work stress and negative effects on both mental and physical health is well established, even if all other aspects of your life are fulfilling and healthy.  Hopefully, these suggestions will help you to navigate what to do if you are currently in a negative work situation.  Instead of reading this article word for word (which you’re welcome to do if that is your style), I recommend that you skim through to the sections that apply to you and your particular brand of job dissatisfaction and then read the section on coping efforts.  After doing so, you will hopefully have a clear answer to the question posed by The Clash in their 1982 song “Should I Stay Or Should I Go.”

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Grief & Loss – Understanding and Coping with the Pain

There may be no life experience that is more profoundly painful than the loss of a loved one.  Unfortunately, it is an incident that we all must face at numerous stages in our lives.  Even though these are losses that we must all go through, we often find ourselves ill-equipped to deal with the depth of the suffering that we may experience.

While we will focus mainly on loss in terms of the death of a loved one, it is important to note that the grief and loss response can be triggered by the loss of anything we hold dear.  This could be loss of a valued job, moving away from a neighborhood that we were connected to, or the break-up of a relationship or friendship.

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Stress Management

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         Stress:  that ever-present, life-span shortening, ulcer-inducing, pull-out your-hair condition that is part and parcel of our modern lives.  If there is one issue that I seem to talk about with every client, this is it.  Stress has an immediate impact on our well-being and is therefore one of the most vitally important things to learn to manage as well as we possibly can.  This article will help you to learn more about what stress is and how to work towards minimizing its negative impact on our lives and our health.

 

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A New Adventure: My Journey Toward Becoming A Blogger (And Why You Should Try New Things Too)

New Year

     We just (somewhat recently) rang in 2016 and while I don’t personally do the whole New Year’s resolution thing, I do appreciate it as a cultural phenomenon.  As a licensed professional counselor, I am in the business of helping people change and therefore am interested in how to capitalize on the pro-change vibe that the New Year brings.  So while it is not necessarily a resolution, this year I have challenged myself to take on the new adventure of writing a blog.

Introduce

Please allow me to introduce myself (and my blog)

     This blog will be, very broadly, about behavioral health issues.  I will likely post about a wide variety of topics and issues but all will be in the vein of topics that relate to wellness and behavioral health.  This initial post is both an introduction to the blog and a topic in and of itself: trying new things.

Learn

We learn by learning

     Overall, we are beings who thrive when presented with challenges.  As children, we are learning new things all the time:

  • learning facts and skills at school (like how to read, write, add and subtract, how to use money, and where Lithuania is on a map)
  • learning life skills at home (like how to make our bed, how to wash dishes, how not to bite our sibling when they make us mad, and how to be kind and loving to others)
  • learning about the world by playing outside (gravity makes us fall off the monkey bars, how physics relates to kicking a soccer ball, and how it smells bad if we step in dog poop)
  • learning social skills by playing with our friends (people get mad if we don’t play nicely, our culture ascribes gender roles in that boys are expected to play certain games and girls are expected to play others, and that there is a pecking order of dominance and power when groups of people get together)

Sadly, as adults, we often get to the point where we aren’t learning much new stuff anymore.  Sure, there is the saying “we learn something new every day,” but that pales in comparison to the immense amount of learning that we do as children on a daily basis.

“What’s the big deal if we are not learning?” you may ask.  Excellent question!  It is actually a pretty big deal.  Think of any muscle in your body.  It gets stronger the more that you use it and it atrophies (or weakens) if you neglect to use it.  In a way, this is the same with our brain.  You can see how this is acknowledged in the recent suggestion for elderly people to do things that challenge their brains (like crossword puzzles or Sudoku) or in the popularity of sites like lumosity.com.  There is a bit of a “use it or lose it” dynamic with our cognitive power.

Not only is learning beneficial for our brains but it is also beneficial for our psyche.  A lack of trying new things can lead to us feeling stale and stuck.  In fact, many of the people who come to see me in my counseling practice are looking for ways to get out of a rut that they have been in for some time.  Life seems lackluster and dull for them.  As we work together to get them out of this state, it is typically through efforts to try new things which will challenge them to learn new things that improvement occurs.

 Failure

Failure is always an option 

     I love the show Mythbusters and one of their sayings is that “failure is always an option.”  They seem to embrace failure as a reality and are not discouraged when it happens.  To them, any outcome, even if not what they were hoping for, is informative.

I would recommend taking this approach to your attempts at trying something new.  You are likely to try something that you think will be engaging, fulfilling, and invigorating.  But what if it isn’t?  What if the thing you have tried is dull and uninteresting to you?  Should you hang your head in failure and not try anything else because of this “bad” outcome?  Absolutely not!  Instead, I would encourage you to focus on what you learned from this experience.

For one, you crossed one potential activity off of your list and that means that the odds of one of the remaining items being successful has now increased.  You know that this attempted thing is not going to work for you for whatever reason.  If you can identify why it was not a good fit for you, you can apply that knowledge to the next activity that you choose.

The main thing is for us not to get discouraged and give up on our pursuit if we “fail.”  We can learn from our attempt and apply that new understanding as we continue moving forward.

Perspective

New perspectives on old stuff 

         Another benefit to trying new things is that it provides us with new perspectives.  We can learn new things about ourselves, our interests, our capabilities and limits, and the world around us.  The really great aspect about trying new things is that it can lend a new luster to the other things in our lives.  Even that thing which has become dull and routine for us can have new life breathed into it by the fresh outlook that newness can bring.

In this way, the benefits of challenging yourself to try and learn new things is twofold.  On the one hand we have the obvious direct benefits of the effort made and the enjoyment that can come from new pursuits.  On the other hand you have a generalizing effect where all other areas of your life will enjoy the spillover benefits of these efforts.  This is the value of living a balanced life.  We are better able to handle setbacks and stresses when we are feeling fulfilled in all areas of our lives.

What to try

So what to try? 

          If you are with me in seeing the benefits of taking on new challenges but are unsure of what exactly to do, I’ve got some good news for you: there are no wrong answers.  You can literally try anything.  As we discussed in the “failure is always an option” section, even efforts that do not succeed are beneficial.  It is more about the process of attempting new things as opposed to the outcomes.

Keeping in mind that the process is the more important factor, I did want to give you some ideas as far as specific things you could try.

  • Pursue an active activity: try a new sport (or resume playing one that you used to play), go on a hike, go for a bike ride, get into a daily walking routine, etc.
  • Get into a hobby: paint, learn an instrument, go to an art museum to learn about art, tour a winery to learn about wine making, take a pottery class, get a camera and start photography, learn to play chess (or checkers if that is more your speed), take up adult coloring, get into cosplay, learn to juggle, fish, read comic books, etc. (more ideas at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_hobbies)
  • Find an opportunity to volunteer: at your local food bank, a local soup kitchen, hospitals, the Red Cross, United Way, a local school, library, YMCA, an animal rescue facility, etc.
  • Take on a challenge: commit to a 5k run, start a blog, write a book, learn to cook, take a college course, etc.

In taking on something new, recall that ideally there is a balance between challenge and enjoyment.  In fact, there is even a term for this ideal state when undertaking a new venture and it is called flow.  Flow is a term that is widely used in positive psychology and refers to the state where one is fully immersed in and absorbed by what they are doing due to an ideal balance between challenge and pleasure.  As defined by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (I dare you to try to say that one out loud!), flow is a state of mind associated with both physical and mental health benefits.

 

Recap

  • Our cognitive ability is enhanced by providing novel challenges to our brain.
  • Tackling new challenges prevents life from getting stale and dull.
  • Any attempt at new things is successful even if it ends up being a “failure.”
  • The process is more important than the outcome.
  • Flow is the state where we are absorbed by the challenge that we are taking on and this is a very healthy state of mind.

In closing…

         While this was written in the weeks following the New Year of 2016, even if you are reading it mid or late year, consider making a resolution to try something new in the coming weeks.  Your renewed outlook on life and overall sense of wellness will be your reward.

Edited by Shirley Sachs

Written January 11, 2016