From Procrastination to Emotion Regulation
Back-to-school season is upon us, and with it, all of the exhilaration, nerves, and busyness of a brand new school year. But if you’re a student, it isn’t long before the hype of a new school year starts to dwindle, and you begin to see the reality of a long-hard year of homework. If you’re anything like me, that means getting overwhelmed, burying your head in the sand, and praying that your work gets done without you. But if that doesn’t work, you figure you can get it done tomorrow, right? Sound familiar? If you can’t seem to kick your nasty habit of procrastination, here are some tips to help you on your journey of growth. Just kidding, the journey starts now.
Recognize the root of the problem
At its core, procrastination isn’t about being lazy, or a lack of discipline, or whatever other lies that crept into your head. We procrastinate because, for a variety of reasons, we haven’t developed the most effective ways to manage the powerful negative emotions associated with specific tasks. Thus, when faced with the anxiety and stress triggered by, say a daunting assignment, we cope by avoiding the event that triggers the anxiety (i.e., the assignment) rather than addressing the anxiety itself. In other words, procrastination is about emotion regulation. Understanding this is a pivotal first step toward initiating self-change because it helps us to zero in on the root problem and develop an appropriate action plan to address it.
Follow the trail of your negative emotions back to the thoughts and beliefs that caused them.
This discipline takes practice, and it requires that you give yourself both the physical and mental space identify what you’re feeling and why you’re feeling it. So, the second that the thought of avoiding a task pops into your head practice letting in. Don’t drown out the anxiety with Netflix, social media, or any other distraction. Instead, go for a jog to clear your mind. Write in a journal. Do whatever you need to do to give yourself the space to think it through. Ask yourself, “what is it about doing this thing that’s making me want to put it off?” Are you worried that you won’t do a good job? Does the thought of spending that much time on a task or assignment seems daunting? Is the task itself something you find inherently unpleasant? Do you have unrealistically high standards for yourself and avoid doing things that you can’t do perfectly? Don’t worry about solving anything in this step. Just try to understand why you feel the way you do.
Take baby steps
Once you’ve figured out why you’ve been procrastinating, replace those negative thoughts with positive ones. Give yourself a pep talk! Remind yourself of the times that you’ve faced similarly tough challenges and have overcome them. Acknowledge your anxieties but don’t allow them to rule the day. Remember that the only way to “eat an elephant” is one bite at a time. Take baby steps toward completing the task or assignment by breaking it up into smaller subtasks. Make a checklist of subtasks to be completed and cross them off as you work to remind yourself that you’re making progress. Start with easier assignments to gain confidence as you go. Trick yourself into overcoming that initial hurdle of beginning an assignment by giving yourself a time limit that feels manageable to you. For example, tell yourself you’re going to work on a project for only 30 minutes. At the end of the 30 minutes, you’ll likely find that the assignment wasn’t so bad after all and want to continue.
Once you’ve followed all of these steps, and even before, give yourself some compassion. Recognize that overcoming deeply ingrained habits like procrastination takes time and you will make mistakes along the way. Treat yourself with the same grace and understanding that you would a dear friend. Challenge yourself, but remember that hiccups are inevitable. When you find yourself falling into old habits, recognize it, dust yourself off, and try again without giving in to the temptation to self-criticize.
And just like that, you’ll find yourself taking the necessary steps to overcome procrastination. Before you know it, tackling assignments right away will become second nature to you. The journey from procrastination to regulation is a tough one, but it’s far from impossible. So why wait? The time to start tackling procrastination is now. You can do it!