Guide on wellbeing: procrastination 

What to help procrastination? Procrastination is a natural response to stress.

The essay deadline is approaching, and you suddenly notice feeling unusually highly motivated to clear your window blinds. Or you decide to watch one more video on social media. Whatever shape it takes, procrastination is something we all know very well. 

You’re not lazy! 

Procrastination is often accompanied by harsh self-criticism. It’s very common to think of yourself as lazy or inefficient when you notice that you’re avoiding work. However, this kind of harsh self-criticism is not only useless in terms of your productivity, but even actively harmful to both your health and your ability to get things done. 

The human body contains an autonomous nervous system. This system helps us stay alive through contributing to the production of different emotional states, that tend to lead to different actions. The threat system is an important part of the autonomous nervous system. We can divide this system into two parts: fight/flight and freeze/please and appease. In addition to the threat system, we also have a safety system, that produces pleasant emotions, such as feelings of wellbeing. The safety system directs us to connect with others. Procrastination is connected to the body’s natural defence measure that is caused by the experience of excessive pressure. 

Unclarity and uncertainty tend to cause us experiences of pressure. Another significant source of feeling under pressure is harsh criticism (either from others or from ourselves). Our experience of how well our resources measure up to what we need to do, can also create experiences of pressure to a varying degree. 

Starting a task becomes possible when we feel enough incentive to do it. It’s easier to start a task when it is clearly defined. The more pressure we experience, the more our stress levels rise, but if our assignment is clear enough and we feel like we have the capacity to do it, we can take action even if we feel slightly uneasy. 

However, if our experience of being under pressure continues to grow, and if the situation feels very unclear or hopeless, our body will activate our fight/flight reaction, which means that we may have a hard time focusing due to our stress levels. We may alternatively start experiencing a freeze reaction in our bodies, feeling stuck and procrastinating. And when we start procrastinating, this leads to more stress, which again makes it more difficult to be able to take action. 

Getting started 

When we understand that procrastination is a part of the body’s natural defence reaction when it feels that it’s under pressure, and when we understand that unclarity and harsh self-criticism lead to an experience of being under pressure, it’s easier to understand what to do about procrastination. When you notice yourself procrastinating, it’s useful to clarify the situation, and to give warm-hearted and constructive feedback toward yourself. It’s also important that you make sure that what you’re doing actually is meaningful to you, because the lack of meaning in what we do often leads to procrastination.  

It’s also useful to prioritise your to do-list and to define your goals carefully. It’s important to clarify with a lot of specificity what you need to do and how you’ll later know if you’ve done it or not.  

If your to-do list just says “essay”, it’s highly likely that the sheer unclarity of the goal will lead to anxiety and procrastination. However, if your to-do list says “From 10:00 to 10:30: check essay instructions, skim course book and make a mind map of themes to include in the essay until I have a clearish idea about what I’m gonna be writing about”. The items on your to-do list will be of suitable size when you don’t find the prospect of starting the assignment overwhelming. The smaller and clearer the assignment, the better. 

So if you feel very stuck; try to come up with a ridiculously small task that’ll take you in the right direction! And after you’ve completed that step, define the next step. 

Be more warm towards yourself 

In addition to clarity, it’s also useful to have a warm approach and give constructive feedback towards yourself. Harsh self criticism, self-blame, judgement, and other cold and hard treatment all increase the odds of your nervous system becoming “over-pressured”. In order to decrease this pressure, it’s good to add warmth in the way that you talk to yourself. It’s obviously important to give yourself feedback about what isn’t working, but this feedback needs to be warm and kind-hearted for it to be useful. 

Procrastination often has its roots in some unconscious and illogical fear, such as “What if I fail? Will that make me unworthy?” It can be very useful to explore these fears with warm curiosity and patience. After all, they’re a normal human experience, and nothing to be embarrassed about. 

If you notice that your procrastinating behaviour has led you to such troubles that you feel overwhelmed by them, it’s important to ask for help to clarify the situation. 

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