Procrastination: A Symptom of Anxiety

Imagine it's Wednesday. That thing on your to-do list has to be done by Friday afternoon. You've known about its due date for about two weeks, now, because everyone says it takes at least two weeks to do the whole thing well. You see it on your calendar every time you peek at your next scheduled meeting, but it's easy to brush off because hey, you have time. Two weeks ago, you even went so far as to try to map out how how many minutes you would be working on it in an ideal world where you abided by that two-week timeline.

Alas, it is still incomplete.

And it's due.

In three days.

If you've ever felt this feeling, it's probably anxiety. Millions of people experience it daily: the sense of impending doom, the sweaty palms, and that feeling in your gut that tells you something is just not right.

Anxiety manifests itself in different ways for different people. For some, it's procrastination. The more we avoid a task, the more anxious we become about it- so much so that many of us will wait until the very last moment before it becomes impossible to complete. That feeling of anxiety is at its strongest when we realize, "I do it now or it never gets done." However, what we often fail to notice is that there are smaller degrees of anxiety that show up every time we look at the calendar or think about that task.

It's not just the big things that we procrastinate on out of anxiety- it can be anything. It could be making a phone call, going to a social event, or even something as small as folding laundry. For some people, these tasks create such high levels of anxiety that they would rather do nothing at all than try. Over time, it means things start to build up until the pressure has to be released through actively completing all of the things we have to do. Then, we burnout. then, we start the cycle again.

But what if it didn't have to be that way?

The best way to avoid avoidance is by anxiety management. This means recognizing the signs of anxiety and managing them in healthy ways. It's important to find what works for you so that when those feelings start to creep up, you have something to help manage them before they become too overwhelming.

Sometimes people think that means finding a medication that works for you, going for a run, or finding a yoga class to learn how to meditate. The reality is, though, that these things aren't always accessible to us, especially not when we're in the middle of class or in the middle of the office and that item on our to-do list is staring us in the face. The good news is that there are things you can do in the moment to check in with yourself, regulate, and push forward without it feeling so painful.

  1. Find out what your fear is. Anxiety is an adaptive emotion. It has helped our ancestors survive from getting chased or attacked. We don't have to worry about bears these days, though, so it can be harder to identify what it is that we're trying to run from or avoid. With procrastination it can be as simple as, "It's going to take a lot of time," or, "I feel so unhappy doing it," or even, "I don't want to feel bored."

  2. Acknowledge that fear. It might feel silly to hear yourself whittle the fear down to its core, but it's coming from a valid place. We all want to have time to do something more enjoyable. We all want to experience happiness or contentedness. We all want to have fun. Whatever the fear is, it makes sense. Try not to judge yourself when you realize what your fear is.

  3. Be gentle with yourself. Talk to yourself kindly when you realize what that fear is. How would you want to be comforted by someone who knows you're anxious? The best part of this question is that you don't have to actively search for someone who can give you that comfort; you can give it to yourself. Try something like, "We'll work a little on it. It'll be a bit of a pain, but it's okay. We can do this."

  4. Reward yourself. When you get some of that task done (especially if it has numerous steps), give yourself a tiny celebration! Maybe saying, "Good job!" to yourself out loud, letting yourself take a break by petting a fluffy friend, or allowing yourself to get up and walk around to another room to tend to a blooming plant. You don't have to be extravagant with your rewards, just be sure you give one to yourself!

Procrastination is a symptom of anxiety. We often think that procrastination just means we have to work on time management, but oftentimes it really means we need to get to the root about what sort of emotional distress we are avoiding when we know we have to get a task complete. It can be complicated if you've never done it before, and that's okay. Another way that we can figure out what method of emotion regulation works well for us is by talking to a therapist.

Therapists are a great resource for helping procrastinators because they can help us to explore the thoughts and feelings that come up when we have to do something we don't want to. They can also give us some tools and techniques to use in those moments when avoidance starts creeping in that are individualized and feel best for us. At Cultured Space, our therapists can help you manage your anxiety and help you get to the core of what might be causing you to procrastinate so that you can live a flexible life!