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Fixing a Destructive Procrastination Cycle

I came into my adult life with a lot of struggle around procrastination. This manifested in many ways - not opening my mail, putting things off at work, avoiding housework, always measuring my life by what I “ought” to be doing.

I seemed to have this constant parental voice in my head telling me what I should be doing and another constant rebel voice in my head saying “I don’t want to and you can’t make me.” Kind of like the little angel and devil characters you see sitting on people’s shoulders in cartoons, whispering into their ears and trying to convince them one way or the other.

Sometimes the angel/parent would win out. I would find some kind of motivational energy and push into doing the things I knew I “should” be doing. And sometimes the devil/rebel would win out, and I would actively avoid doing anything I “should” be doing. And, sometimes, I would get pulled into a quicksand that was somewhere in the middle - apathy, depression, numbing, and the like.

I would cycle through these situations:

  1. I have motivation and am getting things done. I’m doing it! I knew I could keep up with all the things! Now I just have to figure out how to keep this going!

  2. I get tired. Something external happens to break my productivity streak. Life gets hard. I take a break. Or, I think “I’m going to skip today.”

  3. Skipping one day becomes two days, then three days, etc. My parental part says “you really ought to get back to doing xyz” and my rebel part says “take a hike.” I defiantly push back against the parental part.

  4. The quicksand starts because giving into the rebel part has caused me to avoid reality. It’s like the rebel is screaming on one side, and the parent is on the other side, and my real self is caught in the middle.

  5. Now I’m stuck. I’m not being the rebel anymore, but I’m just stuck in the quicksand. I can’t move anywhere. So I eat and watch tv and do any number of other numbing activities.

  6. I’m stuck, but the negative reality grows and grows and grows. The pile of mail unopened. The work project that I know my boss is going to expect any day. The pile of dishes and laundry, making me ashamed at the thought of other people seeing it.

  7. I sit in the mental slog of apathy for a period of time, trying to pull myself out, trying to will myself to get out and be productive. I know that eventually I will have to face reality but I’m just not ready to yet.

  8. After a period of time (days, weeks?) something triggers me into action. It might be the threat of being found out somehow, it might be some connection to myself and my values, whatever it is, I decide that I will finally turn towards the things I’ve been avoiding.

  9. I muster up the motivation to get the things done. It feels so good to finally have faced all the things, and I vow that I’ll remember this and not get myself into that situation again. I create rules and systems and procedures to make myself be good.

  10. Perfectionism becomes the goal. Here I am, my ideal self, doing all the things! Finally, life is good, I just have to figure out how to be perfect in order to avoid being in that painful place ever again. A

  11. Perfectionism isn’t sustainable. Eventually, I go back to #1 of the cycle and start all over again.

In all of this, I spent a lot of time and money trying to fix my productivity problem by becoming my perfect, ideal self. I tried new systems for time management. New systems for task management. New organizers. New apps. New books and podcasts and TED talks. It felt like my productivity issues were a string of Christmas lights that were all jumbled and not working properly - if I could just untangle them, if I could just find the burned out bulbs, if I could just make some headway then I could plug them in and make them work again.

But in making procrastination about productivity, here’s the thing: whatever system I was using to try and fix my productivity issues became my master. I felt that there was something deficient in me and I needed a system or an external thing to MAKE me do the right things and fix my deficiency. I viewed procrastination as an external problem that needed an external answer.

But procrastination isn’t an external problem. It’s an internal problem.

It’s not actually about the dishes. It’s not actually about the unopened mail. It’s not actually about the external stuff. It’s about the internal stuff.

Sometime in late 2019 or early 2020 I was looking through an old journal entry and I came across a list of topics about procrastination. It stopped me dead in my tracks. It felt like I was reading a journal entry from someone else’s life. I had to stop and take it in that I had written this. I thought, “Was this me? Did I used to struggle with this?” And then I remembered, yes, I used to spend a lot of my life trying to figure out how to fix procrastination.

I was dumbfounded. And the more I pondered this, the more it came back to me. Yes, this was me. Yes, I used to be in bondage to procrastination. Did I still procrastinate? Was this still a thing for me? Maybe… or maybe not.

My response to the journal entry made me wonder - what had changed? If this was something that used to occupy so much of my brain, why was I now so unaffected by it?

I thought back to my year in the Townsend Leadership Program. That was the only thing I could see as being a key factor. But I hadn’t focused on procrastination. I did have three stretch goals I worked on, but none of them had to do with productivity.

Instead, I had worked on things like relationships, self-definition, self-awareness, and self-acceptance. I worked on identifying my needs and reaching out to people to get my needs met. I worked on growing my awareness of my thoughts and opinions; of not being a people-pleaser; of staying connected to myself in the moment and showing up with my thoughts and opinions.

And I realized - that is how you fix procrastination. Not by learning how to be more productive, not by becoming some perfect version of myself, but by embracing the real me (good and bad) and creating a healthier ecosystem for life.

If you are struggling with a destructive cycle of procrastination, I encourage you to take a step back and stop trying to be more productive. Instead, take a deeper look at the root issues that are causing you to procrastinate. One of the best things I did to stop this negative cycle in my life was to work with a life coach and get involved in a structured growth group. If you are ready to invest in yourself in this way, I’d love to connect with you about one-on-one coaching. You’re worth it!

I also invite you to check out the current season of Personal Growth Sucks, where I’m taking 10 episodes to dig deep into root causes of procrastination. Check out the episodes here.

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