procrastination, anxiety, and dialogue with your past self

Often procrastination is viewed as a problem of organisation, and a typical approach is to try to provide a system for prioritizing and tracking tasks, in the model of Getting Things Done.  There are all kinds of methodologies related to this kind of organisation and priotization model, and certainly they may help those who really are procrastinating because of a lack of structure in their work planning.

But what is often not addressed is that there are people who are procrastinating because of anxiety, not because of lack of organisation.

Tim Urban did a TED talk in 2016 called Inside the mind of a master procrastinator that really resonated with me.  But what I found even more interesting (since I am more of a text than a video person) is his blog posts exploring procrastination in more detail:

I really admire Tim Urban for being able to be open about this issue, in a society that values productivity perhaps more than anything.

I particularly like The Eisenhower Matrix, which gives a better way to think about task priority

It’s basically four quadrants.

Eisenhower grid

Although this looks like a classic productivity tool, Tim Urban has actually figured out that it has some subtle factors when you take into account how people think and behave when procrastinating.  In general, procrastinators mess up these priorities.  They will do Quadrant 1 (Important, Urgent) when a deadline forces them.  Otherwise they will do either Quadrant 3 (Not Important, Urgent) or particularly occupy Quadrant 4 (Not Important, Not Urgent).

If I apply an anxiety perspective, Quadrant 1 (Important, Urgent) gets done when the anxiety about the deadline overcomes the anxiety about the task.  Otherwise, aversive strategies move the anxious procrastinator either into Not Important, Urgent or Not Important, Not Urgent.

Disastinators

Procrastinators who are no longer able to use deadlines as motivation Tim Urban describes as “Disastinators”, stuck forever in a corner of useless tasks (e.g. unpleasurable obsessive web surfing or other maladaptive coping strategies) in Quadrant 4.

This is basically being paralysed by anxiety, doing meaningless things.

Eisenhower grid avoid stuck

One of the keys to getting out of Quadrant 4, if stuck there because of anxiety, is to deal with the anxiety itself, rather than the tasks.  In other words, an anxiety-based procrastinator may need emotions management and mental strategies a lot more than time and priority management (and may in fact be acutely and painfully aware of both the exact priorities and the time constraints they are facing).  This is a really important insight.  If it’s anxiety that has you stuck, no amount of productivity techniques will help change the outcomes.  The procrastination is anxiety-driven, the solution is addressing the anxiety itself.

And the highest priority things (Quadrant 1 & 2) may be the most anxiety-generating, which is why anxious procrastinators if they do anything at all, may churn out Not Important but Urgent items, or be stuck in endless Not Important, Not Urgent activities.

You May Be Missing Your Hopes and Dreams in Quadrant 2

Tim Urban makes a second really important observation, which is that even people who are high-functioning may do just the Urgent things (Quadrant 1 and 3) and never make it to the things in Quadrant 2 (Important but Not Urgent).  But Quadrant 2 covers a lot of things that are at the core of improving your life.  Depending on your personality, many things may be in Quadrant 2: relationships, health, new skills – basically all of your aspirations.  And as you busily do Quadrant 1 priority items, you may never find time to do the things that bring meaning to your life.

Tim Urban describes this as “delegating to future you”.  Learning that language, meeting that girl or boy, making that new career… all always safely in the future.

Dialogue Between Past Self and Future Self

Here’s where I would like to add some value to the already-excellent analysis that Tim Urban did.  One thing that happens with procrastination is a really dysfunctional dialogue across time.  It may be across minutes and it may be across decades.  It’s the dialogue between past you and future you.

Procrastinators load a lot of tasks onto their future self.  And whether it’s “I’ll just surf the web for five minutes” or “I’ll do that next month”, eventually the future self becomes the present self, and is basically thinking “I can’t believe Past Me stuck me with this task, there’s so little time left, why didn’t Past Me just do it then?  You suck Past Me.”

And since there is no past you and future you really, just present self, this means procrastinators basically feel angry at themselves a lot.  For some intense procrastinators, all the time.

I think it might be possible to surface this dialogue in a healthier way.  There are two aspects: first, gratitude to your past self, and second, empathy with your future self.  This can start out small, but the key is to verbalise it, either internally or (depending on the people around you) out loud.  Did you put out your clothes the night before so you could get ready quicker?  “Thanks Past Me.”  Did you take some time to sort medication into daily slots so you don’t forget what to take each day?  “Thanks Past Me.”  Did you do the laundry yesterday so you have clean clothes today?  “Thanks Past Me.”

Similarly, when facing a task, you can try (this is hard) to empathize with your future self (who is, after all, you).  Writing that report today is a gift to your future self tomorrow, who will be less anxious and angry, who won’t have to struggle to complete too many piled-up tasks.  Doing even a small important task today means that future you won’t face the same anxiety and won’t have to fight whatever aversive behaviours and compulsions the anxiety may trigger.

This is a way to try to make your internal dialogue kinder across time, rather than (inevitably anxious) future you having to deal with the tasks that (inevitably anxious) past you avoided.

You can also, when necessary, forgive your past self.

Just as importantly, a healthier self-dialogue and addressing anxiety directly may open up the space so that you’re not always either dealing with crisis tasks in Quadrant 1, or obsessively avoiding anxiety-making tasks by huddling in the corner of Quadrant 4 (the “Stuck Here” quadrant).  It may open up the possibility that you actually make time for present you to do things in Quadrant 2, whether it’s learning photography, or going to a party, or whatever it is that will advance your life in important ways.

I hope this is helpful.