If you’re like most of my clients (or me), you procrastinate sometimes.
You leave for tomorrow what you can accomplish today. (This is how we explain procrastination in Spanish because the word doesn’t exist. It doesn’t stop us from procrastinating though).
Henry, one of my clients, postponed delivering a career-making presentation because he “wasn’t ready yet,” even when his boss believed in him.
Sarah won’t start her health coaching business until she takes one more marketing course.
Gloria pressures herself to work “full-time” looking for a new job until she gets fed up. Then, she postpones the search for days on end, so she feels guilty and redoubles her efforts. She’s caught in a vicious circle.
And Jenny (that’s me) started writing this blog on procrastination but then procrastinated for a few days. Ha!
There are several reasons we procrastinate.
“Procrastination can be a form of intuition,” writer Danielle Laporte says.
She’s referring to the possibility that you are not doing something because you DON’T want to do it.
Sometimes it’s that simple (although maybe not easy).
Then, you’re better off facing the truth, and spending your time and energy getting clarity.
Sociologist Martha Beck says -and I’m paraphrasing- that if you’re procrastinating, either you chose the wrong goal or the way you’re going at it needs to be tweaked.
Sometimes, we overwhelm ourselves with a huge task.
The option here is to break the task down into mini steps, or “turtle” steps, as she calls them. Choose the minimum viable option, and stick with it consistently.
But if breaking down the task doesn’t help, I’ve learned we must go a step further and consider our emotions and nervous system.
We think procrastination is a time management issue, but most likely is a self-regulation issue.
When we say, “I haven’t had time to do X,” it doesn’t necessarily mean we don’t have the 5-15 minutes it could’ve taken us -for example- to make a phone call, review an email, practice a speech, or look for a job.
Most likely it means we’re either exhausted, OR we want to avoid the feeling we anticipate X will produce (fear, shame, overwhelm, insecurity, uncertainty, etc.)
This is where self-regulation comes in.
Self-regulation is our ability to recognize our bodies’ signals and utilize skills to regulate our nervous system (from fight, flight, freeze, to social engagement).
Some children learned to self-regulate from parents or other adults. Many didn’t.
As a result, sometimes we can have the emotional reaction of a much younger self, or have a really hard time coming back from a stressful situation.
Think about the last time you had a stressful day at work, and hours later you continued feeling emotionally activated (fight, flight, or freeze) when you got home.
We learn to pretend otherwise, but have you had a tantrum?
Or avoid a career-making move for fear of ridicule; or avoid looking for a new job because it makes you feel uncertain; or avoid writing an article because it might not be “good enough”?
All of this is “normal.”
Logically, we understand none of the above situations are deadly to us.
But, when our nervous system gets dysregulated, we don’t feel safe and logic doesn’t produce change.
What to do then?
Sarah, the health coach, was having a really hard time promoting her brand-new business.
She’d enrolled in programs, got credentials, and workspace; but when it was time to start promoting herself, the problem began.
When she ventured out into the world and didn’t receive the response she was expecting, she decided it was time for a new course and more delays.
Sarah was growing very frustrated, and her savings were dwindling.
“Maybe it was a mistake to spend all that money on my training,” she said feeling particularly frustrated and embarrassed with herself.
“This has happened to me in the past. Maybe I’m the kind of person who never finishes things,” she said almost sobbing.
As she kept procrastinating, her mind kept telling her stories.
But our evolution works in spirals.
We’re meant to find ourselves in similar places where we’ve been, to learn new lessons, go deeper, or learn to be kinder and patient with ourselves.
When Sarah understood this, she took some of the pressure off, and became curious about self-regulation, turtle steps and self-kindness.
She did 5 minutes of the 4-7-8 breath every morning.
Sarah also started doing some somatic check-ins.
Every time she felt the drive to disconnect by procrastinating, she would close her eyes and ask herself, what am I feeling? and sat with the sensory answer.
She found some sensations she came to identify as fear in her chest. She sat with it, without having to change anything.
She just honored her feelings, the same way she honors her child’s feelings.
Then, she would remind herself that she now has the resources to overcome obstacles and that her adult-self was choosing not to hide anymore, the way she did when she was younger.
By doing this simple practice, Sarah started taking action.
At first, “turtle” steps, but eventually her courage grew, and she was able to put herself “out there” and started growing her business.
She also learned to be patient with herself and took the curiosity approach: When something didn’t work in her business, she will frame it as a learning experience and not as failure.
Sarah’s drive to procrastinate is still present, but as she gets busier, she continues to do her daily check-ins to self-regulate and avoid procrastinating.
“There is a co-relation between treating myself with kindness and getting things done. Who knew?” Sarah said, with a big hopeful smile.