Procrastination—Anxiously Trying to Hold Back the Future [51]

By Dr. Keith Witt
March 25, 2012
iStock_000009447353XSmallJason is a successful lawyer in his mid forties, sitting in my office in a frozen state of procrastination. In most of his life, Jason takes charge and stays fully resolved. His work gets done, his body gets exercised, and he shows up for his son’s games and parent conferences. What has him immobilized and unresolved is his inability to sell his boat and slip in the Santa Barbara harbor—something he knows he needs to do, but just can’t bring himself to start. When I ask, “Why not?” Jason says, “I just don’t want to deal with it.” Whenever the subject shows up, anxiety floods through him and Jason shuts down. Some psychologists suggest the three sources of procrastination are avoiding something aversive, vague or weak intentions, and being easily distracted. Most agree the basic solution is challenging the self-deception inherent in all three, and getting on with taking care of business. I agree with these constructs, but think the deeper issue of procrastination involves our relationship with the future—a relationship that only we self-aware humans (existing simultaneously in the past, present and future) can have. In general, anxiety reflects fear of the future, with procrastination as a prime mechanism for keeping the future at bay—literally trying to hold back the future. This is one reason we’re often reluctant to get specific about what we’re anxious about—if we turn a general anxiety into a specific fear it becomes harder to avoid action to move forward. But, even when we identify a specific fear and what we need to do about it, some of us reflexively procrastinate—often with variants of “I don’t want to deal with it right now,” “I’ll get to it later,” or, “Maybe I can get someone else to do it.” Later in the session, Jason and I discuss this more deeply: Jason: “I’ve been feeling uneasy the last week. It’s been hard to concentrate.” Keith: “Has anything specific been on your mind?” Jason: “I don’t know. It’s been hard to go down to the harbor.” Keith: “Really—you used to love hanging out at the harbor. What’s been hard?” Jason: “Well…I know I have to sell the boat and slip. I don’t sail anymore. Tom [his son] never liked sailing to begin with. Money’s tight and it’s time to do it.” Keith: “So, you’re procrastinating selling your boat?” Jason replies, looking out at my garden and lowering his voice: “I guess.” I can feel how Jason doesn’t want to talk about this. He’s attention is wavering as he palpably resists examining a sell-the-boat future. As usual, there is something deeper below the surface: Keith: “What does it mean to you to sell the boat and slip?” Jason: Tearing up: “Sandy [his wife who died eighteen months ago] and I had some of our best times on the boat. I suppose it’s another way of saying, ‘goodbye.’” Keith: I sit quietly for a minute, comfortably connected with this good man. It’s important to honor grief. Big losses deserve grief—nervous systems usually mark the loss of someone who’s gone with the denial, bargaining, depression, anger, acceptance cycle that Elizabeth Kublai Ross made famous—and grief is our natural path to integrating the new world created by loss. “We’ve talked a lot about how hard it’s been to accept Sandy’s death.” Jason: Resisting the future: “Selling the boat seems like such a final step. Another part of our life that’s gone.” He suddenly brightens up. “Though, I have to say, talking about doing it sounds good. Maybe selling the boat will actually help.” Keith: “I’ve found that embracing the future is usually the best way to go, and that procrastinating actually amplifies dread.” Jason: “What? You mean like, ‘A coward dies a thousand deaths, but a brave man only one?’” Keith, laughing a little: “That’s a little harsh—but, yes, that’s what I mean. Putting stuff off just increases anxiety. That’s why procrastination—even though we do it to reduce tension in the short run—creates vastly more distress in the long run.” Jason: Suddenly resolved and more upbeat: “All right! I’ll list it this week!” Keith: “Great idea! Though, remember, there’s a part of you still trying to talk yourself out of it. If you don’t call today, you’ll probably have to struggle a little harder to do it tomorrow, and so on. That’s the secret of dealing with procrastination—indulging impulses to avoid important action can create phobic avoidance, while resolved action in the face of fear cultivates courage. Courage is doing what’s right even though we’re scared or resistant.” This is a typical procrastination conversation. When you get to what’s really happening—resisting the future by practicing a bad habit of avoidance—it becomes easier to figure out what the underlying issues are and resolve to do what needs to be done. Also, like Jason feeling better about listing his boat, deciding to take action is assertive action, which reduces anxiety. It also illustrates procrastination as a potentially deadly habit—the more you practice it, the more deeply embedded the habit becomes. Research shows that the closer we get to having to do something scary, the more we try to talk ourselves out of it, so allowing procrastination as an option predisposes us to opt out of responsibilities as we approach action. Back in the seventies, we found that three states of consciousness dramatically reduced anxiety: sexual arousal, deep relaxation, and assertion. This led to lots of anxiety reduction approaches using deep relaxation and assertive action. For years in the seventies and eighties I taught assertion training groups where people learned how to face their fears, plan and practice effective action, and then go into the world and make things happen. In retrospect, assertion training presaged the numerous manifestation systems that have followed over the years—many of which I discuss in detail in my book Mindful Manifestation, which we’ll be e-publishing later this year. Sex sidebar: Sexual arousal as a fear reducer is more complicated than relaxation and assertion, since anxiety initially blocks sexual arousal until you get turned on enough to stop being anxious, and sexual arousal makes us more impulsive, reckless, and focused specifically on sex (potential problems in some situations, don’t you think?). Also, most couples know how procrastination can figure into sexual arousal (like, “Let’s stay in bed and not work in the yard this morning.”). When Jason engaged in assertive action—the firm decision to list his boat—his distress plummeted. In subsequent sessions, the theme of not indulging procrastination became increasingly important—until finally Jason began using the impulse to procrastinate as a cue to be especially sure to get something done. This is how we turn bad habits like procrastination into opportunities for growth and development. It’s useless to resist the future! We do much better embracing the future and doing what it takes to make a good future happen. If we notice procrastination and use it to guide us to self-reflection and assertive action, we’re effectively turning one of our most dangerous capacities—avoiding the future through procrastination—into a strength, where the impulse to procrastinate leads to insight, creation, and growth.

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