Avoiding the deadly confluence of procrastination and self-destruction
April 13, 2009 1:56 PM   Subscribe

I have Important Things I Have To Do, but I'm having trouble doing them. Instead, I find myself wanting to do a variety of plainly self-destructive things. This happens to me a lot-- but why, and how do I deal with it?

The more important the task at hand, the closer the dead line, the worse it gets. I absolutely need to get something done, but instead I start doing really dumb shit.

This is different from the "ordinary procrastination" that I also experience, where I do enjoyable or neutral stuff (like watching movies, surfing the internet, reading for pleasure, cleaning house) instead of my work. Instead, I want to things that not only distract me from what I need to do but actively interfere with my ability to perform: getting drunk or high at ten in the morning, eating candy until I feel like I'm gonna puke, taking OTC sleeping pills and spending the whole day in bed.

This second, particularly ruinous kind of procrastination is more likely to happen when the thing that needs doing is especially important or daunting. Obviously there is some element of anxiety here that is disabling me. But why does it manifest itself so disastrously?

Therapy would probably be a good idea and I'm looking into it. But I don't have insurance, blah blah blah, and it'll probably take a while for me to get things rolling. In the mean time I have Very Important Things To Do, so how can I deal with this problem right now? Any insights into causes or advice about solutions is welcome. Thank you.
posted by anonymous to Grab Bag (21 answers total) 66 users marked this as a favorite
You don't say what it is you have to do, but if possible, have you tried breaking the task into much much smaller, more mundane pieces? Doing that and making exhaustive lists really help me break through what sounds like similar lapses of crippling procrastination. Giving myself rewards for getting through phases of the task also helps, even though it sounds juvenile.

And yes, therapy would be a very good thing to look into. Obviously, something psychological is making you want to be self-destructive instead of productive.
posted by scarykarrey at 2:07 PM on April 13, 2009

Obviously you have a perfectionistic personaility and are afraid of failure (the more challenging the task, the more destructive the distraction). The bonus of a destructive distraction is that if it actually injures you or makes you sick, you have a bona fide reason for not completing the task. (or so you are subconsciously telling yourself)

How do you stop? Hmmm...harder. If you can recognize what you're doing and tell yourself just to jump in and do the task EVEN IF YOU DO IT WRONG, then maybe once you've broken the bad routine, the next time will be easier...and the next even easier, etc.
posted by Eicats at 2:08 PM on April 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

Right Now, you need accountability to someone else; someone who will check in on you to make sure you're not drunk or sleeping at 2 pm. It must be someone whose opinion and relationship you value, someone you fear disappointing. You don't have to tell them the whole backstory, just tell them you've got to get XYZ done by Friday and you need their help in making sure you get it done.

Long term, you obviously need therapy if you're doing actively self-destructive things, but you knew that.
posted by desjardins at 2:26 PM on April 13, 2009

Try to make yourself do whatever you need to do (in order of the most daunting to the least) first thing in the morning. Just wake up and do it. Plan what you are going to do the night before. Maybe you should start with doing small tasks first thing in the morning to get yourself in the habit of wake up, do something.

Who knows? You may just still be able to smoke a bowl by 10am, having already accomplished something. And at that point you can revel in your self-satisfaction and it will be so very enjoyable.
posted by sickinthehead at 2:59 PM on April 13, 2009

Oh, and before you even do your thing, an excellent habit to get into is to wake up, shower, and get ready for the day (fully, including putting on shoes). Do that, THEN do your task at hand. I find if I am fully ready to go first thing after waking up I feel much more capable of accomplishment.
posted by sickinthehead at 3:01 PM on April 13, 2009 [4 favorites]

Just force yourself to start. Take yourself to the library, lock yourself out of the internet, and just surf through the terrible agonizing feelings (fear of failure?) that cause you to avoid starting. Seriously, there's nothing we can tell you that in the short run is going to make this horribly daunting and fearful task somehow easy and relaxing to deal with. But you can gird yourself up like a warrior and just face that terrible beast, one word, one paragraph, at a time.
posted by salvia at 3:46 PM on April 13, 2009

You sound like tasks make you extremely anxious, so you're self medicating. The best advice I can see, in light of a super evil task, is the timer method. Set a timer for thirty minutes. Do work. Set a timer for fifteen minutes. Take a break. Repeat until task is done, or next meal time.

I find that as a highly anxious person, breaking the task down into tiny parts doesn't help (since breaking it down is a task in its self), but the irrational fear of the task can be mildly mitigated based on the assurance that regardless of my work volume I only have to finish thirty minutes (or 15, or whatever) and then I will get up and pace around like a lunatic to blow off tension. Otherwise, like you, goofing off doing something bad for me is not unheard of.
posted by Phalene at 3:51 PM on April 13, 2009

Consider making to do lists in priority order at the beginning of every day. Just proceed down the list - you're not allowed to skip over to the easy low priority stuff until you've accomplished 1, 2 etc.
posted by Spacelegoman at 3:52 PM on April 13, 2009

I'm one of those deadline-driven procrastinators, to a fault. It's stressful and I always end up jamming things out at the eleventh hour. I find that explicit deadlines are helpful, as well as turning off external distractions (except for maybe NPR). Lists sometimes help, but so does allowing some "I can screw around until 10, but then I have to work for two hours" rule setting.
posted by sadiehawkinstein at 4:07 PM on April 13, 2009

A List to anon:

This is self destructive behavior.
• often this is because we don't want to do the task.
• often we dislike the person who 'gave' us the task

You're fully aware you don't want to do it. Eff them you say.

There are consequences - to your ego, to your success.

Start using a countdown timer. Every 10 min. Make yourself aware of the time (all the time) - and become more aware of the 'losage' of time.

Figure out the smallest thing you can do to get something to move forward. Likely, you're also not sure where to start. Figuring out where to start (and what hte next action is) really pushing things forward. Sometimes it's just to figure out what to do next. Most people struggle with tasks (and feel frustrated) when they don't know wha the next actual step is.

Do you say in your head "It's almost 3pm, I'll start then. Just one more game of...". Nope. Start now.

Last, and maybe, most important - figure out the best outcome of the task. Keep the goal in focus.

Read Getting things done by David Allen.
posted by filmgeek at 4:24 PM on April 13, 2009

My father used to recommend entrusting a friend with a painfully large check made out to a cause you despise. The friend is instructed to mail the check if you fail to complete the task by the deadline. Apparently there are now web-based services that fulfill this function, e.g., StickK and others.
posted by carmicha at 4:28 PM on April 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

Sometimes it helps me to try to do something in a different way that takes the edge off. When I can't start a paper, I'll close my eyes and start typing (yes, I touch type). Somehow, not seeing what I'm writing as I'm writing loosens me up to just let the words out (and it's always easier, at least for me, to edit than to write).

Another thing to try might be peer pressure. A friend of mine created 'the homework game.' Yes, this was in post graduate school. Basically you both commit to working on something for a certain amount of time (shorter chunks works better), and then you have to check in with your progress. This is best in person but can be done over IM as well.

Good luck!
posted by Salamandrous at 4:40 PM on April 13, 2009

Sounds like you feel so horrible on the inside about procrastinating, you're making your outside feel awful too. I think sometimes our minds are suffering so much, we cause ourselves harm to make the internal pain feel less. When I'm in as bad a shape as you are, I randomly visualize myself getting horrible injuries and I do neglect taking care of my hair and teeth. I've also been known to take an ativan to sleep all day. So I really get where you're coming from.

Someone here recommended the book The Now Habit, and I went out and bought it that day. It's seriously the best book I've ever read about procrastination- it addresses why we do it, how we do it, and why it's so freaking hard to stop doing it. (It's a very supportive book in that it made me realize I'm not a worthless, bad, lazy person, I'm just too hard on myself and too scared by big tasks.) It tells you how to stop procrastinating using a wide variety of techniques. When I follow them, I find them to be very effective. But tackling the underlying reasons for why you procrastinate (fear or failure, fear of success, fear of mediocrity, etc) may be cause for some therapy. I certainly had a hard time figuring it out on my own.

In the short term, I'll give you a trick from the book. Begin your work, starting wherever you feel comfortable starting and work for 30 mins. Record on a calendar that you accomplished 30 minutes of quality work. Go do something fun. Then go back and do another 30 minutes, record it when you're done. This "unschedule" really works for me because scheduling times to work is pretty stressful, but using the unschedule I can really track how much work I've done. It helps me be a hell of a lot more realistic about how I'm spending my time.

Good luck, and feel better. (Sorry this got so long!)
posted by Mouse Army at 4:55 PM on April 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

Start by doing a purposefully half-assed job.

I used to sit in front of the computer for, no joke, 8-12hours at a time, agonizingly starting and restarting the same sentence in a sort of perfectionistic purgatory. Now, I do the half-hour-at-a-time thing that others have suggested, and I specifically tell myself that I'm going to bang out as much half-processed drivel as I can: half-sentences, a few different starts to the same paragraph one under another, etc., just going as fast as I can. I find that once the barrier to starting is broken, it's easier to rearrange my thoughts and get into the task of cleaning things up. I've also found this helps for starting things like Important Forms I Have to Fill Out (e.g. tax return, applications to things I really really want to get into), and other such things when the thought of having to gather the necessary paperwork, make a good impression etc. makes me feel paralyzed.

Now if only I could make my internet breaks last less than 3 hours at a time . . .
posted by TheLittlestRobot at 5:28 PM on April 13, 2009 [15 favorites]

I feel your pain. I've never really conquered this problem, but one thing that works for me when I think to do it is to make a schedule. Before you laugh and say "that won't work for me" know that I am definitely not one to make or keep to-do lists or dayplanners. It's embarrassing, but I'm one of the few people I know who doesn't even really write down the times I have meetings (this has fucked me in jobs to the point where I started putting meetings in a google calendar, but only recently). So, believe me, I feel you.

However, when I know I have something Really Big and Important to do, I will force myself to sit down with a calendar of the the time I have before it needs to be done, and block out my hours (I usually make this calendar by hand, since I don't keep a dayplanner). I make a grid with the days on top and my waking hours on the left. You can do this in Excel, but I find it's somehow more effective if I do it by hand. I block out the times I have other obligations - meetings, appointments, social obligations, whatever. Then I block out time to eat, exercise, and - this is important! - goof off. The sitting around time is important.

Only once I've scheduled everything else do I look at the Big Scary Project and try figure out how long it will take. This does involve breaking it into smaller tasks, which is The Procrastinator's least favorite activity. But just do it roughly. Figure out roughly when you want each part done, and how long it will take. Add those up and multiply by 2, just in case. Then look at your empty blocks of time and look to see if you have enough blocks of time to get everything done. If so, awesome. If not, you'll have to juggle your schedule a bit, but try not to get rid of all your goofing-off time, because without it on the schedule, you will be tempted to goof off when you're supposed to be working.

Finally, fill in the rest of your schedule with each task - not just "Big Scary Project" but each of the tasks in the order you think you'll need to do them. You might want to do this part in pencil so you can readjust as certain things take more or less time than you expected.

I think this works for me because it's temporary. It's scary to see my schedule so full, but it's also reassuring, in a way, because I know it's just for this one big push, and it's also reassuring because I can tell myself, "If I just do everything it says on this schedule, when it says to do it, I'll be ok." Which helps with the perfectionism - the only thing I worry about doing perfectly is following this schedule. I psych myself that if I do that, everything else will fall into place, and you know, it usually does.
posted by wholebroad at 5:49 PM on April 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

Oh, and! For the more self-destructive stuff, you might want to follow the Seinfeld method. Get a real calendar, and for every day that you don't procrastinate by doing something self-destructive, put a big red X in that day's box.
posted by wholebroad at 5:53 PM on April 13, 2009

TheLittlestRobot , if I could triple-favorite your post, I would.

Gonna try to give some tasks a half-assed effort tomorrow!
posted by IAmBroom at 9:06 PM on April 13, 2009

I'm not a psychologist. But if you want an explanation for your actions, I have one idea.

It's possible you're behaving this way as an act of rebellion. If you think you should do something, your natural reaction is to push against it. Oftentimes what's forbidden is enticing precisely because it's forbidden.

You assert your dominance over your obligations by flagrantly ignoring them.

You also crave the thrill that's involved. You enjoy the rush, as well as the relief that follows—whether or not you actually complete the task on time, the end result is that you're still alive, alive to procrastinate another day.

If this is so, the solution might be to recognize this is the way you are, and accept the situation. Don't think of your activities as obligations that are placed on your external factors, but rather a choice you must make. Decide for yourself whether this Very Important Thing is indeed very important. What would happen if you didn't do it? What would happen if you did? Do the pros of doing the thing actually outweigh the cons? If they don't, then drop it. If they do, then you may decide to go forward.

If you do decide to do this task, set a time to begin. Think of a time when you won't have any distractions. Write that time down. Think ahead of anything that might come up that will block your task, and be prepared for it. Write it down. When you hit that time, go for it.

Actually write down the time, and the reasons. Unless you've decided not to. If you have, do as you've chosen.
posted by Busoni at 11:53 AM on April 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

I HAVE THIS EXACT SAME PROBLEM! I am 45, have a decent career, an advanced degree and it is all mediocre because I barely manage to get things done. I have seen several therapists and nothing worked. I have gone to seminars, read books, etc. I have struggled with this for years.

Finally, I have made progress. My last therapist, a psychiatrist, said I don't have a procrastination or ADD problem, I have an anxiety disorder. I am taking Effexor XL and I am 80% better. I love it.

I also changed my job from big picture stuff (marketing manager) to more task-oriented, small-step stuff. A BIG improvement.

By the way, were your parents volatile perfectionists? I attribute my problem to a sort of learned helplessness/damned if you, damned if you don't childhood. No matter what I did, it was wrong and then everyone over-reacted. I have met other adults with similar experiences and we have so much in common it is scary.

Good luck and God bless you, and while you are at it, forgive yourself.
posted by BeachBear90814 at 2:35 PM on April 14, 2009 [4 favorites]

Update: TheLittlestRobot's "half-assed job" method allowed me to do exercises, my Chinese lesson, and work on both the two ceiling lights and the raised-bed garden prep, for two solid days now.

posted by IAmBroom at 11:43 PM on April 15, 2009

Sometimes we need to think and realize that our feelings of doom before beginning a project are only on the first step and we need to isolate the feelings from our project and push through the first step.

That's one piece.

The second piece is
Akin to people having writer's block. Turns out it's the approach they have towards themselves that's writer's block. How are you asking yourself to do things? Are you asking or telling or commanding yourself? Like Albert Ellis would say You're Should-ing on yourself! Take a look at that and try and convert those message by first paying attention to them, recognizing them for what they are, and then attempting to change them.
posted by iNfo.Pump at 9:42 PM on January 23, 2010

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