How to stop digging myself unnecessary holes?
June 27, 2011 7:40 PM   Subscribe

Mildly self-destructive behavior: why do I do this and how do I stop?

I don't do the big self-destructive things. I don't drink too much or take drugs or cut myself or quit jobs for no
reason or commit crimes or acquire eating disorders or sleep all day.

But. When I have things I need to get done, which is pretty much all the time, I will sabotage myself
juuuuuust enough so that doing the thing is much harder and more stressful than it needs to be. For example,
if I have something simple to do for work that's due Friday, I will sit around until Thursday before I start. Even if I have nothing at all to do on Monday and Tuesday, I just won't work on it. That makes Thursday more stressful than the project demands, and also makes it so that if I happen to get assigned more work on Thursday, I can't do it. (Or I can do it, but I have to cram and freak out.) Another example: I have to lose weight. I'll think to myself, "well I don't really have to start watching what I eat until next week, because if I start next week that still leaves me enough time to fit into my dress by the date of that wedding." So then I lose a good week of progress, during which I could have lost 3 lbs and felt better about myself, and sometimes it stretches into two weeks. And then I feel like a sloth and have that much further to go. And if I get invited to a party three weeks before that wedding, I don't want to go because I'm fat.

I always hand in my work on time. I always eventually get the personal stuff done, but it can take months or years
instead of the weeks I know I could do it in. And none of these things are particularly difficult or unpleasant or
challenging for me. I really like most of what I have to do for work, genuinely enjoy it, but I can't do it when it would be easier. I'm very prepared, motivated, and ready to lose weight, and I actually sort of like counting calories and eating healthy foods, I just...don't do it until I HAVE TO. That goes for other personal improvement type actions too. I do not like stress and I do not thrive under pressure. I can cope with those things, but I'm by no means an adrenaline junkie trying to get some excitement into my life this way.

I am a procrastinator, and this is maybe part procrastination, but it feels different. It feels like there's some negative impulse that's making me make stuff harder for myself, and that feels different from my usual "Whatever, I'll do it later" procrastination. I'm quite organized and I never lose track of when things are due or scheduled to happen, so it's not like I'm bad with time. I'm pretty content with my day to day life, I'm not depressed or sad. I feel like I'm making myself problems just in case I don't have enough already. And though I'm pretty content, it's not like I don't have any problems. I don't need to make my life harder out of guilt or anything, is what I mean. If I wanted to dwell on the hard parts, life is hard enough.

This behavior is not new, but it feels like I do it more in the past year or so than I used to. (I'm in my early 30s,
female if it matters.) Usually I'm very self-aware and know why I do the strange things I do, but in this case, I'm
not sure.

Has anyone dealt with this in your own life? What did you do? And please don't say therapy. I can and do function with this annoying habit, I just feel like I could function better. Though suggestions of therapy-like books or techniques are fine. As are any experiences you've had, changes you've made in this regard, or anything else you think would be helpful.

posted by anonymous to Human Relations (21 answers total) 86 users marked this as a favorite
Do smaller pieces of whatever it is. Like don't put this line in the sand where you eat cake and bacon up until this one day, and then it's all salads and stairmaster after that. If you're committing to making a change, have some watermelon instead of candy, and take a walk instead of having another drink, or whatever it is, and go gradually from there. Same with all the other goals.
posted by sweetkid at 7:47 PM on June 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

I get over procrastination by making a list of things to do. I break this list down into really small increments, I even include "Make To-Do List" at the top. Then I cross things off. Oh the joy of crossing things off. It also helps me to just do one little thing rather than thinking about the project as a whole.
posted by magnetsphere at 7:51 PM on June 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

So maybe not therapy, but a lot of what you describe could be on the ADD spectrum. A good book on coping with this type of behavior is Driven from Distraction.
posted by xingcat at 7:52 PM on June 27, 2011

I got over this by eventually having so much to do that I literally didn't have time to procrastinate and still get stuff done. And yeah, that description still feels like my procrastination problem to me. But, if things ever slow down a lot, I still relapse, sometimes.

I don't know how/whether that helps, but you're not alone.
posted by J. Wilson at 7:53 PM on June 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have this tendency too - for me it's because I feel like I've made so much more of an accomplishment when I get it done under the wire and it still turns out well. What's fun about getting something done with time to spare when you can totally sweat it?

I've slowly learned to turn this need for a challenge into making things more difficult from the outset - rather than sabotaging to make them more difficult for an under the wire finish. I've tried both the "mature" way of getting things done in a timely manner so that I can go to bed at a reasonable hour and not be a basket case and then compared it to the feeling of pulling it out at the last minute. On the whole, being able to go to bed at a reasonable hour was so much more satisfying than the two days wasted sitting around doing nothing so that I then had to haul ass to get finished.

On weight loss, that's different for me. I do well in the morning, but the night time snackies try to do me in. Recently, I've resorted to just not having junk food in the house so as to not even tempt the beast. That seems to be working.
posted by Leezie at 7:54 PM on June 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's good to hear I'm not the only one.

I first noticed it in college, I think, where I would put off long-term assignments until I had just enough time to get it done, to the point where I'd on occasion drive to an office supply store to get a report printed or whatever and then directly from there to class to turn it in.

I still do this. One thing that has helped considerably, is what sweetkid and magnetsphere said, breaking something down into smaller bits. I'm a devotee of David Allen's "Getting Things Done" methodology, which advocates both breaking things down into the smallest chunks possible and doing things that only take a small amount of time right away. Those two things help a lot.

There's still a bit of a "but I can do that later" hump to get over, but "call Sue" or "collect dirty dishes from rest of apartment" or whatever are a lot smaller commitments than "plan yearly weeklong retreat (that begins with calling Sue to ask for the finalized dates)" or "clean entire apartment".
posted by brentajones at 7:59 PM on June 27, 2011

Also, just so you know, I don't know that this behavior is particularly "self destructive." There isn't a spectrum on which procrastination is a low end and cutting is a high end. They're not elements of the same behavior.
posted by sweetkid at 8:11 PM on June 27, 2011

For me it was avoidance. Not really of the tasks I was putting off but usually something much worse that I didn't want to deal with or think about. Procrastinating ensured that I never had the time or energy to deal with the big things (that felt beyond my control, anyway). I still do this sometimes--it's a habit, but I know why now. You could just try to figure out what the pay off is, if anything.
posted by marimeko at 8:22 PM on June 27, 2011 [11 favorites]

When I do that type of thing (and boy do I do it a lot), it's usually because I'm worried I'll fail at it. What happens if I can't lose the weight as quickly as I hope, or if the term paper isn't up to snuff, or if the house can't get as clean as I'd like it, or if I don't learn this skill as quickly as I want? Starting is just the first step to a bad ending, so I put off starting. Sometimes it's not about the task itself, but I'd prefer not to worry about something else and so instead I procrastinate in order to create a distraction. In both situations, the thing I'm avoiding can be either a major panic-inducing situation or just a persistant worry small enough that I don't notice until I really stare at it.

To-do lists have helped make seemingly amorphous tasks more concrete, as has breaking them down into component parts. I'm also working at recognizing the bad habits that contribute to the worry, which in my case is a persistant negative background commentary. A lot of what you wrote in your section about putting off the weight loss sounds a lot like my "I'm not efficient enough" commentary I'm trying to train myself away from. For me, acknowledging the thoughts (as in, "I guess I'm worried this project will be awful," not "that's a stupid thought, I'm so awful for thinking it") helps relieve at least some of the pressure to procrastinate. The negative commentary is useful in that it helps me get everything done the night before it's due, but I've discovered training myself away from that habit gives me the energy to get the tasks done sooner in the first place.
posted by lilac girl at 8:24 PM on June 27, 2011 [10 favorites]

For me, leaving things to the last minute is not (just) about avoidance or procrastination. I literally enjoy working for hours at a stretch, fully engaged, at the very limits of my ability to complete something. I think it's what they call "flow". But I won't do it without a looming deadline. (I guess because I also enjoy lying on the couch surfing the internet, and if the choice is between that and a non-flowy measured stint of work, I know what I'll pick.) So I put things off until near deadline in order to engender that flow feeling of total absorption in the work and a heroic race against time.

I'm learning to live with it. Structured procrastination works quite well, in that I put off those major tasks by doing smaller important tasks. So it's not like I'm totally wasting time while I wait around for the right moment to start the big stuff.

I don't know if this is you, or how it fits in with the diet stuff, though.
posted by lollusc at 8:35 PM on June 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Part(s) of you does not want to do whatever it is that you're trying to do. Instead of trying to dismiss or overpower that part (which, as you clearly see, is ineffective), you need to talk with it, probe into its concerns, and gently see if they can't be accommodated. Is that part of you skeptical that you'll ever reach the goal, or that it would be worth the pain, or that even if the goal was reached, that the goal would be worth it? Is it tired or hungry or annoyed at some other aspect of the situation? Talk with yourself.
posted by shivohum at 8:49 PM on June 27, 2011

So I'm a big Myers-Briggs fan. You sound nearly 100% perceiver. Not only will you put stuff off until the last minute, you'll actually get *much* better ideas when you do wait...pressure=inspiration for perceivers. It's okay to be that way - a lot of your problem appears to be this idea that there's something wrong with you. There's not. It's a function of personality. You can change it, but it'll be like working with your non-dominant hand. And over time you may see the patterns shift, especially if you're under 25 (the brain is still reorganising until then).

The best thing I found to deal with it was to convince myself that things were actually due sooner than they were. I then get it done and have that rush of inspiration but still have time to catch any silly errors I made a few days later when I turn it in.

For the diet, give yourself little deadlines: today I'll skip the coke with lunch. Tomorrow no coke + 10 mins walking. Keep it managable and low-risk so if you don't get it done there's no shame cycle.

Anything is possible in small increments.

Memail me if you want Myers-Briggs resources.
posted by guster4lovers at 10:14 PM on June 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

No one is perfect, and it sounds like when you really need to get something done, you do.

However, if you get to the point where you start not meeting deadlines or find yourself overwhelmed because there just seems like so much to do and you can't break it down and manage it, I'd consider talking to someone about this problem. Because when I hear you say that it's getting worse lately, it sounds just like my own experience.

In my case, I blamed my avoidance on my depression/hypothyroidism. I figured as long as I met my deadlines, I wouldn't worry about it. But then I started missing deadlines, appointments. I'd always had this dislike for routines, doing the same thing every day in the same way. Now, though, I found it hard even to stick to things like exercising regularly. I'd let little things go until they became bigger problems, and then I'd let them go because they'd become too much to tackle all at once. I started slacking on the housework and the laundry.

I couldn't ignore the negative impact this was having on my life. Though I didn't feel depressed or suicidal, I was just overwhelmed by all the day-to-day stuff everyone else seemed to manage just fine. And that's when I made an appointment with my psychiatrist.

I know, you don't want to hear that. But we went through a lot of history, and, to cut a long story short, I've since been diagnosed with ADD. All these little issues I'd always had--procrastinating, skipping from one thing to another, not organizing or prioritizing like I should--they were part of a bigger picture.

You really do sound like you are coping just fine, but if any of this rings a bell, I've really been helped by the diagnosis and the ADD medication, and I have developed systems that work for me again. I do still procrastinate sometimes, but I'm also pleasantly surprised at how easily I'm managing all that stuff that used to seem like Such a Big Deal now. So if you don't want to see somebody, at least reading up on ADD might help.
posted by misha at 12:06 AM on June 28, 2011

Therapy is not just for those who can't function. It's also a way of dealing with annoying "habits" such as you are describing. Why suffer with this alone because you think it's not bad enough to treat?
posted by Obscure Reference at 12:07 AM on June 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

i was going to mention myers-briggs but it's already been mentioned above. i've found it a very powerful tool that helped me make sense of my inherent behaviourial traits, and see them, at least in part, as positives rather than negatives. worth exploring.
posted by ascullion at 1:48 AM on June 28, 2011

This sounds like me (and probably a lot of other people). I'm reading through The Now Habit, as recommended by so many here on this site. You might want to check it out.
posted by Busoni at 8:43 AM on June 28, 2011

I have no solution to your issue, but I share it myself and I have found it getting worse over time. I completed my grad school thesis the night before it was due and successfully defended a few weeks later. Now that I have no deadlines for writing, nothing gets finished. I have been seeing a therapist, but I haven't found his approach helpful. The MBTI may have something useful to say. I know I'm an INTP.

I think therapy can help and I'm currently searching for a new therapist.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 8:56 AM on June 28, 2011

I'm so like this. Since having my son 3 1/2 mos. ago, I've actually found myself kind of paradoxically better at getting things done since I only have those 15 minutes RIGHT NOW to do it and I don't know when I'll ever get time again. I absolutely can't procrastinate, which I certainly did more than my fair share of before.

One thing that's absolutely helped is to make a to-do list (I use Epic Win on my iPhone) with the smallest tasks possible. Seriously, giving the baby a bath is a task. It not only helps me stay focused, but it helps remind me of how many things I do get done in a day which helps keep my self-esteem up on days when I feel like I'm just treading water.
posted by sonika at 1:41 PM on June 28, 2011

I'm like this to some extent too. One thing that has helped me, not so much on getting started on a project in the first place so much as keeping at it once I've started, is to not stop at a "natural stopping point." Normally, even if I do feel particularly ambitious and get started on something well before I need to, then I later have a tendency to get partway through it and put it aside then not come back to it until I absolutely have to.

So one trick I use to combat that is to stop right in the middle of a step. When it's getting to be the end of the work day, or lunch time, or break time, or bedtime, or whatever comes up that you need to stop working for a while, don't stop at the end of something. If you're breaking tasks down into a bunch of little steps, as others have suggested, don't stop at the end of a step, stop in the middle of one. If you're writing, don't stop at the end of a chapter or section, stop in the middle of one, or better yet, in the middle of a paragraph or even the middle of a sentence.

I find it so much easier to start back up again when there's this half-finished bit sitting there than when I've stopped at a "natural stopping point."
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 2:46 PM on June 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Lots of good ideas on dealing with procrastination by Nancy Ratey, ADHD coach, here and here.
posted by islandeady at 1:29 AM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think shivohum is right - there's something going on that's getting in your way, and asking yourself about that, with compassionate, is likely to help.

Is there any part of this that's about really needing that time when you're NOT doing the responsible thing? Maybe if you made commitments to yourself to have down time, or one day a week when you don't have to be as disciplined about your diet (for example, in the No S Diet, you can eat whatever you want on Saturdays and Sundays), you'd feel reassured that you would have that slack in the future and you'd feel better about diving in NOW.
posted by kristi at 10:46 AM on June 29, 2011

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