Sometimes when I need to do certain tasks, especially emailing superiors, I get a lot of anxiety about it, which causes me to procrastinate on it, which causes *DAYS* to go by, just causing me more anxiety and more procrastination. What can I do to stop this cycle?
May 8, 2012 12:31 AM   Subscribe

Sometimes when I need to do certain tasks, especially emailing superiors, I get a lot of anxiety about it, which causes me to procrastinate on it, which causes *DAYS* to go by, just causing me more anxiety and more procrastination. What can I do to stop this cycle?

Recently, I needed to email a few professors about getting letters of recommendation from them for my residency application. I procrastinated on it because I was a little worried to email them, but then I bit the bullet and did it, and they both got back to me without any hesitation. This was early last week.

I needed to email them back to set up times to meet with them. However, because of the anxiety about this, I used the fact that I needed to drive home as an excuse to not email them back immediately. Then, once I got home, I felt anxious that I hadn't emailed them back and knew that I should email them ASAP, but the anxiety caused me to procrastinate on it. And now, a whole week has gone by, and I still haven't emailed them, and I've been sitting at my computer for the last many hours knowing that I need to email them but feeling super scared that because so many days have gone by, they're going to think that I'm a jackass for having gotten back to them so late, so I've been wasting huge amounts of time just dicking around, not doing what I know I need to do!

I know the solution to my current problem is to do this RIGHT NOW. Stop typing, look at the emails, email them something RIGHT NOW. And that's what I'm going to do. But please, someone tell me what I can do the next time this situation comes up to not let things get this far along before emailing back! Help me think of new ways to think about this problem, or steps I can use when this problem occurs next, to prevent this from happening again!

TL;DR: I get anxious about corresponding with superiors, causing me to procrastinate on that. Then, I get more anxious because I feel that they'll see me as an asshole for not responding in a timely fashion, so I procrastinate even more. Help me think of new ways to think about this problem, or steps I can use when this problem occurs next, to prevent this from happening again!
posted by 254blocks to Grab Bag (24 answers total) 103 users marked this as a favorite
I have this problem too, and it really is something that's kept me from accomplishing big or important or even just FUN stuff with my life. If you can manage it, you might want to look into therapy for anxiety - my friend had similar problems to me but at a flunking-out-of-uni level of debilitating, but now he's on meds for anxiety with monthly shrink check-ins and his life is MASSIVELY improved, even if he is still a big time procrastinator like me.

Anyway, when push comes to shove I will sometimes ask a friend to nag me. It seems a little silly, but it really does usually work. "Mizu, I see that you're on IM! If you don't show me proof of having mailed that health insurance bill in, I'm gonna tell you IN GREAT DETAIL exactly how my dentist's visit went!" Of course, this really depends on if you have willing friends. With me, I've got a few that love it because they can't be annoying to the rest of their peers in quite such a satisfying way.

Other things I used to get me through college: separate email addresses for work and fun stuff. The fun stuff inbox could fill up and have unread messages and whatever, but the work email? It must be dealt with. No unread messages allowed! If there's a draft saved, before I go to sleep I MUST finish and send out that draft! And if there's something I need to get to work on, I start a draft, even if I don't have a clue what to write, and stick some placeholder text in there. Then the little Drafts (1) in the sidebar stares at me until I deal with it.

Also if most of your procrastination issues are about communicating with people, it might help to try and not think the worst of others. Most people really do just want you to be genuine. It really doesn't matter if you're not doing something perfectly, as long as you ask questions and put forth a good faith effort. Your professors will NOT think you're a jackass. They probably won't even register how much time has passed, and if they do they'll figure you've been busy. Even if secretly one of them takes umbrage to your pace, they certainly aren't going to get on your case about it. They will just want to deal with the issue and get it over with.

So, have you emailed those people yet? I hope you don't check for answers to this question until you've done it!
posted by Mizu at 12:47 AM on May 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

Holy cow, are you me??? I wasted so much time procrastinating over sending those kinds of emails! What has (sometimes) helped me:
- introducing structure - eg. when I was working part time while studying and I had an administrative email to send, I'd decide to send it at the start of my lunch hour before I went and ate. Having a limited amount of time followed by a pleasant event (yummy lunch, time away from my desk) seemed to help.
- Challenge my negative thoughts a out the authority figure - I don't know about you, but there was a part of me deep down that thought I was really a fraud, not smart enough/ hard-working enough to be in my course - and I was sure my supervisors saw right through me and knew I was right. Of course this is crap and a stupid way of thinking about things - I was probably somewhere in the middle of my course's bell curve, I didn't know everything I needed to know (which is why I was doing the course, duh) and my supervisor was just a normal dude who was actually pretty encouraging. Other thoughts to challenge include the one where you feel as though reading your email/writing you a rec is a huge imposition (no, supervisors are used to writing letters and it's part of their job!), and the one where you panic about leaving it too long to write the email (your supervisor may not even think it was odd, and if they do they're unlikely to care. They're certainly not suffering as much as you are about it!)
- A lot of my angst went away when I realised my supervisors liked me and were glad to hear from me when I emailed them. If you're making the opposite assumption, is there a basis for that?

Good luck! And just in case you're still here refreshing the page: just write the email, and then do something nice. The relief of not having this thing hanging over you is sweeter than chocolate, I promise.
posted by Cheese Monster at 1:03 AM on May 8, 2012 [4 favorites]

What I do is write a draft, just a hypothetical draft. Then the next day, or an hour later or whatever, still feeling a little worried, I look at the draft and decide it sounds pretty good. Or maybe I need to think about that one sentence. So I save it and come back in an hour or so, and yeah, it's great -- Send.

I do the bulk of the work in a non-stressed state ("okay, suppose I was going to email them and ask for recommendations, what would I say?") and then by the time the "do I send it?" pressure kicks in, I can look at the draft and see how fine it is.
posted by salvia at 1:09 AM on May 8, 2012 [10 favorites]

Also, I use this with myself: "just write the email, and then do something nice. The relief of not having this thing hanging over you is sweeter than chocolate, I promise." "Just think how happy you'll feel if you don't have to worry about this email." Carrots and promises of self-praise work better than mental castigation. I am NOT motivated by things like "you suck -- I can't believe you didn't email them yesterday!" You may, though, find you can catch yourself right at that tipping point, like "oh gosh, if I don't do this right now, I'm going to be in one of those 'I suck' self-hate moments. Better do it to avoid it." But it sounds like you go into those spirals pretty quickly*, so you may not be able to catch yourself before they start. (* A drive home? Geez. Do you live in the next state over?)

Last idea -- I just tell myself that people don't know when I was planning to get back to them. Getting back to them a week later? Who's to say you're late? If you're not like "and I need these letters by the end of the day," there's no impact to them. Just write back and say "Great! I really appreciate that. I am on campus next Tuesday and Thursday. What is your schedule like on those days? Thank you again." No need to say "I meant to write you days ago."
posted by salvia at 1:15 AM on May 8, 2012

Is this just with this situation, or more widespread?

If just with this situation, it might help to first reframe the situation. Have a peek at what you're saying to yourself, whether its about how hard/unpleasant it is to write the emails, what awful things your professors will think about you, or how bad it is to feel so anxious. Then challenge the things you're saying to yourself with more reality-based thinking: the emails are just one sentence, and then another, and then another; the professors most likely aren't putting much time into thinking about you at all, and a week's delay is easily forgiven (if it was even much noticed), especially if your follow-up includes a brief apology; anxiety is an emotion, sometimes useful, usually uncomfortable, and it can be tolerated.

Secondly, you can break the project into small steps and approach them one at a time. These next emails sound like they'll be brief, but for longer ones, maybe write an outline first, or the first paragraph, then do the next bit later.

I really benefitted from setting aside a mere 5-10 minutes a day, at a specific time of the day, to take care of dreaded tasks. I can stand doing damn near anything for that short a time, and you'd be surprised at how much you can get done. Often, once you start, it's easier to just keep going a little bit longer, or until the task is finished.

It might help to do a brief relaxation exercise before and during anxiety-inducing activities.

If this affects you significantly in other areas of your life, you might also want to look into emotional tolerance and/or CBT for anxiety.
posted by moira at 1:16 AM on May 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

Tell yourself you're not going to send it - just type it.

Type it, and save a draft.

After a little while, e-mail it to yourself and read it. Make a couple of changes.

Send it.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 2:11 AM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

I hate sending emails and talking on the phone, but the more I put them off, the more anxious they make me and the more I delay, etc. So I have a few rules:

- Try to answer emails as soon as I get them, or make calls as soon as I know I have to.

- A pending folder which must be cleared every three hours (or end of the day). You could consider setting rewards for yourself. Eg I'm a tea drinker, so no tea for me unless my pending folder is empty.

- I use gmail, so I have set delayed send. Even if I send off an email, I know I can call it back if I get instant second thoughts. This makes it easier to send the email in the first place, and 99% of the time I don't call it back.

- I write emails immediately and save a draft. I do something else and then reread before sending them.

- This sometimes backfires: I acknowledge emails and tell people when I plan to get back to them. This gives me a deadline.
posted by tavegyl at 3:12 AM on May 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

I get more anxious because I feel that they'll see me as an asshole for not responding in a timely fashion

It's not as big a problem as you think. You're trapped in a vortex of thinking right now, and your feelings are becoming your reality. They're not. You're doing fine.

I will tell of my own experience with professors, both inside and outside of academia. There is a professor from Prestigious University that I email quite often. He is a Master in his field, and casts quite a shadow. When I send him an email, I consider myself lucky if I hear back from him within the month. If I really need something from him urgently, I ring him. In that case, I usually hear back from him within two weeks.

There is another professor from the same university -- in the same department -- that I email less frequently. That chap responds immediately, almost every time. When I owe him an email, he pings me every third day or so, asking when I'm going to get back to him.

Point being, two different professors, same department, same university, two individual communication styles. There is no rule or timeframe that suits both. If I need the former to act quickly, he's simply not going to do it -- thus expectations are adjusted accordingly. If I need the latter to wait, he grows very impatient and disturbed (and sometimes disturbing!), thus I have to maintain that relationship accordingly as well.

So, let's assume each individual you communicate with has their own style, their own set of expectations, and requires you tailor your communications individually.

Now, to your point. When you receive an email, what happens? It pops into your email box with heaps of other emails. As a sender, you spend a lot of time and effort (or you should) on crafting a message. The recipient simply sees it as an entity amongst many similar entities. Thus, are you extending the same intensity of focus required to send an email to that of the recipient? Do you assume that these professors are sitting at their computers, waiting for you to email them? Are they silently cursing you for your inefficiency? If you think that they are, I suggest you give them more credit. They are thinking about their bank account balances, their loved ones, the guy in the department that always finishes the coffee and never replaces it, about a problem student at risk of losing her scholarship. Point being, they have active, busy lives, and whilst you are a component of their lives, you are certainly not impeding or inhibiting their existence in any way. So you can relax a bit. When you send the email, it will pop in the box, and they will treat it as they do every other email -- as mentioned, according to their own process.

So you've relaxed and now you understand that whenever you send the email is fine. Even if they come back and make a snarky comment about it, you will understand that the guy drank all the coffee and their a bit upset about that. You will not internalise it, for you will understand that each individual acts according to their own hierarchy of values.

To you, the other side of the equation. Perhaps you are afraid to send the email because you think it's not good enough, or you expect a negative response. You're afraid. You have something in your mind that you hope to happen, and you may be concerned that it will not. That is just fear speaking, and it's the exact opposite of what you are feeling at the moment. When you are paralysed, you create a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you are worried that by sending the email, you are going to get rejected somehow, your delay is ensuring it. The very way to defeat negative thinking and fear, is to do that which you fear and evaluate a real result rather than sit trapped in "what if" land.

Let's move it to another example. Some people HATE being late to class. They absolutely despise walking in thirty minutes late, having everyone look at them. Sometimes, they think these people are silently judging them. They think it reflects on their lives as individuals, as if it's a massive semi-public failure, and we can let the magical thinking run from there, eh?

Other people waltz into class thirty minutes late, laugh sheepishly at all the looks, take the seat in the front row, and immediately fall flat on their face trying to answer a question without the context of the discussion. Yet it doesn't seem to bother them at all.

What's the difference between these two people? The first internalises external events and THINKS that they know what other people are thinking about. They think all those people are thinking about them! When in reality, the lateness of a classmate is a blip on the radar, and they are probably actually thinking about what they are going to say next in class, or about the hot guy next to them, or about the bar that night, or about the vacation in two weeks. They are thinking about pretty much anything BUT the person who has just walked in the door.

The second person KNOWS that their entrance is but a fleeting moment in the history of their own lives and everyone else, and they register it as such. They also think about it for a moment (the sheepish laugh) and the get on with it.

What kind of person is the first person and what kind of person is the second person? They're the same kind of person, only one has made a difference to focus on "what's wrong" whilst the other one chooses to focus on "what's next".

A tangental anecdote, but valid all the same I think.

Finally, how do you proceed? Do this. Don't email all the professors at once. Email your favourite first. Sit down, knock it out. Then go have a coffee and maybe a muffin. Come back, sit down, email your second favourite. Just knock it out. Then go do something else. You've completed two good tasks that needed doing, and now you are waiting for those two responses.

The next morning, continue on the process. Turn it from a transactional moment (I have to email all these professors, oh my god, I'm late, I should have done it weeks ago, they're all going to hate me, this is the rest of my life, why can't I do this!) into a flow.

"I emailed that one. Boy, I do love coffee. Hey, look at the cloud outside. It kind of looks like a dinosaur. This muffin is really good. I wonder if Professor likes muffins. Oh I should email him. Okay, done.".

Chunk it down, baby. You don't have to write ten emails to ten professors, you have to write one email to one professor, and repeat that ten times. It's really easy.

And if your STILL worried after this, and all the other great advice here, write the email, send it to a friend, have them read it, get a bit of feedback, and then send it. A practice run. When you send the real email, your doing the EXACT same process, only with a different arrangement of characters in the To: field.
posted by nickrussell at 4:04 AM on May 8, 2012 [18 favorites]

Help me think of new ways to think about this problem, or steps I can use when this problem occurs next, to prevent this from happening again!

Forgive yourself! Science says that self-forgiveness reduces procrastination. I just stumbled upon this article last night, so I cant yet provide you with my own personal experience with the strategy. The guilt spiral associated with procrastination can be so debilitating, and it makes sense that unresolved guilt about past procrastination might compound guilt about current procrastination.
posted by TheCavorter at 4:46 AM on May 8, 2012 [10 favorites]

It might help to read this little comic.
posted by Hutch at 4:57 AM on May 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

Put your shoes on.

Here's what I mean: I often just don't feel like running (though I enjoy it once I get going). If I'm not feeling it on any particular day, I make a deal with myself. If I get dressed out to run, all the way to putting my shoes on, I can make the decision then. Once I get to that point - fully dressed to run--if I decide not to run, it's ok. However, I almost always go ahead and run, once I'm suited up.

So find your trigger. Maybe you can tell yourself, "OK, if I start the email, put the addresses in, and put a subject line, I can save it in drafts and walk back away." It seems so stupid, doesn't it? The prep is half the work, but mentally, it feels like nothing compared to the body of the email. So set up the email. If you don't just follow through and finish it out of sheer momentum, at least you're partway there.
posted by notsnot at 5:07 AM on May 8, 2012 [4 favorites]

I do this a pretty often with tasks that are either anxiety provoking or ones that I plain just don't like. I'm also pretty disorganized, which does not help the anxiety one little bit. For me my disorganization, anxiety and procrastination are all bound up with one another.

Things got a lot easier when I reversed order - instead of trying to deal with the anxiety first and hoping the procrastination problems would clear up as a result, I dealt with the procrastination first.

Mainly my approach has three basic steps. Asking myself what are my highest priorities today; What can I do right now?; and breaking whatever that is into 5-15 min chunks.

I do it this way because I can't fix my organization problems at once but I can get organized enough to do one pressing, important task. I also can't manage my anxiety/procrastination all at once, but I can do it for 10 min. Accomplishing things this way has been good confidence builder for me. I've also discovered that confidence is a damn effective antidote to anxiety.
posted by space_cookie at 5:11 AM on May 8, 2012

I do sort-of what notsnot does; when I know I'm procrastinating something (usually paperwork, online or otherwise), I get the paperwork out -- put it on the end table next to my favorite seat, open the webpage, whatever. Then, once it's out, I've cleared the first psychological hurdle, and since it's already there, it seems like I may as well deal with it, because I feel guilty putting it back away ...

I don't really close windows on my computer until I'm finished with what I'm doing, so once I have that e-mail I need to send open, it sits there STARING AT ME until I deal with it.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:30 AM on May 8, 2012

For me personally, saying "Are you going to do this, or are you going to make future soma lkzx do it? He's going to hate this even more than you" gets me pretty far. Putting it in the context of punishing my future self can be that little extra push I need to get something done - when you're focusing on avoiding future pain you might be able to forget what you're making Present You go through.
posted by soma lkzx at 5:33 AM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

I had a similar phobia for the first few years of my working life. If I had to reach out to anyone with "director" in their name, it always took me days just to get started. The day I was asked to email our CEO directly I was so scared I couldn't think straight.

You've gotten some good tactical advice here, so I won't rehash that. But globally, my problem slowly resolved itself because I slowly started thinking differently about people. I used to think of people as a hierarchy: "Oh my gosh, she must be so busy and important and smart, she's the CEO!" "How can I interrupt him with an email - he's a busy physician!" This built them up in my mind as people who demand only the most salient information presented in the best-possible way. "I have to keep it to 5 lines!" "I can't ask a question, that's a waste of their time!" It's possible that you respect your professors and think of them as being big, important, and busy - and it doesn't help that you're asking for a favor.

Eventually, with a few more years of interacting with people under my belt I began to realize that people are just people. They all have inane interactions every day, and frankly an email like yours (or like mine to the CEO) is one of the more salient emails of the day, even if you're asking a favor. They all have different temperaments, and many people like doing something positive like writing a nice letter in support of a student. It gives them a chance to think positively and pay it forward. And it helps to remember that everyone is just a person - we all have needs and wants, we all grew up depending on others and still depend on others, and none of us is all that special even if their position makes them seems special. So remember that you're not emailing OMG BIG SHOT PROFESSOR, you're emailing another person.

I can't suggest how to get yourself into this mindset other than to consciously think of it, and catch yourself when you are building someone up as too big and important for an email. They're just another person who checks their emails.
posted by Tehhund at 5:46 AM on May 8, 2012 [5 favorites]

When faced with an email I don't want to send and the anxiety builds, I take a few minutes to do a quick exercise. Like jumping jacks or pushups or even a walk around the block. Sometimes this acts as a quick 'reset' button that allows me to come back ready to just type the words and send them to the person, no matter how important.

I also set a timer for a short period of time, like 4 minutes, and force myself to type up as much as I can during that time. Often I'll get 'pulled' in and end up writing beyond the timer's end and just finish it.
posted by brackish.line at 6:04 AM on May 8, 2012

This is an area that GTD has really benefited me. Having a system in place to manage my workflow has reduced my overall anxiety and allowed me to action items quicker and more effectively.

For me, having items pile up led to pushing off important deliverables because I felt I had too much on my plate and wasn't in a good mindset to respond.
posted by ACEness at 6:08 AM on May 8, 2012

Sometimes when I'm worried about sending an email (I'm usually worried about criticism, even though its hardly ever warranted) I will decide to just write a draft of the email without addressing it to anybody. This helps me at least write the thing. This also separates the writing from the sending (something hard to do with no consequences and something easy to do with consequences). Then its almost always easy to read it one more time, enter the address and hit send. But if I don't feel like sending it right away, I don't have to, but at least I've gotten the hard part out of the way.
posted by chevyvan at 10:02 AM on May 8, 2012

Make a list of things you HAVE to do, not want to do. Force yourself to check off one per day. You'll either have to do the thing, one thing, per day, or you'll have to stare at that list and realize you're pathetically incapable of doing ONE THING in a day, which is highly motivational.
posted by davejay at 2:23 PM on May 8, 2012

No no no. None of this works. Here's how I solved my procrastination problem: find someone you trust, give them money, lots of it. Establish a deadline (3 hours, end of the day, end of the week) He or she keeps your money if you don't get it done. Ideally this works best with people who also have procrastinate and know how important it is to not back down if you fail.
posted by timmm at 1:27 AM on May 9, 2012

I am chiming in late here but I have this same problem (not just with contacting authority figures) and I realized something the other day:

I was feeling super anxious about contacting my "Little Sister" (I am in Big Brothers Big Sisters) and was getting so weird about it that I finally called my "match support specialist," a kind of social worker for the organization who checks in to make sure the relationship is going well. I just said to her, I'm feeling anxious about A, B, and C, and she talked it through with me.

She is a great social worker BUT she didn't need to use her social working expertise. All she had to do was let me talk, and respond in a friendly way. After 5 minutes of talking I realized that the whole thing wasn't a big deal, neither my Little nor her father is going to hate me forever, and I was getting pretty worked up over nothing. "Warpy thoughts," as moodgym would say.

SO from now on when I get like this I plan on calling someone I love & trust, like my sister or good friend, just to talk it through for a few minutes. My husband can help, but it's also nice to have a fresh, more objective perspective. I find that discussing the problem takes away its power - and I feel motivated to get on with it.
posted by Isingthebodyelectric at 8:35 AM on May 9, 2012

I, like many others who posted before me, feel like I could have easily asked this question myself. Everyone here has given you great advice, IMO.

I am a notorious procrastinator in situations such as yours due to anxiety issues. Just keep in mind - and I'm sure you've realized this already yourself - That the instant gratification of putting something off in favor of a more enjoyable endeavor will usually just cause more anxiety long-term.

I'd liken it to removing a band-aid. Rather than draw out an already uncomfortable process, it's better to just get it over with and tear that sucker off, right? At least you'll have DONE it.

As for practical advice: I find exercise in the morning plus a shower/shave almost essential to determining how I feel at the end of my day. As long as I get the morning started off right, I can tackle whatever problems life might throw my day with a touch more grace and confidence.
posted by Kamelot123 at 2:53 PM on May 10, 2012

These are all *excellent* responses. Thank you all for taking the time out to message me. I just marked some as "best answer" because I felt like they were more applicable to my own situation. Thanks again, everyone.
posted by 254blocks at 6:12 PM on May 10, 2012

I find the more you think on something the more you are likely to put it off as soon as the task is set just START IT and you will be amazed how procrastination dissolves
posted by RichMackay at 6:19 AM on May 13, 2012

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