I can't stop not doing my final project. I don't want to fail. Help.
April 2, 2014 8:40 AM   Subscribe

This is my last semester of college, and there's a major project I haven't worked on for weeks. Parts of it are past due. Other people are counting on me. I feel paralyzed.

Every time I think about working on it, I instead distract myself with games or TV or books or the internet.

I want to be anonymous, so there's a lot of vagueness here.

Basically: I've had a lifelong pattern of retreating from difficult things, like not asking someone to a dance for fear of rejection. Lots of people have that problem, but I fear that I have it more than most because I've avoided socialization often enough long enough that as an adult I do not have a network of friends. No references for a job application. Nobody to dine with. Nobody I see apart from work and school.

There's a cycle: Being awkward and shy reduces a person's social experience, and limited social experience leads to awkwardness and shyness. If it snowballs, it can define a person's life. Things have fallen apart.

The final project requires a lot of socialization and risk-taking, in addition to writing. The old habit has worsened in the past few months. I've been hiding rather than doing, both socially and academically.

Part of the answer is to find some people to talk to about this, especially a qualified psychiatrist or therapist. I'm posting this because it feels like a step in the right direction.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (23 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
You need to set a moment in time, say 2pm on Thursday April whatever- where you sit down and finish this. No TV, no calls, no nothing- until you are 90 percent finished.

You're self sabotaging, people are going to be upset, and you will be cementing your low self esteem.

You know that its wrong to put this off, or you wouldn't have posted here.

Just do it.

Once you experience doing things, you might like it and continue.
posted by misspony at 8:48 AM on April 2, 2014 [4 favorites]

Right now, pick one small part of the project, and do it. Even if it's a relatively unimportant part, doing anything is better than doing nothing.

Major projects with deadlines can really fuck with your head, especially once you start to feel like you're falling behind; I totally feel you there. The only way I've found to get past that paralysis is to not think of the whole overwhelming project -- just think about the little bit of it that you can do right this instant, and do that little bit.

Sometimes that small accomplishment gets me into the flow and I can just keep going and it's all good. Sometimes it doesn't, and I have to force myself to pick one more little bit and just do that. Sometimes I never get into the flow and wind up doing the whole project in those little bits. But every little bit makes the rest of the giant project that much less daunting.

Set aside all the stuff about social awkwardness and etc right now; that's just your feelings about the project bleeding over into your feelings about everything else. Whatever is not immediately relevant to the project you can worry about after the deadline.
posted by ook at 8:49 AM on April 2, 2014 [10 favorites]

I've certainly been in your shoes. It's great that you see the problem: that's the first thing. Now, you need to just. Do. It. Accept that ignoring it will only make things worse, so the sooner you start, the sooner it'll be all over. But how?

Do one thing. Just one thing. Then do another thing. You don't do the whole project all at once: you do it one small piece at a time. So you don't have to do the whole project now, just do one thing. Then, hey, one thing done! Now do another thing. Repeat until you're finished.
posted by The Michael The at 8:49 AM on April 2, 2014

Make your external pressures a little more immediate. Call up one of the people who is counting on you. Say, "Dude, look, I'm trying to work on this project, but I'm having so much trouble concentrating. Are you going to be doing some of that work tonight? Great, can I come over, and bring my notes? I'll just sit at your table and work, and if you see me not working, you can smack me."
posted by aimedwander at 9:02 AM on April 2, 2014 [3 favorites]

In addition to picking just one part to get started on, you might also find the Pomodoro Technique helpful. Basically you commit to work for managable blocks of time (20 minutes or so) using a timer and then take a short break (5 minute or so) once that block is done. I find when I'm procrastinating and drifting off to surf the web, this helps get my brain in "work" mode.
posted by goggie at 9:10 AM on April 2, 2014 [3 favorites]

Yes, it is good that you recognize this pattern and take steps to talk about it to other people! Shame and secrecy only hold us back. At the same time though, you're not going to solve the larger problem, cure the larger tendency, in a few weeks. I think hacks like aimedwander suggest will be what get you through now.

And realistically, even people who have a solid history of getting things done on time resort to hacks like that at times (or all the time) so any that you can learn right now, you can carry forward.
posted by BibiRose at 9:11 AM on April 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Is it procrastination that is the main proble here...or social phobia? Although you've said the project requires social interaction, I think you might be concentrating on your social phobia as sort of a mode of creative procrastination. If you really can't be social due to an overwhelming phobia...go to your professor immediately (or email) and do what you can to get an extension / work with your school to look for other options while getting help. Otherwise you need to grit your teeth and just get this done.

I do not have a network of friends. No references for a job application. Nobody to dine with. Nobody I see apart from work and school.

This is probably mild depression talking, but is unrelated to the fact that you have to get this unpleasant thing done. You should definitely work on this in the future, but focusing on that now is not going to get your project done.

Being awkward and shy reduces a person's social experience...If it snowballs, it can define a person's life.

Maybe it can. Lots of things can define a persons life though. I wouldn't worry about this right now...

I would add that you shouldn't feel the need to get it done well, just to get it done. I have found that a lot of times when I am procrastinating I get paralyzed by the idea that not only do I have to do this thing...but I have to do it well, or perfectly and that I have to be charming and insightful and intelligent and all that. But you don't. You don't need to do things well. Sometimes in life you do things half-assed just to get them done because you don't have the energy to do otherwise. And that is OK. That is totally OK. Focus on doing it, not doing it well...and in the end even if you didn't realize whatever potential you think you had...at least it is done and you can move on to more important things in life...like managing depression / social phobias and doing things you actually enjoy.
posted by jnnla at 9:13 AM on April 2, 2014 [5 favorites]

For now focus on the short-term goal of finishing this project. I really like aimedwander's advice of working the in same space as one of your group members. If that's not possible, working in a semi-public area of the library can have the same effect. Everyone around you is working and you'll feel weird not working.

The other thing is, if usually get high grades and feel overwhelmed trying to complete the project to your usual standards, you need to accept that you probably won't do that well. You're about to graduate. All you need is to pass the class. Focus on doing that minimum and then if there's time ou can go back and work on it more.

If you're worried about messing up other people's grades, talk to the professor and explain that you were solely responsible for the late parts of the assignment and that you hope they'll take that into consideration when they assign grades to your teammates. If you don't think you can have this conversation face-to-face, email them. I'd wait until the semester is over to do this though.
posted by matildatakesovertheworld at 9:24 AM on April 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Start with all the easy stuff. It will make you feel productive and build up your nerve.

Do the title page, start setting up a PowerPoint (if there is one), do all the footnotes.

Whatever is low-risk, and actually needs to be done.

If you must, set a time limit to help you stay on task, and as a challenge to gamify the situation for you.

Also, just start working, don't revise and don't think about perfection. That's what editing is for. Right now, you need to just do SOMETHING.

Another thing to do is to stop with any surfing or distractions until you are finished. So no fun computer or TV or comics until you're all caught up with this.

All of the angst is excuses. And I'm going to give you tough love and tell you that I acknowledge your angst, and I still insist that you get going on this.

Start with an email to folks in your group with a status update. Once you fire this off, it will be SO much easier to get going.

Dear Group,

I have been stuck in a serious slump. I am just now digging out. I realize that some elements are past due.

They are: X, Y and Z

I will be addressing these and anticipate having them to you by (two days after I think I can actually get them done).

I have completed: Q, W and C. These are attached for your review.

I need assistance in catching up, I believe that frequent status updates will help in this endevor. I am more than willing to accept any helpful suggestions you have.

Thank you for your understanding and I am truly sorry if I am causing you any trouble.



Not doing work, when others are counting on you is NOT OKAY. Use this information to light a fire under you to get going.

Good Luck!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:25 AM on April 2, 2014 [7 favorites]

At some point, it's not just procrastination, it's anxiety over the fact that it's not done. One of the easiest ways to deal with anxiety is avoidance. So you avoid even thinking about the project, so it gets, well, even more not done. I do this even at the best of times, unfortunately. Some stuff, I can at least take my anxiety meds and that helps, but I think the biggest thing that helps me is to find the smallest possible next action. Smallest! So, the first goal is not "complete the research for this project", it's "actually load up the research website in a browser tab". Great, at that point you are now at least one step along the road to fixing things, and you will feel some anxiety about it, but it will be bearable. At that point, you can go do something else for a little while.

Then, again: Next step. Actually open up your folder of existing research. Deep breath, take a short break if necessary, give yourself a small reward, maybe come back with cheesecake and actually sit down to review your research and figure out what you need to do next. Or whatever. Maybe it's "email your group to see what's going on" or whatever. Each part is going to produce some anxiety, but you don't need to jump the whole way in at once. Each step will reduce the anxiety level just a little, and at some point you will be able to dive in properly and actually get some work done, which I agree, definitely just focus on "finished" rather than "good", but you don't need to jump into the whole thing at first if the prospect of doing so is what's keeping you from doing anything at all.

One step at a time, and once you are finished with this project, you will have not just a bunch of small wins but a big victory under your belt, and it will be easier to move on to making some small step towards getting stuff in the rest of your life the way you really want it to be.
posted by Sequence at 9:27 AM on April 2, 2014 [4 favorites]

At this point you're probably thinking you have to do an amazing job on this project, to make up for being so late. And you don't know how to do an amazing job, so you decide to put it off until inspiration strikes. But then each minute you put it off means the final product has to be better and better.

Well, you don't have to do an amazing job. Even a crappy job is better than nothing at all. So start now, rush through the work, do the bare minimum.

You can go back and revise and improve later, if time permits. And at that point, revising a thing is easier than starting from scratch.

Good luck. Just get to work.
posted by ejbenjamin at 9:30 AM on April 2, 2014 [3 favorites]

Avoidance is a common thing people do to not feel anxiety. It works in the short term! The problem is, as you're discovering, that it actually makes things worse in the long term.

If someone stays home because it makes them anxious to go outside, they will, indeed, feel less anxious for a time. However, it makes outside seem MORE scary, and their world will slowly shrink abound them. They'll need to start staying in only one room. Agoraphobia!

It sounds like you're caught in a very common feedback cycle, where you're anxious, and then you're anxious about being anxious, and on and on. This path doesn't lead anywhere particularly interesting, productive, or meaningful.

You'll be doing yourself a big favor by accepting the fact that something about this project, the people maybe, whatever, makes you feel anxious. Stop trying to fight it - it's just a reality right now. See if you can release yourself from the burden of NEEDING TO FINISH NOW, OMG I'M LETTING PEOPLE DOWN, I'M A FAILURE BECAUSE I DON'T HAVE ANY FRIENDS!!!!!!

What you need to do is captured in much of the advice above. Know that you'll feel anxious, but take an actual, concrete step toward your goal today. Take two steps if you can, but at lease one today, and one tomorrow. Be prepared to praise and support yourself for taking those steps, because the voices in your head are going to try to pummel you with all kinds of scary thoughts about how what you've done isn't enough, blah blah blah. Again, don't fight those thoughts. Hold onto the fact that you did one thing and that's a step in the right direction.
posted by jasper411 at 9:52 AM on April 2, 2014

I don't want to fail.

Your actions are speaking louder than your words. You do want to fail. You want to sabotage yourself, so that you don't have to experience new things, deal with graduation, moving out, getting a job, maybe a new city, maybe the next 20-30 years of your life. You think you can throw a blanket over your head and go "la-la-la-la-la" and the monsters will go away.

I don't know if some kind of trick will spur you into action, or any kick-in-the-ass I can offer over the internet will work for you. I think long term, you need to deal with this anxiety that is limiting your life with a professional. Take advantage of student clinics while you can.

Short term? Lets talk hacks.

Anxiety-filled brains respond nicely to rituals. They don't have to think about all those monsters, just what is immediately at hand. Maybe you need to sharpen all your pencils, line them up by height, buy special study snacks (yogurt covered raisins FTW), prepare the space you're going to work in by sweeping, then putting special studying pillow in your chair, and then by the time the clock reaches a number that ends in 3, you must start to work without delay. (for example)

Hack two, chemistry. Have a beer with dinner. Alcohol is great at reducing anxiety, not so great at producing reliable work, but maybe this will lower the anxiety level enough so that you can jump over the threshold and start, and once you've started you can keep going. Re-write it all the next day if you need to.

Obviously, this is a great way to develop a debilitating addiction to obsessive actions or alcohol, so your long-term fix is working through why you want yourself to fail, and why you let anxiety sabotage you.
posted by fontophilic at 10:00 AM on April 2, 2014 [5 favorites]

I don't have great advice for the social anxiety piece of this, but I will say something I say to my students when they are dealing with procrastination/past due projects:

I have literally never given a 0 to a student who turned SOMETHING in (provided it was not plagiarism, of course). No, it may not be 100%. Heck, maybe it will be an F! But actually, a 50% is better than a 0% when it comes to averaging your final grade in the course. An F on one assignment CAN actually still translate into a passing grade for the class. And, it is rare that I will give an F to someone who has made a good faith effort to complete the assignment. At this point, your goal here is to PASS so that you can graduate...it doesn't have to be perfect.

First, I would deal with the guilt piece of this story by owning up to the situation. Send your professor an email with the facts: you have been having some mental health issues that have put you behind. You are determined to catch up and are starting on that now, and you are hopeful he/she will take this into account when considering the grades for your fellow group members. Then send your group members an email, letting them know the situation as well. Of course, all professors are different. But most of us are human...if you are honest about the situation and show a real effort to get back on track, many will be lenient as long as you do eventually get the work in.
posted by rainbowbrite at 11:06 AM on April 2, 2014 [4 favorites]

If you're just stuck and can't move forward, try working backwards. Imagine what the project will look like when it's done. Then imagine what the last thing you'll do on it is. What's the thing you'd have to do right before that? What will you have to do in order to make THAT possible? Etc. Write the steps down, in reverse order, until you get to where you are now, and you'll have a roadmap from your current position to the end.
posted by KathrynT at 11:22 AM on April 2, 2014

Whatever you're worried about, assume it will happen, and move forward anyway.

If you're afraid you'll get a bad grade on the project, just accept that you're going to get a bad grade. Welcome the prospect. Try to do the crappiest D-minus work you can do. (Aha, now you're working.)

I don't understand what kind of final project requires socializing, but if you're afraid people will reject your attempts to socialize for the final project, just accept that they'll reject your attempts to socialize. Bring it on. Go rack up a hundred rejections to prove your anxiety right. (Aha, now you're getting out there, and oops! looks like one person wants to socialize with you, so your anxiety wasn't totally right after all, and there you are getting your final project socialization done.)
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 11:25 AM on April 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have been in very, very similar situations and I am slowly getting better, so I feel you. I just want to echo 2 points: first, just do something, anything, and feel free to start with something easy. Make a title page or write an introductory paragraph or two. Any progress, no matter how little, is good progress, and just starting will often spur you to get more done than you expected. You won't write the entire paper in a single sitting, but you might sit down to write a paragraph and end up with two or three pages.

Second, as people have said, don't worry about doing your best this time around. There are just some tasks where you won't do the greatest job in the world - that's life - but phoning it in is frequently more than sufficient. I often find it helpful to tell myself that I am just going to march through the work even if I am doing a terrible job just to get a little progress on paper. This reduces my anxiety enough to make progress, and often what I find is even my worst work is a good start. So go ahead and do a mediocre or even bad job, and you may find that the progress you make is substantial. If you use this mindset to just get started, the worst thing that can happen is you have to revise.
posted by Tehhund at 11:54 AM on April 2, 2014

Please message me, I can put you in touch with two therapists who I think would turn your life around completely.
posted by Hermione Granger at 11:55 AM on April 2, 2014

I understand the bit about speaking to a therapist, but if you're behind in the project your tutor is going to be the one that can help you immediately!

If not I'd advise a call, email or a visit to an office hour right away to explain that you're in a bit of a hole and need some help to get things back on track.

It's not going to be pleasant, but you'll feel better for it and can get over it and get on!
posted by Middlemarch at 11:56 AM on April 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Here's a short-term solution to your immediate problem: Get a little bit drunk. Use a caffeinated mixer (e.g. Rum and Coke) so you don't fall asleep. Once you're in the "I don't give a fuck" mental state, pound out a rough draft of everything. Then get a good night's sleep and revise while sober.

This is not a healthy long-term solution but it may help you get over your paralysis on your current project. Then do all the therapy etc. advice given by others in this thread.
posted by Jacqueline at 2:01 PM on April 2, 2014

This, from Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird, always helps me in similar situations:

"Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he'd had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, 'Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.'"
posted by sallybrown at 3:14 PM on April 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

This may help. I found it to be a perfect description of the inside of my mind.
posted by 4ster at 4:04 PM on April 2, 2014

Things that have helped me:

* Write a completely no-fucks-given rough draft in your own conversational tone, slang and all. Literally stuff like "This new factory layout is the fucking shit, for real. It will totally be the employees' jam when it's done. We gotta lobby the city council to make it happen!!!11!!!" This gets all your ideas in place without your internal editor hassling you about word choice. When you're done, then go back and rephrase it professionally/academically.

* When you feel the urge to screw off (to alt-tab over to Metafilter, to take a video game break, to do dishes, anything that's not your project), just sit there instead. BE in that crappy anxious feeling. Tense up, shake, be angry, be scared, exhale as much as you can, dig your nails into your arm, yell/mouth stuff like "I fucking hate this!!! I'm miserable! This is horrible!!! I hate everything about this!!!!!" Then let the feeling drain away a bit and get back to work. You start feeling better about yourself the more you can sit through it all and don't give into that impulse to screw off.
posted by cadge at 8:13 AM on April 3, 2014

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