Anxious Procrastination. Delaying gratification.
May 28, 2016 12:07 PM   Subscribe

What are your favorite hacks for beating anxious procrastination? How do you delay gratification, in favor of getting things done? I'm looking for anecdata and personal testimony about techniques you use; not so much app recommendations.

Disclosure: I see both a therapist and a psychiatrist for CBT and medication in treatment of my anxiety, ADHD, depression.

Anxious procrastination and inability to delay gratification are definitely their own separate issues stemming from their own separate sources, but they have enough overlap (namely: the "procrastination" part) that I'd like to work on them jointly, if that's a reasonable approach.

I am no stranger to productivity hacks and apps (ranging from GTD; Pomodoro; Bullet Journaling; Apps like Lift aka Keep/Way of Life; the Tiny Habits program; Julia Cameron/The Artist's Way morning pages).

But lately, I've been feeling like even when I tell myself to just "take that first step, because the first step is the hardest!" and "action precedes motivation!", the biggest thing that prevents me from starting something is anxiety over how to choose which thing to start first. Every time I think about things I'd like to do, or should do, I just think, "Well that's the one I kind of feel like doing right now, but is it really as important as this other thing?"

So: How do you decide what is the priority, or descending order of priorities, when seemingly everything (other than obvious 'big priorities' like budgeting, paying bills, exercising, major chores like laundry) feels like the same level of priority?

App recommendations are OK but at this point I've tried most of the major habit-tracking apps and haven't found one I really like yet, though, other than Lift/ But even using Lift (or lists, in general) can make me more anxious. I co-organize a weekly Zen meditation group, so practicing mindfulness in my daily life - and not rushing through everything because I'm suddenly just more interested in the checkmarks than the activities themselves - is important to me. I've found a lot of success with meditation, especially dynamic meditation, but a lot of the time the anxiety is just too much and I find myself paralyzed. I find anxiety medication helps, too, but it's more important to me that I build the right skills and habits to both understand and overcome the sources of my anxiety. With my psychiatrist's oversight, I've tried increasing my anxiety med dosage and frequency, but too much can make me procrastinate for different reasons - like feeling too "chill" about it all to care.

I also want to point out that I've built many excellent habits that have lasted for years years, and then I allow sudden major life change to derail one or more of those habits. The struggle to get back into the habit makes me feel like I'm starting over from scratch, and I let the anxiety of that demoralize me into not even trying to rebuild the habit, at times. Mostly, I'm just tired of how likely I am to be inconsistent as I am consistent.
posted by nightrecordings to Grab Bag (21 answers total) 84 users marked this as a favorite
I believe that it's not so much what you do first, but just the act of doing something. I'm going to combine that and my regular practical advice here of using a timer. For myself, I can NEVER figure out what to do first and the anxiety over that can easily be paralyzing, for just about everyone, I think. So I just don't do that. I set my timer for 15 minutes, and literally look down and do the thing on the top of the stack on my desk, or the housekeeping task that's right in front of me, or whatever catches my eye as the biggest elephant in the room. And I do it for 15 minutes, take a ten minute break, and start again for 15 minutes.

Because I've learned the very hard way that if you get momentum going in any endeavor, then pretty soon the priorities will identify themselves. For me, it's ALWAYS just getting started.

As we say down here in the south, just "put ya hands on somethin!"
posted by raisingsand at 12:30 PM on May 28, 2016 [16 favorites]

Best answer: I don't know if this counts as a hack, but during the busiest periods of my life (school, mostly) I've always combated procrastination by telling myself that there is a defined amount of work I will have to do between now and [deadline], and if I keep putting it off I will still have to do the same amount of work but the procrastination will result in anxiety, which is a form of mental labour, so just getting the task(s) done ahead of time will result in less work for me.

My university friends and housemates marveled at my seeming efficiency, but really it was just laziness; "The sooner I get [task] done, the sooner I can go back to fun stuff without [task] harshing my buzz."
posted by The Card Cheat at 12:33 PM on May 28, 2016 [12 favorites]

Best answer: For what it's worth (and in case it helps your anxiety), I started reading your question thinking, "oh, I have great advice!" and then I'd read a few more lines down, and discover you're already doing each thing I was going to recommend. So, hey, you should feel really good about the range of tools you've already tapped.

So by the time I got down to the bottom of your post, the only thing I can think to say is: I like taking that few minutes of time when I first wake up to meditate (you got this!) and then write either morning pages or just a "3 big rocks" list of the top 3 things I need to do today. The morning pages helps with the anxiety/emotional side of things, and once I've got a 3 big rocks list, I usually feel ready to roll out of bed and get started on them. (I am a bit of a morning lark, so I realize that trait might not be universal). But since these are already skills in your wheelhouse, it might be worth trying?

And if that doesn't work, go find that ubiquitous YouTube inspirational video about making your bed every morning, and see if doing that one thing first thing makes a difference?

And if THAT doesn't work, try reading The Power of Habit, and look at the concept of keystone habits (like making the bed) and cues/responses (like roll out of bed, make bed, brush teeth, do X important task of the day).

And if that doesn't work either, circle back around to the mindfulness side and just sit with your anxiety and reluctance to do X. Explore it with compassion and curiosity, and see if that either helps you get to the bottom of the anxiety and feel able to do the things, or able to feel empathetic to yourself and ok about NOT doing them.
posted by instamatic at 12:47 PM on May 28, 2016 [9 favorites]

Addressing the decision anxiety: Maybe everything really is the same priority after your obvious high priority items. In that case, you should pick the one that draws you - the one that you feel like doing in the moment IS the right one to do.

It really sound like if you only did the things on your high priority list your life would be OK - no disasters. So trust your intuition/subconscious and, for the middle/low priority items, just do what you have interest in doing in the moment. Use one of your planning techniques (like Getting Things Done) to review, maybe weekly. If there is something that it seems like you should be doing but you aren't, you can ask if maybe you don't really need to do it or if maybe you need to raise the priority and focus on getting it done. But in that case, you will then know that it is now a higher priority.
posted by metahawk at 12:49 PM on May 28, 2016

Best answer: just getting the task(s) done ahead of time will result in less work for me.

This is me too. I do what I call the "virtuous cycle of procrastination" which is that I am allowed to do basically anything but it has to be one of the things on the todo list (which includes things like sleeping and eating) so if I don't want to do that one thing, that's fine but I have to be doing something on the list. I think it's okay to get motivated by checkmarks. Your teeth don't care if you floss because of a checkmark or because you care about your teeth.

When that fails, I try to identify Past Me and Future Me as people who I am friends with.When I try to get a thing done early (right now my socks are all over the floor) I clean them up not because of the thing but as a favor to Future Me. She will have a little bit of free time as a result. How nice. Sometimes I sit around and think "Hey Past Me is a pretty good person" At some level it's dumb to make myself into friends-of-mine so that I can do nice things to them. At another level, I don't care, my socks are picked up. I use HabitBull and have checkmarks for exercise, flossing and meditation. It helps.
posted by jessamyn at 12:50 PM on May 28, 2016 [28 favorites]

... and if indeed it doesn't matter so much which of the things you start on next, if you're still having trouble picking one, make an arbitrary rule for yourself. "Okay, I'm stuck, I don't know which thing to work on next ... so - ALPHABETICAL!" Whatever comes first in alphabetical order is the thing you do next.

Sometimes an arbitrary rule can make it much easier to deal with a lot of options.
posted by kristi at 1:03 PM on May 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

Sometimes I ask myself: if I only get one thing done today, what should that thing be? Sometimes that really helps clarify my priorities.

I also have a small supportive online group of friends. When I'm stuck I write a post about all the things I need to do and why I'm having trouble getting started. Usually the writing helps me pick something to start with, and I'll announce to the group that I'm going to do that thing. And then I put down the computer and go do that thing and come back and post about it. On days when I'm really struggling, I post about every single thing. "Now I am going to make the bed." "Okay, I made the bed." On other days, just getting started on the first thing is enough to start a productivity snowball, and then it feels really good to come back and post about all the stuff I did.
posted by bunderful at 1:55 PM on May 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

Sometimes I schedule specific times for specific tasks, far enough in advance that task decision paralysis has not yet kicked in.

I've not used, but have heard of a post-it note method: write each to-do task on a post-it note. Rough priority order can be color-coded using different color post-its, or you can have different regions of the fridge/wall/other vertical surface where the notes are posted to indicate rough priority levels (eg. put high priority, near deadline items in a top group, medium priority or high priority but later deadline tasks in the next group, etc.). Once the tasks are very roughly sorted like this, then just pick a post-it note at random to get started on. Tasks/notes can be separated into different horizontal groupings by amount of time the task will take (eg. so you can pick short tasks to fill in little gaps in your schedule, or long tasks when you have good concentration abilities) within each vertical priority grouping if you want to get fancier. One colleague who uses this method notes that if a post-it note loses its sticky and falls off the fridge, then clearly it wasn't important enough, and she removes that task from her to do list. (There's probably an app that essentially does this, but the visceral quality of choosing a post-it note, and the part about throwing out tasks whose sticky has worn out, seem like distinct advantages to me.)
posted by eviemath at 2:19 PM on May 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

(Also, do you know the coin flip decision method, where you flip a coin to decide between two choices, and if you find you are disappointed with the outcome, then go with the other choice? You can do that with the random post-it task selection as well: if you're really disappointed with the task you randomly select, then put it back and randomly choose a different one!)
posted by eviemath at 2:23 PM on May 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

When I get like this I use a random number generator. Make a list. Number the items. Generate a random number and then do that item number. I guess you could roll dice or draw them out of a hat or something, too.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 2:26 PM on May 28, 2016

I do the hardest, most dreaded task first. Once I cross that off my list, the rest don't seem so intimidating. My feelings don't have to control my actions.
posted by Ideefixe at 2:31 PM on May 28, 2016 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I struggle with this also :/ What sometimes helps is starting really anywhere that feels comfortable. I can often eventually wend my way to the thing that needs doing, if my logic brain takes over.

Starting from somewhere slightly tangential can also help - like (if say the issue is with a writing task), reading an indirectly related paper, which engages my natural interest in the (broad) area without feeling too threating; this (sometimes) then trips logic-brain into gear, and I can then slightly more easily hop over to the thing I actually needed to do (than if I was trying to go from say cooking, and had to hop over a bunch more dread along the way. Because at that point I'm already kind of in the right posture and mindframe).
posted by cotton dress sock at 3:28 PM on May 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

Just wanted to pop in and say oh yes this is me. The confluence of anxiety and procrastination is an annoying place to be, because the procrastination does not offer a sustainable solution to the anxiety- in fact makes it worse, later, when you realise you've spent a whole day in PJs watching videos on facebook.

Some things that sometimes work for me (and I mean sometimes- I have to switch it up a lot to enable me to keep tricking my brain) :

Having someone to be accountable to. This works best if it is specific rather than vague disappointment. Last weekend, I got so much done because my boyfriend made me a deal that he would look after dinner if I did, and if I stuffed around I had to cook. (But this weekend is another story...)

Do housework for headspace.

Block various websites.

Good luck! I am in the anxious procrastination zone right now, so I know a bit about how you must be feeling.
posted by freethefeet at 4:22 PM on May 28, 2016

Best answer: I overheard this in the elevator - apparently someone hired a person off Craigslist to sit next to them and slap them every time they procrastinated. I see many issues with the arrangement, I couldn't bear someone sitting next to me all the time for starters.

As a night person, I have noticed that a lot gets done on the odds days that I'm up extra early - mornings are somehow productive and you have the added pleasure of feeling like you've accomplished something for the rest of the day instead of the dread of the unchecked list.

Try to enroll in timebound stuff like exercise classes and schedule in advance so you have to show-up. Schedule these earlier in the day.

These are all external things and chores though - for getting down to your own work - app blocking which you have covered is one thing. Deadlines help. I heard of a man who worked from home who got dressed like he was going to office in suit and tie and sat down to work. Perhaps a defined physical workspace helps. I once heard an interview of Salman Rushdie who was bemused by questions of writers block and distractions. He said I don't get distracted, I write. Let the internet bore you, turn your phone off. It's a personal battle we're all fighting. All the best!!!
posted by whatdoyouthink? at 5:13 PM on May 28, 2016

Best answer: I would suggest you read this short, wonderful article from WaitButWhy about procrastination, especially the parts about the Dark Playground and the Panic Monster. It has helped me to be more mindful about what I am doing and when I am doing it.
posted by 4ster at 6:13 PM on May 28, 2016 [3 favorites]

If things really are the same level of priority, there is absolutely nothing wrong with doing the thing that appeals to you most in the moment. Sometimes we kid ourself that the hardest and least pleasant path is the most virtuous, but that's not necessary true. If there's something that has to get done, but you enjoy it, make the most of that and then build of that momentum to do the next task and so on. Even if you never get to the least fun tasks you get way more done than if you didn't get started at all.
posted by lollusc at 6:21 PM on May 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

I schedule the things, and then I don't have a choice about when I do them, and if I start to worry about the other things, I can tell myself that I don't need to worry because the time is set aside for them.

To give you an example, yesterday my schedule was something like:
7:30-9am breakfast and chores
9am-11am yoga
11am-12:15pm brunch and preparation for a tough task coming up this week
12:45-2pm haircut and groceries
2pm-6pm studying

So that meant that when, I woke up worrying about finishing my uni essay, I could tell myself that the time to worry about it was 2pm. And when at 11:30, I started fretting about renewing insurance and an important work task and laundry and calling my mum, I could cut those voices off by opening my diary and scheduling them for next week.
posted by girlgenius at 6:54 PM on May 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Sometimes procrastination is also about the guilt of not having gotten started. If you get started, you have to face more directly what has been making you feel guilty. This is also a good argument for doing something on your checklist that is easier (even before more important), and in the process, you are productive in a way that helps you feel as if you did something better than continuing to waste time doing nothing (which has been guilt inducing). This can create some psychological momentum to keep going, and even to tackle some of the harder things.
posted by SpacemanStix at 8:38 PM on May 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If you haven't read The Now Habit, it is the mother of all procrastination help books and it can help with this dilemma.
posted by girlpublisher at 6:17 AM on May 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Trouble with getting started doing tasks is a part of executive dysfunction so you're definitely not alone in this and it probably ties heavily into ADHD.

My solution when I don't know where to start is: 1) make a list of the things I need to do (for 5-10 minutes), then 2) go clean the dishes. Cleaning the dishes helps me order the things in my head so that I can pick what I am doing next and I pretty much ALWAYS have dirty dishes so it's a pretty reliable starting point (as opposed to "clean something" which is too vague and then I get stuck again). I frequently alternated writing papers with cleaning my apartment when I was in school because I could think through the next steps of the paper while still being in "doing things" mode and felt accomplished when I got a cleaning task done even if the paper was being a huge pain; you might benefit from alternating cerebral tasks and manual tasks as well.

I also do way better if I put on some kind of reality TV that I do not enjoy (but don't HATE) because I will naturally walk away from it and seek out other tasks to do. I find that I get distracted again if I put on podcasts I like or shows I like, it has to be something I feel quite ambivalent about and that has a chatty quality to it.
posted by buteo at 7:05 AM on May 29, 2016

I've read that tackling the hardest item first is often a good way to go about this. So whatever you are dreading the most, do that.
posted by spamandkimchi at 8:39 PM on May 30, 2016

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