Advice for procrastination/anxiety issues
January 26, 2017 9:33 PM   Subscribe

I've struggled with avoidance and procrastination connected to anxiety/insecurity throughout most of my time in high school and college. I'm often aware of when the cycle is happening and I try to mentally talk myself out of it, but I almost never succeed in a meaningful way--even if the task does get done at the last minute. What are some strategies I could try that would help me with this issue? Snowflakes inside.

I'm a sophomore undergrad right now. This problem has affected my academic performance in the past and caused me a lot of stress and low self-esteem. In general, I'm easily distracted and caught up in my own train of thought, but I know I can focus when I'm relaxed and comfortable and confident in my abilities. I know what it feels like to fall into the flow of reading a book, practicing piano, making art--even menial things like washing dishes. The problems usually arise when the task is something connected to some insecurity I have, or when I'm not sure about how to approach it. Then my brain seems to kick into avoidance mode, and even when the conditions for working on the thing seem perfect it's difficult to make myself do it.

For instance: over the past few days I've been trying to put together a resume to send to professors who might be interested in having an undergrad help out in their lab (one of my majors is evolutionary biology). It doesn't seem like it should be that hard, but part of me is super intimidated by the whole process because I don't really have any relevant experience and deep down I don't feel like I can promote myself very well. Even sending out emails to professors feels monstrously difficult sometimes. I guess I am a perfectionist in some ways--and despite knowing that perfectionism is lethal, I still find myself wanting my work to be ideal somehow.

So usually what ends up happening is I sit in front of my laptop for hours, looking at some tangentially related thing or doing a tiny bit of work on the task, as well as procrastinating. I've tried using things like the Pomodoro technique and blocking sites I visit to procrastinate, but it doesn't seem to help that much because my brain still ends up feeling fuzzy and paralyzed. That's another thing--if I feel insecure or uncomfortable when I'm supposed to be working, I feel like I'm frozen and just CANNOT work on the thing. Then I start to focus on changing my environment so I do feel more safe--sometimes this helps, but often I just end up wasting time again.

I'm really not sure where to start in terms of dealing with this part of myself. I want to go to grad school and I'm afraid that I won't be able to succeed academically if I let these cycles keep playing out as they always have. I've talked about it with friends easily, but bringing it up with my parents or teachers tends to bring me to tears and makes me incoherent. I'd really appreciate any advice you might have.
posted by Lurch to Education (21 answers total) 68 users marked this as a favorite
The writer and coach Hillary Rettig has written extensively on writers' block. She identifies it as a form of perfectionism. You're not talking about writers' block here, but neither, entirely, is she. (Disclaimer: I took a class with her and liked her very much personally.)

Here's something I do when I am frozen: I write to myself in dialogue. If I'm sitting at the computer and I can't type the thing, I open up another file instead, and I type: "What's the matter? Why can't you do the thing?"
"Because I am anxious about [x]."
"That is okay. It is extremely normal to be anxious about [x.] [X] sucks. Why don't you decide to [do a later helpful thing about x]?
But it is never just one variable, with anxiety and perfectionism. I have to go on: "Because I am upset about [y]"... and answer myself again. I can do this five times or more. Is it getting the actual work done? No, it isn't, but neither is watching Youtube, and at least this way I begin to feel the confidence I need to do the thing at last.

The key is to be compassionate with yourself, never to blame or to deny the emotions, to act as if you are helping a dear friend who is capable, but who needs to be heard. And you are. It's you.
posted by Countess Elena at 9:57 PM on January 26, 2017 [21 favorites]

One thing that helped me avoid procrastinating when I started grad school was to reframe my idea of "perfect" to be about process, not end results. So instead of fretting about writing the perfect essay, I had to spend x hours a day working. I fretted a lot about not spending enough time, but that spurred me in to get more done.
posted by girlgenius at 10:05 PM on January 26, 2017 [12 favorites]

You're lucky that you're on campus! Please look into any services offered by your university counseling services or student wellness service. These will be free or very low cost. You're lucky because such resources don't easily exist for people outside of university campuses.
Moreover, help from a therapist or other professional can help you get on track to better managing these issues. Campus services may also be able to help you get accommodations in your classes.
It is great that you're seeking help on strategies but there is also more out there for you!
posted by k8t at 10:15 PM on January 26, 2017 [7 favorites]

Seconding counselors available on campus to students; helped me very much with these kind of problems.
posted by soakimbo at 10:32 PM on January 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

I am seeing my campus counselor on Monday. You are not alone!
posted by rubster at 10:44 PM on January 26, 2017 [5 favorites]

Good ideas above about visiting your campus counselling services.

I suffer from this but have worked to reframe things for myself as the ideal being completion. It's hard but now I am most focused on getting something DONE as the goal, not having it be perfect. Break the task into little pieces, write each piece down, then check it off as you do it. I derive a lot of satisfaction from checking things off and it scratches my perfectionism itch when I can admire my nice neat list with more and more items checked off.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:18 PM on January 26, 2017 [5 favorites]

TLDR - your screen time is the problem. Use a TO Do list type app with alarms. Map out your tasks by time allotments, including gagging breaks, and follow your plan. Make this Planning your first daily plan by setting a recurring task to Plan your Day.


Bonus? I learned years ago in business (my first serious job) that if I accomplished only 3 tasks on my 10 task list I would be 90% effective in my day. So I always accomplish at least 2/3rd's of my list. Just to be badass.

Lists are your friend. Make peace with them.
posted by jbenben at 11:23 PM on January 26, 2017 [3 favorites]

Hey! You are me. Well, not exactly, but yes. I get you. I have anxiety. I struggled with University. Here is a bunch of stuff that helped and helps me. Procrastination is my middle name.

I know that 'therapy' is a standard ask.mefi answer, but I found CBT particularly helpful in fighting my university related anxiety- even though I still deal with anxiety now, I don't get as bad as when I was at university- perhaps because I know I can beat it. (When my brain is running away, I can do things like counting backwards from 100- in threes. 97, 94, etc. it doesn't matter if I get it wrong, it's forcing my brain to settle and focus.) My counsellor gave me heaps of good 'tricks' like this to help my brain, and also listened deeply to what I was feeling.

Block internet (or just 'fun internet') temporarily.

Exercise! Even if it's putting on a daggy upbeat song and dancing around the house to it. This helps lift my mood. Listening to upbeat music helps. Go outside! One of the best grounding things I do (and I'm blessed with wide open spaces and a paddock nearby) is to go out and watch the sun go down. Eat good food.

Finding a friend who can either sit with you or who you can check in with- I get so much more done when someone is sitting in the same room because I can't go and look at youtube (or whatever else.) Having accountability is so helpful.

Kill perfection. It's a paralyser. Also kill that idea that says "argh I have no time (because I've wasted all the time) therefore I don't deserve good things like a real meal."

You're already doing pomodorro- Sometimes I need the bigger gap from unf*ck your habitat and do 20 minutes on and 10 minutes break. Actually take the breaks. (10 and 2 is good too, but in a funk the 2 minutes is too short.)

Lie to yourself. "I only have to put away 5 things." "I only have to write one paragraph." "read one article" "call one person." "send one email." (Then once you've achieved that, pat yourself on the back and 5 more things.)
I find the idea of pushing through something uncomfortable to get to a better outcome useful- I visualise a surfer having to dive under waves to get through.

I find expressing myself is helpful sometimes- "ARRRGHHH WHY I HATE CALLING PEOPLE WHY WHY... ok. I can do this. GO ME. I can! I am awesome! Yeah! " and then I call. This TED talk about positive body language helped me!

Allowing myself to ping between tasks is good too sometimes- I'll get a little bit done in lots of places. Other times I need the solid 20 minutes of focus.

I struggle the most with anxiety and procrastination when I have lots of time to myself (say, over vacation.) Routine, routine, routine.

Anxiety affects a surprising amount of people. Anxiety likes to lie to you and tell you to not get help. Anxiety lies to you and tells you to do things to feel better which actually help you to feel worse. (Like ugh I'm uncomfortable starting this task, anxiety suggests watching youtube to feel better...) Anxiety. Lies.

You are bigger than this, you are more than this. You can do it.

We can do it.
posted by freethefeet at 11:25 PM on January 26, 2017 [18 favorites]

As a professor, I can say that I welcome students taking initiative and wanting to work with my group and I don't expect a lot of experience from undergrads. For procrastination, working in parallel with a friend can work well. Check out Virginia Valians pdfs on work problems and learning to work.
posted by meijusa at 1:42 AM on January 27, 2017 [3 favorites]

I have an anxiety buddy who helps me with this stuff. I show her my high-stakes (in my mind) emails and ask her if they're embarrassing, and she says no. She tells me about her (imaginary) symptoms and asks if she has terminal cancer, and I say "no, and stop googling pancreatic cancer." We're both still crazy, by it helps us get through the day.

CBT seems like something you should look into.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 2:32 AM on January 27, 2017 [3 favorites]

o hai me from 25 years ago. I can't tell you this problem will go away because I still get some of these problems now, but I can say that it hasn't stopped me from achieving my goals and I am better at recognising when I'm going off the rails.
The most helpful book I found is The Now Habit by Neil Fiore but I also found some counselling really helpful to developing better habits and understanding why I was procrastinating about things.
posted by crocomancer at 4:05 AM on January 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

Seconding The Now Habit. I wouldn't say I've licked this problem, but this book really helped me understand its psychological underpinnings and live a more fulfilling life. Especially when you have a lot of unstructured time, such as when you're a student, the idea of the Unschedule is genius. Basically the idea is to schedule your play, not your work and reduce guilt around work.
posted by peacheater at 4:10 AM on January 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

i feel you. struggle some days in a pretty exquisite sort of way with this type of procrastination/anxiety combo and asked something similar a ways back here - got really decent advice which i still return to.

one little shift in my thinking that kinda gives me that extra boost when i need to get x done, is that no matter what, you're still gonna end up doing the thing (/the same amount of work) – it's up to you to decide if you wanna do it on a chill thursday morning listening to some bill withers with a decent cup of joe nearby, or freaking out and hating yourself on a monday at 3 a.m.. and one of my favorite oorah lines is, it doesn't get easier, you get better.

and yes. just leaving the house is amazeballs for work. know pretty much every coffee shop in my town. big hugs, i'm rooting for you!
posted by speakeasy at 6:02 AM on January 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

I struggled with this same kind of anxiety/procrastination/perfectionism throughout my life, all the way from elementary school and through grad school. And to be honest, it's followed me into jobs as well. There are a few strategies I've used that have been helpful:

1) When you're struggling through the paralysis phase- "I will do literally anything that is not what I should be working on"- try approaching your task a little sideways. In grad school, I would start papers in the Notes app on my Mac rather than in a Word document, because it felt less official and less daunting. I would actually start with "just an outline," and frequently once I got started I'd find myself basically writing whole paragraphs that gave me workable material for the paper. Or I would walk around and narrate what I wanted to say, because I usually knew what I wanted to write and it was just breaking through my fear of writing an awful paper that was keeping me from, you know, actually writing anything down. For science-y research papers with distinct sections, write the more formulaic methods/results sections first.

2) For things like resumes and cover letters, ask your friends or anyone you know for examples. This helps me a) get a baseline sense of what a document like this is even supposed to look like, and b) gives me the confidence that hey, I can do at least as well as this in my own version. Without examples, I tend to assume that everyone else is far better than I am and never makes mistakes, writes awkward sentences, or tries to get jobs or positions they're not perfectly qualified for. Getting concrete examples from people I know to be smart and great (a.k.a. my friends) helps bring me back to reality.

3) I also find it helpful to think through the actual potential consequences of writing a shitty paper or sending an awkward email or whatever. Getting more general life experience has helped a lot with this. If I'm writing a paper, maybe the worst case scenario is that I get a bad grade and my professor is disappointed in me. In reality, I know that a single grade won't destroy my average in the class or overall, that not turning in anything at all guarantees no grade and even a C is better than nothing, and that my professor has seen thousands of papers (many of them awful) and won't care nearly as much about this as I do (even if they're a great, conscientious prof). My mantra here is that just doing something is more important than doing it perfectly, and that I can learn from my struggles with any particular task regardless of how well the end product turns out.
posted by MadamM at 6:06 AM on January 27, 2017 [5 favorites]

Adding a thought to consider. I can relate to issues with procrastinating. I was deciding whether to continue on to grad school after 'recovering' from my undergrad. I was reluctant in committing to another couple years of education.

I'd received a piece of advice from a friend which has helped me throughout my education track; "A person achieves something because they put forth the time and effort to achieve it". This can be applied to any other task or pursuit.
posted by mountainblue at 8:33 AM on January 27, 2017

Oh, I feel for you. I struggled with this SO MUCH in college, and took an engineering job instead of going to grad school because I just couldn't deal with more school for awhile. I had a couple of term papers that never did get written because of a spiral of anxiety and depression followed by shame and more avoidance, which tanked my grades. The good news is that I graduated anyway, and plenty of employers don't really care what your GPA was once you've got your degree.

It can get better. For one thing, as a working professional you might be less likely to have papers or assignments hanging over you for weeks at a time. My deadlines at work tend to be more immediate (get that memo done by Monday!) and also more collaborative. If I am really stuck on a thing, I can drag it over to a co-worker's desk and say "hey, what do you think about this? Does it make sense? Am I on the right track?" That can be tremendously motivating for me. And if I am keeping up with my work, when I walk out the door at 5pm it's all behind me and I feel zero guilt about not working on that stuff until the next morning.

Another thing that helped me learn to move forward was accepting that I don't have to like doing a thing to be able to do it. It's hard to explain but I don't have to talk myself into enjoying my work all the time, just start doing it anyway. I can start working on a task even if I don't feel like it, or feel happy about doing it. Somebody in school told us that "Motivation Follows Action" and although I thought it was BS at the time, it's sort of true sometimes.

I've learned to keep an eye out for that avoidant feeling, because for me when I feel that way about a task the best thing to do is to attack it like a fucking shark. So I guess I'm saying, sit down and write out a rough draft of that resume RIGHT NOW. It doesn't have to be perfect, just a reasonable start. Then get someone else to look at it - hell you can send it to me and I'll nitpick it for you over my lunch break. Then tweak it some more and enjoy feeling like a badass who gets shit done. You can do this.
posted by beandip at 9:15 AM on January 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

Something that's helped me a bit is recognizing the fundamental flaw in logic that enables procrastination -- the notion that Near Future You will be fundamentally different enough from Current You that s/he'll be more inclined to do the thing that Current You isn't in the mood for. Obviously, the reality is that Near Future You will be nearly identical to Current You in pretty much every way, so you may as well go ahead and get on with it.
posted by LowellLarson at 10:17 AM on January 27, 2017 [3 favorites]

I'm currrently reading The Happiness Trap because I saw it linked in another question on Ask, and I am liking it so far. I think you will find that it speaks to the issues you raised.
posted by delight at 1:00 PM on January 27, 2017

I like to say to myself "darn it, past me, you were supposed to do this already. OK, I'm going to do future-me a favour and get it done now."
posted by freethefeet at 2:56 PM on January 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

I had a good talk with a professor when I was dealing with an issue like this in university. She told me, "grad school is just more academia, remember." She knew that my gifts were not particularly well-proven in academia, and she helped me out by calling attention to it.

Over the years, despite reading hundreds of productivity books, my tendency to procrastinate certain things has not gone away. But I've realized that most of those things simply are not my natural gifts. Learning about the various personality type models helped me understand this. I'm not a details person, I'm not a do-your-duty type, I'm not excited to go out and greet every day with a warm hug or a can-do attitude. None of these things are my gifts. The harder I work at them, the higher my anxiety goes, the more depressed I get, the more boring life becomes, the more questionable everything seems.

BUT I'm deep, I like to learn, and once I learn something, I usually learn it at a very deep level. So after learning the basics of my profession after university, I went deeper and deeper until I found myself naturally gravitating to clients who care more about quality than timing. Clients who care more about the few standout, powerful details than all the other boring details. That kind of detail work, I can do.

Also, I started to study my personal gifts, and the more I use them and discover new gifts, the less I'm bothered by other gifts which I lack. :-) So I do more consulting, more thinking for and with people, try to use mental frameworks (like lists, lists of rules, etc.) to help with the rest, and when that doesn't work? I tell someone, try to get help, or just find a way out of the role/task temporarily or permanently. I still suffer sometimes, still try to stress-eat my way out, or dread what might happen. But that gets more rare every year.

So, I hope this might help you: It is possible to keep procrastinating certain things the same way you always have, and still lead a happy life. I personally think that everyone procrastinates in applying their less-gifted areas, but only some people convince themselves they should be ashamed of that characteristic. I have a friend who has an amazing ability to say "this just isn't working for me," and move along when she can't bring her gifts to bear. Her procrastination mode is more of a jetpack escape mode, and she is a very stable person with a beautiful family, a business, and a good life overall.

I hope you find some help in everything that's been posted here. Best of luck to you.
posted by circular at 4:49 PM on January 27, 2017

If none of those strategies work - think about talking to a doctor about meds. I had two years with a great therapist and on a related issue, she gently pointed out that I was not depressed but anxious and got me to talk to a psychiatrist who immediately put me on a tiny dose of an anti-anxiety med. The difference has been huge, and instead of 18 hours to get 4 hours of productive work, I do 6 hours of productive work, and enjoy the rest of the day. I still use lists and many of the strategies above, and struggle a bit with perfectionism, but I finish things and don't spiral into self-blame and dread.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 6:42 PM on January 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

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