Ask A Psych: I’m A Lifelong Procrastinator

An illustration of someone procrastinating at their desk.

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Have a pressing question for a professional psychiatrist but a bit strapped for cash? Ask Julian Short, Junkee‘s go-to life advice expert. 

Dear Junkee Psych,

Whether it’s work, replying to messages from friends or even just keeping in touch with family, I really struggle with procrastination. My inbox is overflowing and those closest to me know that the likelihood of a prompt reply promptly to a text is next to none. While I feel like I’ve struggled with this all my life, I’ve often wondered if there a silver bullet I can use to become more productive. Or do I just have to struggle to get better? 

Dear Procrastinator,

Some people who procrastinate are just bone lazy, but if you’re lazy, you don’t care.  You obviously do care, so I guess it’s pretty clear you’re not lazy.

You asked me should you just “struggle to get better”? I suspect you’ve been doing that all your life and “try harder” is same old advice you’ve been given by a hundred people, both those trying to help and those who are pissed off with you. Trouble is, the person most pissed off with you is probably you. Then the trouble with this is, the more anxious and guilty you are, the more you will procrastinate. Beating yourself up makes it even worse. I’m certainly not going to offer you the same old pull-up-your-socks routine.

Very often a big part of procrastination is really wanting to do the right thing and to please people. When there is too much happening, it can make you anxious about what the people who have sent the emails or texts are thinking of you. You can have their voices in your head — disappointed, angry or hurt. All healthy people care what other people think about them, so the more disappointed voices there are in your head, the more anxious and unhappy you will become. There are so many places to start, so many things to do, it’s impossible to know where to start next and if you do, another voice of another person will start calling and distract you.

The result: overwhelmed.

So much wanting to do the right thing, but too much to do, too many demands and so many people to be disappointed in you.

The result: you do nothing, worry more and don’t sleep too well. That’s procrastination.

So, what can you do? First of all, if this is the way you’re wired up, it’s hard, really hard.  You need to know that where you are right now, there is no avoiding your anxiety or your guilt. I’m not arguing whether your bad feelings are justified or not, that’s how you’re going to feel. It’s inescapable. If you think about it, the things you were worrying about most last month were from the month before. Now it’s the things you didn’t do last month that are the problem. In other words, the stuff that was on your mind two months ago is not quite as much worry anymore. Okay. This is important. The things you didn’t do a long time ago are not worrying you quite as much as the things you haven’t done more recently.

This brings us closest to the answer. You need to start taking from the top of the pile, not trying to fix what’s underneath; not trying to catch up with last week or last month. Start doing today what hits your in-tray today and do everything from today. Forget yesterday, last week and last month. You’re kidding yourself. You’re never going to get to it. So suffer now, but keep doing what you need to do today and the stuff you feel bad about from before will fade as it always does.

There is no other direct behavioural way to manage, although there are lifestyle things you can do. When you are a bad procrastinator, you don’t like yourself too much. If you can bring yourself to do self-respecting things, like exercising, eating your leafy greens, not smoking and staying off the party drugs, your self-esteem can start to lift a bit. There are other little things like making sure you never leave your bed unmade and never leave dirty dishes in the sink. You need to be able to look at yourself with a bit of pride in order to be in a mindset best able to attend to the minute by minute needs of the day like emails and texts.

If you don’t get it right today, give up today and start again tomorrow on the things of tomorrow, not the things of today. Forgetting them will be a tiny bit easier if you’ve at least done something from today’s list.

Lastly, for a few people, there is a silver bullet. People with an Attention Deficit Disorder very often suffer all their lives from the disorganisation that leads to procrastination. There are a lot of tests on-line for ADD. I often use the Jasper/Goldberg Adult ADHD Questionnaire. Unfortunately, with all questionnaires, it’s very easy to come up positive if you are too keen to be diagnosed, but it’s worth a look. If you’re sure you have tested positive, talk to your general practitioner. If you do have ADD and you respond to treatment, the result can seem magical, but most of us don’t have the disorder, so dealing with procrastination means sucking up guilt and anxiety about past failures and doing today’s stuff and no more.

For what it’s worth, your Psych feels for you. This is hard work.

Dr Julian Short has been a clinical psychiatrist for 30 years. He is the author of An Intelligent Life: A Practical Guide to Relationships, Intimacy and Self-Esteem.

Disclaimer: This column is not a replacement for customised medical treatment from a personal psychiatrist. If you are suffering from a medical condition, see a professional.