Picture this: There’s something that, in theory, you really want to get done, but you’re not getting it done. On paper, it would be really useful and not that hard, and you don’t have any good reason not to want to do it. So why aren’t you doing it?
The good news is that you’re not lazy (well, probably). The problem is that somehow negative emotions have gotten associated with the task, and the primitive parts of your brain have decided to step in and let your instincts handle things.
Don’t get me wrong, instinctive responses can be great in the right circumstances. The problem is that modern life has changed our sources of stress and discomfort into things that our instincts aren’t really set up for, and it’ll be thousands of years before it catches up.
So, we’re going to take a quick look at why these instinctive ‘trauma responses’ get caused by things that shouldn’t be traumatic and what responses our bodies push us towards.
What causes ordinary things to be procrastinated?
First, there’s the possibility that it’s something you don’t actually want to do. If it’s not something you’ll enjoy — either while you’re in the middle of it or looking back on the satisfaction of it — then you need a rational reason as to why you should do it. Without that, of course, you don’t want to do it.
However, what about that cases where there is a good reason why you should do it? There are a bunch of cases where not only is there a sound, logical reason for me to do it, but it’s something I want to do or something I’ll feel a sense of accomplishment after. So why did I put them off and watch YouTube or play games?
This is due to something that happens when negative emotions get associated with a task. These negative emotions form a barrier between you and actually getting started on it.
- Maybe you’ve tried it before and didn’t enjoy it.
- You may think it’ll be tough.
- Perhaps you’ve tried before and failed.
- Maybe that failure made you feel like you’d let other people down.
- It could be you’re ashamed about how tough you’re making this thing that everybody else finds easy.
- Maybe you feel guilty about not having already done it.
- Perhaps you’re worried about rejection.
- Or you’re afraid that it won’t be perfect.
There’s a whole load of possible causes for these negative feelings, which can come from similar things, not just from this one task.
When I moved to Spain, I had bad experiences with the tax office (partly caused by a lack of communication from them, partly by the tax system being way more work here than in the UK, and partly by procrastination). Now I break out in a flop sweat every time I receive any official letter from a government department, even though it’s been years since I had any issues. This is a great example of how something in the past has added negative emotions to anything even remotely related to it, even though the past suck was a one-off that has been dealt with.
Anyway, these negative associations build up. They form a barrier between you and the thing you want to do.
It’s worth noting here that these are emotional, so while some might be entirely reasonable concerns, others might not. This doesn’t matter; those are totally valid for provoking procrastination.
If you’ve got ADHD, it gets even worse. Because you already struggle with executive function, it’s even more challenging for you to get past this wall. So, this is something that can be a problem for neurotypical people but will be a frequent issue for most people with ADHD.
Should the barrier remain small, it’s not too hard to get past, but if it gets big enough, then we have trouble dealing with it, and the barrier causes our instincts to kick in.
Types of trauma response
Our instincts use four types of ‘trauma response’, each of which comes from deep in our evolutionary past and can be observed in many other species.
- Flight — attempt to fight off or intimidate the threat by reacting aggressively.
- Flight — try to get away from the danger.
- Freeze — stay still and hope it passes without noticing you.
- Friend — attempt to get the danger to see you as no threat.
Sometimes psychologists also add a ‘flop’ reaction, where you feint or play dead. This is useful when talking about physical threats. However, it looks like ‘freeze’ when dealing with abstract dangers (like the things we’re procrastinating on), so I won’t treat it separately here.
Okay, we now know the responses, but what do these look like when discussing procrastination? Not many people physically start running out of their houses when they see dirty dishes.
Pretty obviously, this response results in inactivity. In the context of stuff you’re procrastinating about, generally, you’re not literally going to be frozen. It may happen if someone suddenly challenges you about why you haven’t done something, but not generally just because it’s there waiting to be done.
The way that this response usually manifests is when you just stare at the task. You don’t know how to approach it, or you don’t seem to be able to make a start. So you just sit there.
I’m sure the writers among you will be pretty familiar with a form of this where there’s a blank, white screen mocking you, the flashing cursor taunting you with your inability to write.
If you find yourself doing nothing except just staring at the task or thinking about the task (but not in a productive way), then this response is almost certainly why that’s happening.
As I mentioned when listing the types of responses, this is unlikely to literally involve running away, but it is very clearly trying to avoid the task.
Possibly you might actually try to avoid the physical place where the action needs to happen.
- Is the thing you’re putting off mowing the lawn? Well, don’t go into the garden and you won’t have to face the fact it needs doing.
- Not able to get started on that presentation that’s due tomorrow? You know, I might be coming down with something. I should stay home so I don’t infect people.
A lot of the time, it’s metaphorical, though. Your subconscious tries to find other things that you can do instead.
- Need to do some work on the PC? Oh, look, videos of cute animals…and look what one of my friends has just posted; I should reply to them…etc.
- Need to write that report? Okay, well, my desk is a mess, so I need to clean that up first (‘tidy desk, tidy mind, right?)… oh, and I should sort out a work schedule so I can make the most efficient use of my time… wait, I have something else I need to do as well, let me adjust the schedule… oh, it’s nearly time for my scheduled break, so I’d better have that, or it’ll throw off the entire schedule… etc.
So, if you are always avoiding the task, whether physically or just by doing other stuff instead, this response is likely the culprit.
You can’t literally befriend a task in the hope that it goes easy on you. But if it’s a task from someone else, you can try to get them to remove the task.
This is the least common of the four instinctive responses (when it comes to putting off tasks) since it means risking disappointing someone &/or saying you can’t do it. Therefore, it automatically comes with a barrier to you doing it. However, if the barrier to doing the actual task is big enough, maybe your subconscious is happier facing social pressure.
You could ask for an extension on the deadline, convince the other person that they don’t need you to do it at all, or give it to someone else.
If it’s not something that someone else has given you, you might use this reaction to persuade others that it’s not something that would be the best use of your time.
Okay, so the other three responses don’t actually get the task done, but this one often does. Yay, right? Unfortunately, no, because it comes with a drawback.
There are two ways that the fight response can kick in: ‘external aggression’ and ‘internal aggression’.
If the aggression is directed externally, this is where you blow up at someone for mentioning the thing you’ve been putting off.
“Okay, fine! I’ll go do it! You don’t have to keep nagging me about it all the time! Jeez!” <stomps off in a huff>
This can often lead to you caving and doing the thing, but it doesn’t exactly help your relationship with the poor unfortunate who was on the receiving end and may lead to a full-blown argument that gets in the way of you doing the task there and then. Also, while giving in to anger and frustration once in a while is no big deal (as long as you don’t damage anything — be that an object, person, or relationship), you don’t want to make a habit of losing your temper, or it’ll be harder to keep it in the future.
On the other hand, internally directed aggression is you mentally (and in some instances physically) beating yourself up for your inability to do the task. It’s less likely to get you to actually do it than the external aggression, but it doesn’t involve yelling at anyone else.
It’s not exactly good for your self-esteem, though, and can contribute to further feelings of guilt, worthlessness, depression, and other bad stuff. All of which can lead to bigger barriers to tasks in the future.
Okay, so today we’ve learnt that the causes of most common forms of procrastination are:
- We’ve built up some kind of emotional barrier between us and that task.
- That barrier may be related to the action itself or may be based on other past experiences.
- Some of the causes of the barrier might be well-founded, but they might not.
- Procrastination is our self-protection instincts kicking in to protect us from what they see as ‘danger’.
We’ve also learnt that the four primary forms are:
- Fight — reacting aggressively (either at someone else or at ourselves)
- Flight — avoiding (either physically avoiding where we need to be to do it or by doing other things instead)
- Freeze — not doing anything, just staring at it
- Friend — trying to put it off or justify avoiding it by talking to others.
I think this is quite long enough for one article, so next time I’ll go into what you should do to actually get past the barrier and do the tasks.
If you’ve found this at all useful, I’d love it if you could share this article with anyone else you think might benefit from it.
If you think that coaching might benefit you in dealing with procrastination (or anything else) then you should book a discovery session and we can have a chat about your situation and whether I’m the right person to help you.