For those of us whose procrastination has become part of our personality traits, we seem to work better under the pressure of a deadline. Whether it is because of a faulty track of time (like when you wake up way earlier and still end up being late), loss of interest, and difficulty with motivation to get going (like when you start a project or have an assignment, report, or designing job with a due date in 3 months so you “still have time” so you wait until it is ‘suddenly’ due in 2 days), or for whatever reason… we have gotten used to this dynamic. Sometimes things work out, reinforcing our habit of leaving things for the last minute possible. At other times, our procrastination may result in a lack of care for ourselves and things that matter to us and many adverse consequences academically, professionally, and even in our relationships. On such occasions, we might have let ourselves or others down and sometimes fall into a depressive or anxious mood (often oscillating between the anxiety of having things to do and the lack of energy and/or focus to get things done). Additionally, mental health difficulties and neurodivergence have been suggested to interfere with executive functioning as well as influence the dopaminergic system (associated with reward processing) which makes it harder to select, plan, and follow through with daily tasks.
Once this habit has set in, it can be quite difficult to rewrite it. Towards the end of my master’s degree, I started having bouts of anxiety when I was trying to sleep and remembered all the things that were undone (from school, housework, etcetera). It was like every task I didn’t get done was making a pile in my head and chest and creating a mountain of heaviness in my being. It went from a list of ‘things to do’ to thinking all the times I had failed and imaginary embarrassing situations I'd find myself because all that wasn’t done, as well as a sense of letting everyone- including myself- down for the lack of follow up. In general, I am a disorganized person, my head runs with plenty of ideas, questions, and wandering curiosity but I have a hard time staying on-task and following through, which meant lots of things were started, many were not finished, and things that were priority were often left for the very last minute (furthering the anxious feeling of running out of time). Living in this constant cycle of anxiety further depletes the energy and motivation to do things, which makes you push other things on your list that should get done but you just can’t get yourself to do them. Furthermore, people with such difficulties at any given time in their lives might start being labeled – by themselves or others- as lazy, careless, and many other negative adjectives that may eventually be internalized and transform into self-defeating thoughts and a self-fulfilling prophecy (when you don’t get things done as you’d expect, it reinforces the idea of the negative label, making it harder to do what you need).
By now, like I frequently find myself saying, I have embraced the chaos. Through understanding, acceptance, and experimenting with what works for me, I can get some of those things done; even if it sometimes takes me a bit more time and effort than it does for other people. Making a to-do list is a great technique to mediate these difficulties, but I have found that the process of creating it is essential for it to work. Many people struggle with deciding how to structure their to-do list; especially when they are juggling multiple often competing tasks such as those from parenting, school, work, etcetera.
Be specific Most tasks have multiple steps. For this to work, you need to be specific. For example, "complete the assignment" or "clean the room" is too broad and has too many steps involved, thus it might feel daunting and might be perceived as too much, might make it feel too stressful, and often causes shutdown as it may become overwhelming. Be specific and do not try to do it all at once. “Rome wasn’t built in a day”. Strive for progress, not perfection. Be strategic and practical What is the best order to do it? Say you have to mow the lawn, do the laundry, and call your dentist to make an appointment. Technically, you can move the lawn at any time, but it is easier to do it before sunset. However, you might want to consider the intensity of the sun. Doing it from 12 pm – 4 pm in a hot Florida summer is bound to be a pretty unpleasant experience… Calling your dentist’s office has a specific period of time in which it can be done, the hours the office is open. Say you wake up around 7 am and the office opens at 8 am, the call will probably be no more than 10 minutes at most. The laundry can be done at any time and is not dependent on external hours, plus maybe you can do it while watching a tv show. Your list would be:
1) Call the dentist
2) Mow the lawn
3) Fold the laundry
I have spent countless hours picturing in my head how I’ll reorganize my whole life the very next day. I’d run in my head the specific sequence I was going to follow from the moment I woke up. In there, it was easy to get absolutely everything done… Hours and plenty of papers were spent writing schedules for myself, and my family once I had kids, in how we’d become the people I wanted to be. Beautiful, detailed schedules of who did what and when. Of course, not even half of that actually got done! You aren’t going to set a whole set of new habits overnight. If you do, please share with us your recipe!
Sense of urgency and importance
What can truly wait and what needs to be done? Consider the timeline, importance, and level of difficulty of the things you need to get done. To use dramatic examples, buying the paint color you want to redo the walls is less important and urgent than dealing with appendicitis, and being thirsty is less important if your house is on fire. In these examples, it is easy to pick which you should do first but in our daily lives, it might be more difficult as several systems await our attention. Embarking on a life-long journey of self-discovery in which you explore and define what you value (meaning, such as the life you want to create), what you need to survive (utility, such as keeping your job or finding another to pay for the bills), and what brings you pleasure, helps mediate this process of selecting what can wait and what needs to be done.
When all tasks feel the same
Just as all tasks have different steps, timelines, and values, we know that some of them are easier than others. Say they are all not ‘urgent’ and you are pretty ambiguous about their importance to you, maybe cleaning the bathroom is just the same to you as doing the dishes, and both need to be done. Choosing the smallest task, the least time and energy-consuming, or just the one that you hate the least, can help you get things done and produce a sense of accomplishment – however small the task is- and gives you a boost of confidence that can help you carry on with subsequent items on your to-do list or in knowing you can get tomorrow's tasks done. We generally seek to minimize pain and maximize pleasure, doing this can help increase dopamine (associated with pleasure, satisfaction, and motivation). Take advantage of your intrinsic reward system!
Think of following your 3 items task list as a way to be there for yourself. When you follow through most of the time (remember, progress, not perfection) you show yourself proof that you are able to follow through and accomplish the goals you set for yourself. They give you objective evidence that can counteract the effects of the negative self-perception mentioned above.
In some instances, these behaviors are just part of who we are and even influence our creativity. Though an artist is frequently involved in the creation of art, they rarely set in their calendar “make a masterpiece” and poof, they go and make it. Sometimes spontaneity gives way to creativity. Thus, some tasks, though they have due dates, might not be schedulable. Even when that is not the case, be gracious enough to extend some love and compassion for yourself. Show yourself appreciation for the things you have been able to do and the progress you have done, grace for what you couldn’t, and compassion for your struggles. The fact that you took the time to read this shows that there is a part of you that is trying to make the changes you want for your life.
Thaina Cordero is a Certified Sexologist and Care Coordinator at Cypress Wellness Center. She has an MS in Educational Psychology, is a trauma-informed yoga teacher, and doctoral student of Clinical Sexology at Modern Sex Therapy Institute. She has completed Levels 1 and 2 of Clinical Foundations in Gottman Method Couples Therapy. She helps individuals and couples explore their sexual expression, needs, fantasies, preferences, curiosities, and difficulties as they create more pleasurable, satisfying, and fulfilling relationships and sexuality. Click here to request an appointment.