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A common complaint from my patients they procrastinate.  It is always the same: they ‘know what needs to be done” but do not do it. They are unhappy about it; they do not like this. They usually attribute their procrastination to their mental illness (depression, anxiety, OCD etc.) or ‘that they are lazy’. Another ubiquitous belief is if their low motivation were remedied this would solve the problem.

Happily, most of these erroneous beliefs and assumptions can be changed.

Putting off something is a universal human endeavor: they are not a sign of mental illness per se. Procrastination has at its heart is the desire to avoid experiencing negative emotions.  Making that phone call, starting those taxes, cleaning out the garage etc. all make us face unhappy feelings: fear, anxiety, pain, embarrassment etc.  We are wired to feel good and to avoid bad things. Thus we go towards sitting on the couch eating nasty chips rather than getting up and starting the new year’s resolutions to do a daily walk, as the later puts us face to face with the sad feeling how out of shape we really are.

Whenever I find myself procrastinating, I immediately pounce on what negative emotions I am trying to avoid. I remind myself while these emotions are no fun they are not devastating. Often, I do a 180 and immediately do something about the task I am trying to avoid.

I teach my patients to first stop to acknowledge their feelings behind procrastination; this is the first step. The second step is rearranging the equation. Motivation is not the first step towards action. Rather, it is the motivation is the reward for taking action.

Let’s say the goal is to ‘clean out the office’. By seeing it as one big task this evokes feeling overwhelmed and coming to painful feelings of the long tedious task ahead. Rather than doing it that way do the following:  set your alarm for the same time of day (we are more likely to do something in a structured time) to do the ‘five minutes’ rule.  For five minutes and five only – regardless of your motivation – go to the office and do something, anything. Start with something small like a drawer or putting papers into piles. After five minutes you feel you cannot go on, stop. Most people keep going though, after they get over the speed bump of starting. Always give yourself credit for having done something! Glorify in it!  Do this every day at the same time for five minutes. Over time you develop a sense of accomplishment, and by focusing on ‘the trees not the forest’, eventually the task is done.  Sometimes the patients complain they didn’t develop ‘motivation’ but they admit it feels good to have done it.

I try to lead by example. Rather than having the vague and mammoth goal to “Learn Spanish”  I have the goal to do the five-minutes rule on Duolingo. Every night at 830PM my phone goes off as if to say “whatever you are doing, cut it out. Time for Spanish lessons – five minutes only – and I don’t care how you feel about it.  I’ve done this over 600 days in a row now. Usually around 8PM I start thinking of it, and when I do, I usually start it then.  I’m slowly slogging my way to proficiency.

I’m considering setting my phone for 9PM now, to tackle a closet. But I’ve been putting it off.  hohoho

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