Procrastination: How to silence the fears that stop you in your tracks

July 8, 2013

Meet Jamie Palmer and Jan Bavea, two brave women who are ready to stop acting like paralyzed procrastinators. After receiving our “What kind of procrastinator are you?” newsletter, Jamie, a former PR professional who is now writing a book, admits: “I couldn’t even bring myself to open the email about procrastinating.” But her worries about regret and wasted time overruled her trepidation and she emailed us. Jan, a certified business and professional coach who helps busy people find the balance they need, also wants to find a way to overcome her fear of judgment and perfectionism: “I just want to change my mindset to see that being good enough doesn’t mean being perfect. I would finally be able to stop procrastinating around things I know I can do and stop all my second-guessing.”

What they’re currently struggling with:
• “I’ve always been an introvert since I was young, and it’s hard for me to put myself out there,” says Jan. She knows she needs to market her business by developing her website, blogging, and creating a newsletter. She believes she’s capable of doing it, but… “I’m stopped by my self-judgment. I’m scared that the things I do might not be good enough, and I’ll look silly.”

• Jamie is committed to writing a memoir about her family and their experience overcoming the challenges of her son’s autism. “There is a message in here, and I feel like I could potentially help someone who might be going through something similar by doing this. But I just can’t get myself to write. I know I can write — I’ve taught writing for a number of years, and I have been paid to write — but I’m just not writing. I’m scared of being judged. And being a perfectionist hasn’t helped all that much either.”

For paralyzed procrastinators like Jan and Jamie, fear trumps motivation. So sensitive to judgment, they avoid it by not doing whatever it is they know they should be doing. They might have plenty of plausible excuses at the ready, but dread sits at the core. And it often manifests itself in these three ways. 

1. “Catastrophize” the consequences. Paralyzed procrastinators frequently imagine the worst that can happen if they take the next step. And they use these thoughts as reasons to stay at a standstill. “Even though I know the good that can come out of finishing and publishing my book,” says Jamie, “everything that could go wrong just keeps holding me back. I’m overwhelmed by the what-ifs. What if my work is rejected? What if people don’t react well to what I share? What if it does get published but I’m not happy with it?”

2. Criticize themselves. Although both Jan and Jamie think they are capable, they often doubt their abilities and even belittle themselves. “When I’m procrastinating, I feel guilty, annoyed, and frustrated with myself,” says Jan. Jamie adds that these feelings of frustration sometimes make her believe something is wrong with her: “I’m always asking myself, ‘Why can’t I just do this?’. I criticize myself by thinking that I’m so undisciplined. And some days, I feel really depressed because I don’t even know if I can call myself a writer. Why don’t I just write? Why don’t I feel compelled to write?”

3. Rely on regular support. Because paralyzed procrastinators tend to be pessimistic and self-critical, they depend on praise and encouragement to build confidence. “I used to always work with a partner when I was a PR professional, and I feel like that’s when I worked best. I needed someone to bounce ideas off of and to give me affirmation that yes, I am doing okay after all,” says Jamie.

How do we stop the negativity and finally put one foot in front of the other? There is no silver bullet when you’re fighting the irrationality of fear. Getting to the root of why you’re procrastinating can motivate, but it helps to follow it up with practical tactics — and frequent reminders that perfection is over-rated.

Find out exactly why you’re paralyzed. Reaching the aha! often guides us in the right direction, and may point out that we’re taking things too seriously. To get to the core of it,  ask a friend to probe you for the reason, listen to your answers, and play back to you what she hears. Try to get very specific. You can also use Unstuck’s “Tell Me Why” tool. (You can download the free Unstuck iPad app here.) And remind yourself that nothing gets done perfectly on the first try.

Pencil in time for feedback. This can be a strong antidote to self-criticism and worst-case-scenario-ism. Ask someone whose judgment you trust to check in on your progress on a regular basis. While these feedback sessions will push you to produce, their primary purpose is to give you reality checks. You’ll learn if you’re on the right track. If your work is good. If you should try a new angle. All of it is aimed at putting your fears to bed. And to remind you that nothing gets done perfectly on the first try.

Create tiny goals. If you’re not getting anything done, even the teeniest completion will be an achievement. Say you’re writing something. You might tell yourself, “Okay, today all I need to do is come up with a headline. Tomorrow, I’ll think about the first sentence.” And remember, nothing gets done perfectly on the first try. 

Address your anxiety. For every “what if I do it wrong” thought you have, come up with a fabulous “what if I do it right” thought. Here are eight more tips to fight anxiety. And, of course, remember that nothing gets done perfectly on the first try. 

PRINTABLE TIP CARD #6: Tips for Paralyzed Procrastinators

Last week: How put-upon procrastinators can stop putting off boring tasks
Next week: James Bradley shares his story of how he learned to adapt to change after a brain tumor surgery

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