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Managing stress, fear, and procrastination

By Mary Pettigrew

So what is procrastination?

Putting off tasks we don't enjoy is common no matter what your age or health situation. Procrastination is the act of delaying or putting off tasks until the last minute, or past their deadline. I think I’d like to find a different word to use these days instead of “deadline.” Some researchers define procrastination as a "form of self-regulation failure characterized by the irrational delay of tasks despite potentially negative consequences." I can certainly relate to this too.

According to Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University, in Chicago, and author of Still Procrastinating: The No Regret Guide to Getting It Done, around 20 percent of U.S. adults are chronic procrastinators.

False sense of security

No matter how well-organized and committed you are, chances are you have found yourself frittering away hours on trivial pursuits (watching TV, updating your Facebook status, shopping online) when you should have been spending that time on work- or school-related projects.

Whether you're putting off finishing a project for work, avoiding homework assignments, or ignoring household chores, procrastination can have a major effect on your job, your grades, and your life.

In most cases, procrastination is not a sign of a serious problem. It's a common tendency most people give in to at some point or another.

Remember that time you thought you had a week left to finish a project that was really due the next day? How about the time you decided not to clean up your apartment because you "didn't feel like doing it right now?"

We often assume that projects won't take as long to finish as they really will, which can lead to a false sense of security when we believe we still have plenty of time to complete these tasks.

Factors at work

One of the biggest factors contributing to procrastination is the notion that we have to feel inspired or motivated to work on a task at a particular moment. I have a couple friends who always say this and yet their motivation never comes. At least they can laugh about it now if I bring it up. I’ve used the excuse as well, but only when it pertains to my writing, I think. I also think creative inspiration is harder to muster. There needs to be a “feeling” or else the words just don’t come. When a deadline is looming and the words still haven’t come, my stress picks up, MS symptoms, and GI issues react accordingly.

The reality is that if you wait until you're in the right frame of mind to do certain tasks (especially undesirable

Kendra Cherry, author,psychology consultant, Very Well Mind, Medically reviewed by David Susman, Ph.D.

Do the Easy Hard Things First, by Scott Allan (available on Amazon)
ones), you will probably find that the right time simply never comes along and the task never gets completed. I love to write, but is it possible I’ve allowed other distractions to interfere? I need to explore this idea.

The following are a few other factors that cause procrastination.

Researchers suggest procrastination can be particularly pronounced among students. A 2007 meta-analysis published in the “Psychological Bulletin” found a whopping 80 to 95 percent of college students procrastinated on a regular basis, particularly when it came to completing assignments and coursework. I was notorious for this sort of behavior as a student, and it did not serve me well.

According to researchers, there are some cognitive distortions that lead to academic procrastination and other task-related activities. These distortions can be similar to the various cognitive issues when MS is in the picture. For example:
  • Overestimate how much time they have left to perform tasks.
  • Overestimate how motivated they will be in the future.
  • Underestimate how long certain activities will take to complete.
  • Mistakenly assume they need to be in the right frame of mind to work on a project – Irrational thoughts of false productivity, leads to nothing accomplished.
  • Fatigue, guilt, shame, anxiety, OCD, substance abuse, and depression.
  • Self-imposed expectations or perfection leads to “everything or nothing at all.”
  • ADHD or ADD problems that can cause feelings of chaos, and being overwhelmed by the task at hand, so they avoid it altogether.

Present versus cognitive bias

The present bias is a phenomenon observed in human behavior that may result in procrastination. The present bias means we tend to be motivated more by immediate gratification or rewards than we are by long-term rewards. This is why it feels good in the moment to procrastinate.

For example, the immediate reward of staying in bed and watching TV is more appealing than the long-term reward of publishing a blog post, which would take much longer to accomplish.

Depression, OCD, anxiety, and fear

Procrastination can also be a result of depression and anxiety. Feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, and a lack of energy can make it difficult to start and finish the simplest task. Depression can also lead to self-doubt. When you can't figure out how to tackle a project or feel insecure about your abilities you might find it easier to put it off.

Procrastination is also pretty common in people with obsessive-compulsive disorder. One reason is that OCD is often linked with maladaptive perfectionism. It causes fears about making new mistakes, doubts about whether you are doing something correctly, and worry about others' expectations of you. People with OCD also often have a propensity toward indecision, causing them to procrastinate rather than make a decision.

Fear is an interesting factor that can also contribute to procrastination. This can involve a fear of failure, a fear of making mistakes, or even a fear of success. I recently saw an astonishing interview with Michelle Obama. She began to speak about having issues with self-esteem and other personal matters involving fear. She said, “Fear is a powerful emotion. We all need it, it keeps us safe, but if we overprivilege it, it keeps us stuck. Decode, learn when fear can help us versus when it’s holding us back.” This is called “quieting the fearful mind.” Wow! When she said these things in correlation to her own anxiety and procrastination, I knew this would be part of my topic to write about this month. 

Why are we afraid? Are we afraid of success because we secretly believe we don't deserve it? This is self-sabotage. It is important to realize you’re self-handicapping behaviors might actually be keeping you from amazing opportunities and achieving your goals. By addressing the fear that is keeping you from getting started, you can begin to overcome your procrastination habit.

Procrastination itself is not a mental illness, per se, but it may be symptomatic of an underlying mental health condition such as depression, OCD, or ADHD.

Many adults with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder struggle with procrastination. When you're distracted by outside stimuli, as well as internal thoughts, it can be hard to get started on a task, especially if that task is difficult or not interesting to you.

Types of procrastinators

Some researchers classify two types of procrastinators: passive and active procrastinators.
  • Passive procrastinators: Delay the task because they have trouble making decisions and acting on them.
  • Active procrastinators: Delay the task purposefully because working under pressure allows them to "feel challenged and motivated."

Others define the types of procrastinators based on different behavioral styles of procrastination. I display characteristics for many of these types and I know much of it is inherent (childhood trauma), others have become more escalated with MS.
  • Perfectionist: Puts off tasks out of the fear of not being able to complete a task perfectly. 
  • Dreamer: Puts off tasks because they are not good at paying attention to detail.
  • Defier: Doesn't believe someone should dictate their time schedule.
  • Worrier: Puts off tasks out of fear of change or leaving the comfort of "the known."
  • Crisis-maker: Puts off tasks because they like working under pressure.
  • Overdoer: Takes on too much and struggles with finding time to start and complete task.

Tips to do better

So, how can we better manage issues with procrastination, fear, and stress?

Fortunately, there are several different things you can do to fight procrastination. MS does create more challenges, but that’s all the more reason to try. Consider these exercises:

1. Make a to-do list: Be careful here. Lists can help keep you focused and on track, but it’s easy to get distracted, so you’ll keep adding things to your list even when nothing has yet been completed from your original tasks. Consider placing a due date next to each item.

2. Take baby steps: Break down the items on your list into small, manageable steps so your tasks don’t seem so overwhelming. Believe me, this is a very important tip. I started to dive into the daunting task of decluttering my house a couple years ago. Well, let me tell you, I’m still finding old shopping bags with dusty Post-it Notes and legal pads filled with to do lists never done. 

3. Recognize the warning signs: Pay attention to any thoughts of procrastination and do your best to resist the urge. If you begin to think about procrastinating, force yourself to spend a few minutes working on your task. My nightstand has three drawers that can easily become a messy catch all for my go to needs (meds, glasses, lotions, etc.). If I don’t pay attention to my habits, it turns into a landfill. So I try to remember, just one little thing at a time is a positive step

4. Eliminate distractions: What pulls your attention away the most — whether it's Instagram, Facebook updates, or the local news, turn off those sources of distraction. I must admit this is a difficult one for me. I do take regular time outs from social media, but my TV is always on. I decided to compromise with myself on that one.

5. Pat yourself on the back: When you finish an item on your to-do list on time, congratulate yourself and reward yourself by indulging in something you find fun. I’ve come to realize I never really knew how to reward myself, so I’d try to push onto the next task – to do more, to do better. This has been quite an eye-opening for me and it’s a work in progress. I will give myself a well-deserved pat on the back today because I have successfully achieved my goal for 2022. My goal was to stay on track with purging, decluttering, and organizing my house. It’s an ongoing project, but I’ve stayed on track. 

I didn’t realize how much self-imposed stress I have been carrying around all these years. It’s been heavy. I’m headed in the right direction though. I believe my goal for 2023 will be to keep carrying onward as best I can no matter how big or small. I will also try my best to set healthy boundaries and better time management with my TV and social media use.