I recently wrote about the root causes of procrastination. Many of us procrastinate at one time or another. We also try to find ways to overcome that particular challenge. It seems like it should be easy. After all, there are certainly enough books out there telling us exactly what we need to do to get everything done and still have downtime at a the end of the day. Until we discover why we procrastinate, however, it isn’t very likely we can make any of those life-changing behaviors stick. Anxiety is one of the most common causes of procrastination. It keeps us rooted exactly where we stand as we ponder everything that could and most likely will go wrong if we try to move forward.
Now, I’m not talking about life-changing transitions such as changing jobs, moving to a new home, or writing the Great American Novel–although anxiety is certainly one of chief reasons those goals often feel out of reach . No, I’m talking about the garden variety projects that we face on a regular basis. The kind that are just far enough outside of our comfort zone to make us a little squeamish when we think about them. Perhaps it’s writing a new report for the boss on an unfamiliar topic. Or maybe it’s the thought of going back to school to further your skills and marketability. You might even have seen your dream job posted, but the idea of applying terrifies you.
In many of these situations, anxiety is sparked by insecurity. This is especially common among perfectionists and recovering perfectionists. These people are frightened of making a mistake, or showing their boss or colleagues they aren’t sure what they’re doing. We mistakenly believe we should have all the answers. We should know exactly what needs to be done in any situation. If we make an error, everyone will know our secret. That secret, however, isn’t based in reality. You can’t possibly know everything at all times, nor does anyone expect you to.
This common scenario is often created by our negative self-talk. That inner voice that tells us how terrible everything is. The one that tries to keep us exactly where we are because–even if we don’t like it–we know what to expect and it is safe. One of my friends was trying to start a business as a virtual assistant, but couldn’t get it off the ground. Every time she thought about contacting a potential client, that voice told her she was ridiculous. What could she offer that client? Why would the client think she was any better than other VA’s? She knew she had a lot to offer, but that voice kept telling her to give it up. Stay where she is. It’s safer there.
Her breakthrough came when she realized the clients weren’t really judging her at all. She was judging herself. Her potential clients were only concerned with whether she could help them. And she could. Once she recognized she was the cruelest critic in the room, she overcame much of her anxiety and could honestly market her strengths. She stopped putting off those marketing conversations. Needless to say, her business is thriving today.
One of my clients recently had trouble communicating with his boss. His boss had asked for some new reports and my client thought the request was relatively easy. However, as he began to work on them he realized some of the criteria was confusing and wasn’t sure exactly how to proceed. In the past, he would not have reached out to his boss because he felt she would see that as a sign of weakness or a lacking skillset. He would have put off working on the report because he wasn’t sure how to complete it. The result would have been a late report and a lot of unnecessary stress for my client.
Once my client accepted the fact that he didn’t need to have all the answers, he was able to ask for help. His boss was happy to answer questions, and their conversations actually helped her clarify what she needed from those reports. Realizing he didn’t have to be Superman was a big step for my client. Doing so actually made him feel more confident and opened lines of communication between him and his boss.
Anxiety is one of the most common causes of procrastination. We fear we don’t know how to do something or perhaps won’t do it correctly. But when we are mindful of our emotions–why we are feeling a certain way and how we react to that emotion–we are better equipped to deal with that anxiety. We can recognize procrastination for what it is–a self-defensive behavior designed to keep us from growing and moving forward.