How to manage panic-related procrastination

We are all guilty of procrastination – whether it’s leaving work deadlines to the last minute, allowing the washing to pile up, avoiding household chores or not replying to emails.

And rather than tackling our growing to-do list, we avoid all tasks, instead opting for less important but more enjoyable activities such as watching TV or scrolling through our phones.

This is all despite the fact that, in the long run, we know this will make us feel more stressed and overwhelmed.

According to GP and Mental Health Coach Dr Hana Patel, this procrastination may stem from a number of factors, including fear of failure, a lack of motivation, confusion over the task at hand, or the idea that we need to be in the right frame of mind to complete certain tasks.

But procrastination can also be a direct consequence of anxiety or panic disorders; often known as panic-related procrastination.

‘Panic-related procrastination may be linked to underlying mental health problems such as depression or adult ADHD,’ adds Dr Patel.

How does anxiety link to procrastination?

When you are anxious, you may also be prone to perfectionism. 

This often places unrealistic expectations and standards on tasks, making them unattainable and leading to avoidance and procrastination.

Essentially, aiming for perfection can make some people feel so overwhelmed they’re unable to start a task at all.

Low self-esteem linked to anxiety can also lead to procrastination. 

When we’re feeling low, we tend to be held back by negative beliefs. These thoughts may tell us we are not good enough or that we aren’t able to complete the tasks – even if this isn’t true.

Anxiety can cause our working memory to become overwhelmed or a create a fear of uncertainty, too, further impacting problems.

‘All my life, there has been a common thread in the way I work. I am that person who does everything last minute. If it’s not an absolute urgency to get it done, it can wait,’ says Ceri Gillett, a Business Consultant and Coach who has been panic-procrastinating since high school.

‘Panic procrastination happens when I get overwhelmed with the amount of work I need to do or I feel like I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. 

‘Sometimes it rears its ugly head when I am confused over details or answers, or I’m just petrified of making a mistake. Panic procrastination means I do anything other than the thing I need to. 

‘It means I have been organising the utility room when I have a looming deadline. I once started a Pinterest board for a Halloween party that didn’t exist just to avoid submitting some work for my Masters. 

‘Panic procrastination is linked to our fear, and while it keeps us safe, it doesn’t move us forward or help us get things done.’

Combatting panic-related procrastination

‘We worry about procrastination as this may lead to people feeling guilt, failure or shame, and can lead to depression,’ explains Dr Patel.

‘So try to be kind to yourself, allow yourself to be human and acknowledge that we do make mistakes. 

‘Knowing this can be helpful to start on a task that is on your to-do list rather than worry about it.’

As anxiety can be compounded the more we avoid our responsibilities, it’s better in the long-run to rip the metaphorical plaster off and get started regardless.

Dr Patel continues: ‘It is natural for people to worry and feel anxious about things we keep putting off, but it becomes a vicious cycle, meaning that the more we put things off, the more anxious we become.’

Challenge your thoughts

To end the cycle, Somia Zaman, psychotherapist at My Therapy Rooms, says that a good starting point is to think about what is causing us to procrastinate. 

‘Often this is tied up in anxieties and fears about doing something,’ Somia tells Metro.co.uk.

‘It may be that a person doesn’t feel confident that they will do a good job, or maybe they feel overwhelmed because they have so much to do.

‘Either way, it is helpful to understand what the reasons are and to start to identify the thought patterns behind our actions – or lack of action.

‘How we think affects how we feel and then what we do. Once we can understand this, we can challenge our thoughts and start to change our behaviours.’

Reframe your thinking 

‘Take yourself into a growth mindset and realise that there is nothing you can’t work through,’ says Meera Shah, a Transformation and Success Coach.

‘Make a decision, take some action. Often we get scared of either messing up or not being able to say no later. 

‘Both are reversible, and action then allows you to gain more information. 

‘Think of the worst thing that could happen and then what you would do if that happened. 

‘That gives you peace that if your worst nightmare becomes true, you have devised strategies to cope with that.’

Learn to prioritise

Take it one task at a time. 

‘Sometimes we need something to get us started quickly, and so problem-solving can help,’ advises Somia. 

‘I would always recommend making a list of everything you need to do and then prioritising. This can help when procrastination is due to having too much to do and feeling overwhelmed.

‘Prioritising can help reduce stress. Have a think about what needs doing right now/today and what can wait.

‘Physically ticking tasks off on a list really helps some people, as you can actually see what you have accomplished and will gain a sense of achievement.’

Make time smaller

Rather than thinking about completing your task, promise yourself you’ll do it for a shorter period of time to make it seem less daunting.

‘If I need to get something done and I avoid it, I tell myself to try it for 10 minutes,’ explains Ceri.

‘I set a timer, I put my phone away, and I get going. The short time span makes it easier for me to get started. 

‘I’m always surprised by what I do in that time, and, it’s sometimes enough to break down the barrier and allow me to keep going. If not, I keep coming back to it in shorter, bite-size chunks until it’s done.’

Or you could divide each task into smaller, more manageable ones and get more ticked off your to-do list.

Communicate 

Struggling to complete a task because you’re confused about it? It may seem obvious, but don’t be afraid to ask for help.

If it’s work-related, then you can set up a meeting with a colleague or your manager and work through your problems together. 

It’s ok to admit you need help.

Take a breath 

To get out of a panic-induced ‘freeze’ in productivity, Meera suggests taking a deep breath, going for a walk, and breaking the energy of the panic for a few minutes.

‘Take time to regulate yourself if you are feeling anxious about starting a task,’ suggests Somia.

‘Deep breathing can help with this. Square breathing is also a useful tool – breathe in deeply for four and out for four and continue doing this until you feel calmer.’

Seek help

If your anxiety and procrastination becomes uncontrollable and debilitating, it may be beneficial to see your GP for a referral to talking therapies.

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