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Procrastination Anxiety

A cartoon in my local paper pictures two boys on their way to the first day of school. One summarizes the feeling: ?It was a nice summer but I could?ve used a couple of extra innings.? Has the summer flown by for you? Have you gotten all those projects at home and at work done that you planned before the semester ended? No. Well, you must be a normal academic because we all overplan our summers and then face that sinking feeling as the calendar turns over to August, ?What have done with my summer? Why did I procrastinate getting more done??

The spring edition of Professor Destressor eNews gave tips to prevent some of this occurrence but in spite of implementing those suggestions you still might be in a panic about the semester starting, the summer ending and not much to show for it. Here are some reasons why you might be having the end-of-summer panic and what to do to combat them in the fading light of the summer.

  1. Overestimating what we can get done in a short time like a summer. My coaching mentor, Dr. Ben Dean says ?Curiously, people overestimate what they can get done in the short time ­ weeks and months- and underestimate what they can get done in a longer period, say five years. My experience is that the reason is that there the persistence of pursuing subgoals creates a synergy in big projects so that the energy, information and resources cumulate faster towards the end like a geometric progression.

  2. Underestimating time required for a task. Here is a trick for more accurate time management estimates for the completion of tasks.
    • Familiar task when you know exactly how long the task takes: Known time X 1.25 = real time
    • Slightly familiar easy task: Estimated time x 1.50 = real time
    • Unfamiliar task with time estimated by others: their time x 1.75 = real time
    • New task with no experts to consult for time estimates: Guessed time x 2 = real time.

    So if you know it takes you 2 hours to write a draft of a results section in a scientific article, allow 2 ½ hours for the task. This estimate will be closer to the real time.

  3. Stuff happens. Your teenager had an appendectomy; the air conditioning went out in the middle of a heat wave; your mother-in-law came for a weekend and stayed all summer; your computer crashed. Interruptions throw off your productivity. You can get on track now if you follow these suggestions.

Maladaptive Approaches to Procrastination Anxiety

In spite of all of the above interfering with your ability to complete what you wanted to complete, you can use two approaches to beat procrastination anxiety: adaptive and maladaptive.

Here are some maladaptive approaches that create insanity in your life and their remedies in case you have already used some of these maladaptive strategies.

  1. Worry a lot about tasks you have to do but don'’t do any of them.
    This can be a very satisfying strategy on the short term because you will feel like you are doing something about your plight and that you are keeping your projects in the forefront of your mind. You can convince yourself that you are working hard this summer because you are thinking a lot about working.

    Instead: worry effectively.
    This requires a worry chair and a worry log book. The chair should not be a chair you normally sit in such as your desk chair. A good alternative is a dining room chair other than you usually sit in. Think of the chair as an adult “time out.” Every time you begin to worry, run to the chair and write down all your worries in the log book. Then return to whatever you were doing. If you wake up in the middle of the night and start worrying, go to the chair. If you are at your office scrolling through emails, go to the guest chair, the one you use for students who visit you. The advantage of this program is that you will empty all the worries out of your head onto the paper. You will get bored with worrying and begin an adaptive strategy of planning how to spend your time towards greater productivity.

  2. Avoid thinking about the tasks you wish you could get done this summer.
    This is also a satisfying strategy on the short term because there is built in physiological relief for avoiding anything that raises anxiety. Avoidance techniques include checking email, checking the weather on TV, calling a friend, cleaning something that isn’t one of your projects, picking a fight with your kids, and my favorite, starting another more interesting project.

    A related strategy is escape.
    In this strategy every time you begin to work on your project or think about it and you feel anxious, you escape to another activity such as the one you might use for avoidance. Avoidance and escape strategies seem similar but in avoidance, you never arouse the anxiety at all while in escape, you arouse it and then escape from it. These strategies work on the short term but they eventually catch up with you when your guard is down, say in the middle of the night or at the amusement park with the kids, your stomach goes into knots and you break out in a sweat.

    Instead: try a small burst of activity towards your project followed by a planned escape. You will feel more in control because although you are still escaping, you are consciously choosing when and how.

  3. Acting out the anxiety.
    In this technique, you might be worrying, avoiding or escaping but what others see is your anxiety. How do they know? Because you are drinking a lot of alcohol, eating quarts of ice cream at one sitting, yelling a lot, and doing other misbehaviors that distract from the issue at hand, feeling anxious about your lack of productivity and progress. This strategy is the most maladaptive because it risks your health and your relationships.

    Instead: when your body feels anxious, notice it and do something adaptive such as effective worrying, short burst of productive activity or some of the adaptive techniques below.

Adaptive Approaches to Procrastination Anxiety

There are two groups of these healthier, more productive strategies.

  1. The action strategies.
    Nike said it best; “Just do it!” What usually interferes with the ability of smart college professors just strapping on their running shoes and “doing it” is being overwhelmed by the largeness of the project. The key is to break the project down to small manageable bites ­ 15 minutes in length. This requires writing down the steps which itself can be a 15 minutes task. Then you cross off each 15 minute step as you complete it.

    As the end of August approaches and you have only a week or two left until the start of the semester to get those summer projects done pick three projects to evaluate their status. Pick either the ones that bring the most rewards or the ones whose completion will help you avoid pain like the wrath of the department chair who hasn’t received your end of the year report or the anxiety of your students dealing with a badly written confusing syllabus all semester. Write down the steps for each project on small sticky notes and group the notes either in a notebook or on a poster board, one page or section of the poster board for each project. Have a calendar meeting with yourself and stick the notes into the fifteen minute slots on your paper calendar or if you manage time electronically, you can cut and paste a similar system in your PDA. When you finish the 15 minute tasks stick the note back on the master list in the notebook or poster board so that can watch your progress and later brag to the other cool kids at school what you did with your summer vacation. Every time you feel anxious, write and do. Write the sticky notes, complete some of the 15 minutes tasks, whittle away at the large tasks, and watch your progress.

  2. The priority strategies.
    Can you really get that massive piece of research done in the next two weeks? Of course not! Here is what to do to lower your procrastination anxiety. Do an anxiety lowering binge. Write as many subgoals of the big project on stickies, pick the ones that would most lower your anxiety and divide them into 15 minute tasks. Complete a couple of them and sit still. Check whether your anxiety has gone down. If it rises again, repeat the process until you begin to feels less anxious. Don’t engage in any maladaptive strategies like escaping, avoiding, or acting out which might relieve the anxiety on the short term and drive it deeper on the longer term. Once you finish a binge, completing a bunch of your subgoals, you will see progress. Then sit still and tell yourself what a smart and wonderful person you are and how you were very ambitious about your summer plans and how many of these lovely projects can spill over into the school year or hang over for next summer because you are writing stickies, worrying effectively, and doing 15 minute bursts of productive activity. If you feel like working longer on the steps, do two steps in 30 minutes but still make the stickies about steps that take only 15 minutes each. When you feel anxious, binge on another batch of 15 goals, then sit still, accept the limits of your human frailties that make you overestimate what you can get done in the summer. Then keep making more stickies and make appointments to work on them in your calendar.

    When haunted by thoughts like, “I didn’t get anything done this summer,” consult your lists of completed steps and reward yourself with a treat.

    If none of these things work, get an accountability buddy to help each other report on tasks done. You don’t have to meet ­ email or voice mail will do. Cheer each other on; do not spend your time grousing about how hard life is or how stupid you feel for not completing more projects. Remind each other to precede even when the steps are small and the progress slow. Accept your limitations but keep breaking the projects into 15 minute units.

    If you can’t find a buddy, hire a coach to keep you accountable and help you problem solve what is standing in your way of finishing some projects. Maybe you can’t think of the subgoals. Maybe you don’t know how to schedule. A professional coach can teach you some tricks, help you accept your limitations, and cheer your success.

    Once you pound out some of the goals of your projects, continue to work on them during 15 minute intervals as soon as the semester starts. Working with smaller goals and smaller units of time will lead to more being done over the academic year than waiting for the right time to do large junk of your projects.


When procrastination anxiety plagues you, act and accept your way to progress and success.

© Copyright 2007 Susan Robison. All rights reserved. The above material is copyrighted but you may retransmit or distribute it to whomever you wish as long as not a single word is changed, added or deleted, including the contact information.

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