Procrastination guilt paralysis.

I’m certainly not alone in procrastinating. This is especially true in my life outside work. From time to time something gets put off so long that my guilt over having not done it begins preventing me from thinking about it. The thought of facing up to my laziness and it’s implications on whatever project I’m working on becomes an near insurmountable obstacle.

Timothy Pychyl wrote an helpful article on procrastination guilt on the Psychology Today blog. He writes that procrastination guilt is a byproduct of cognitive dissonance. Our intention to act in one manner conflicts with our behavior and the resulting emotions lead to a course of action that are far from productive. This is the paralysis and it comes in the form of active forgetfulness, denial, and distraction among other things.

Absolution Through Action

Knowing that you’re prone to these behaviors can at least help you recognize when you’re caught in the cycle. The trick to overcoming it is starting small.

There’s a silly little parable at the start of The White Stripes “Little Acorns” that tells the story of a woman (Janet) who works her way out of despondency after observing a squirrel packing away food for winter one tiny nut at a time. Janet realizes that she can break down her problems into small steps and work on them one at a time; this makes her obstacles manageable. This aesopian fable sounds trite (and it is kind of) but it’s exactly the right way to deal with procrastination guilt.

Taking even the smallest action gives you inertia, and guilt immediately begins to fade. Simple tasks like sending an email, making a list or even simply opening up the appropriate software can be enough. Once the guilt lifts you’ll be less prone to the coping behaviors of distraction and avoidance and you’ll soon gain the momentum you need to get back on track.

Avoiding Avoidance.

There are no lack of guides or advice columns in the world for folks looking to change their behavior. A lot of it is has been too Tony Robbinsy to be of much use for me. Inspiration can be a change agent, but it’s not going to get you far with out some kind of action to take. I find it’s easier to learn a new habit than it is to change old ones. So I’ve tried to find new things to do that disrupt older behavior patterns. Here are a couple I’ve found that have helped me tremendously.

Bullet Journaling

For years I’ve adopted and abandoned various task organization tools like Evernote, Wunderlist, Trello, etc. Each of them is wondfully designed but each ends up being a thing that I can ignore. Along came bullet journaling and it changed everything for me.

Bullet journalling is an analog system that requires only a pen and a notebook. The key feature is the daily lists. At beggining or end of each day you mark down the various tasks, events or ideas that you have. If there are any tasks from the previous day that you haven’t completed you pull them over to the next day. For the procrastinator this means facing the fact that you may have delayed on something on a daily basis.

Though keeping this kind of journal is itself something you can procrastinate on it has some advantages to apps. It’s harder to ignore a black moleskin sitting on your desk than an app on your phone. I’ve intentionally tried to make the act of journaling a distraction which has formed a kind of positive feedback loop. I allow myself to be distracted I’ll doodle in the margins of the list, I’ll jot down a few things and then “Oh right, I’ve got to do that. Back to work.”

Email — Getting Things Done

I scoffed for ages at the idea of Inbox Zero. It seemed like a wasted effort. Though the problem for the procrastinator is that emails you put off responding too quickly get buried. Then Mailbox came along. It turns your inbox into a to-do list. I try to set aside an hour a day (two half our sessions in the morning and afternoon) to responding to emails. It works quite well in tandem with bullet journaling. I’d highly recommend checking it out.

Mindfulness Meditation

Guided meditation focused on fostering mindfulness can help you notice behaviors that enable procrastination. It's certainly not for everyone, but so far it's been great for me. As with all things–tour results may vary.

If you've read this far I'll assume this matters to you. 

The real trick is to keep trying to improve. Everyone's brain works a bit differently, but if you can discover why you're avoiding work there's a good chance you can design your self away to make it easier and harder to avoid. Look for patterns and find solutions that fit them. Good luck!