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How to Beat Mental Health-Related Procrastination With This Simple Exercise


There is a common joke about procrastination — that it is great for getting work done… just in every job besides the one that is your top priority. A few doctorate candidate friends of mine would say their apartments had never been so clean as when they started writing up their theses.

In this way, you can make procrastination your friend. Using the pent-up anxiety associated with avoiding your big task can help you get lots of little jobs out of the way. This is great if you then turn your attention to what is important, but many of us can’t do this. A few associates of mine have also said that they need to procrastinate a bit to build up the pressure and adrenaline before they can tackle any issue. But when we are outside of a structured environment such as a doctorate program or 9 to 5 job with a boss setting the deadlines, we have to set our own deadlines and procrastination can turn into not only lost productivity but a lot of self-doubts.

Procrastination is most definitely a foe for many working people. It results in lost hours when we could be making progress on our top priority items. Device-related procrastination is thought to cost the US about $70 billion per year, according to one expert, Professor Piers Steel. And much has been written about combating procrastination, but isn’t reading these books just another way to procrastinate?

I was motivated to write this article because I had a breakthrough in my own months-long battle with procrastination on a particular project. I have had varying levels of success working on my project over the past few months but always with a struggle. Today, I came up with a simple exercise that worked at overcoming the first challenge of fighting procrastination: sitting down at your desk to finally tackle that job that you have put off for so long. Today, I decided to work on a research article I had been away from for two months because of another contract. This wasn’t my procrastination but a chosen break from my assignment. But I had been procrastinating on the assignment for months prior to the break. My aim was to work one hour and I succeeded in working for 45 minutes.

Before I outline the exercise, let me explain a bit more about where I am coming from. Many of us have serious disabilities that either causes us to procrastinate or contribute significantly to the problem. I am diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. When I was struggling with my disability undiagnosed, I was trying to work up my data to publish my first research article. Because of my psychosis, my data would literally be swirling in circles in front of my eyes. I couldn’t make sense of anything, no matter how hard I tried to concentrate.

Years later, I am still struggling with this scary incident in the form of a post-traumatic stress response to analyzing data. Whenever I need to open my statistical analysis software, my anxiety levels go up and I worry that none of the numbers will make sense to me, years after coming to terms with my illness and enjoying the stability that the proper medication and talk therapy provides. Because working on my data means a lot of anxiety for me, I tend to procrastinate. It is a real issue for me, resulting in many lost hours. In many ways, I am lucky. Through years of therapy, I know why I procrastinate. Many of us don’t know why we procrastinate — just that it is a real issue. That being said, here is the simple exercise I developed today to get over my procrastination.

I got a blank piece of lined paper and wrote the headings Time, What, How I Feel: Anxiety 1-10. I also wrote the title of what I was working on and the date. Under “Time,” I wrote the time up to the minute and then under “What,” I wrote the work I was doing. For example, my first line was:

9:45 Start. — Open computer folders. — 7 anxiety level.

For me, working on something I have procrastinated against brings up a lot of resistance in the form of me thinking, “I really have to do X right now.” So, under “What,” I wrote down every time I was distracted or wanted to quit for whatever reason. For example:

9:50. Want to listen to music. Anxiety 6.

At first, it was every minute that I had a distracting thought, but it slowed down.

It really got me over the hump of the initial spike in anxiety, because as we know, anxiety goes down after a little while of working on something hard.

During my 45 minutes, I took two breaks and cried once. It sounds bad but I was actually crying about how my project had value and that I had unnecessarily avoided it for so long. My anxiety stayed the same or went down, so it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be. I also wrote at the bottom: Reasons I don’t want to succeed at the task and reasons why I do want to succeed.

For me, I think there are subconscious reasons why I am sabotaging my work.

I urge you to try this exercise today. You may be surprised after an hour, or 45 minutes, or however long you are able to work, about the thoughts and feelings that come up, or even just the number of distractions you have in your life. I guarantee (if this is even possible) that you will have renewed enthusiasm about your project. There is a reason it is at the top of your priority list! If you are dissatisfied, let me know in the comments. Stay tuned, because I plan to let you know how this exercise evolves on day two and onward.

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash