Every time I get assigned a big, overwhelming or difficult project at work, the same pattern shows up. I want to start working on it and get it done, but I end up putting it off for weeks or even months. I procrastinate until the last minute and then have to rush it. I never do things as well as I wanted to, either. Why do I repeat this pattern every time? How can I stop getting overwhelmed by big projects and feel more confident and get them done earlier?
Most people think procrastination is a time management issues — but it really isn’t. It is a fear problem. (I know some of you still aren’t convinced yet that almost every problem is a fear problem, but it is.)
Joseph R. Ferrari, an associate professor of psychology at DePaul University, says, "Telling someone who procrastinates to buy a weekly planner is like telling someone with chronic depression to just cheer up."
It’s a little more complicated than that.
The real cause of procrastination is a basic, instinctive, subconscious program that has been with us as long as we have existed as a species, it is our fight and flight response to scary things. This subconscious response is obviously necessary for our survival, but it can cause some serious problems in modern-day life.
Imagine you were walking down the street and a hungry crocodile came running out of the bushes at you. What would you do immediately without even thinking about it? You would run!
You are literally programmed to always run and hide from scary things if you can. If you can’t run or escape, you will fight, but if running or avoiding the scary thing is an option, you will always choose that.
This makes sense when we are talking about wild animals. Avoiding these is a good idea, but you have the same subconscious reaction to big, difficult projects. Your first inclination or unconscious reaction is going to be avoid it, hide or run.
The question is what are you afraid of?
This is the question you must ask yourself every time we feel overwhelmed or catch yourself procrastinating. “What am I really afraid of that is causing this behavior?”
The fear is probably based in one of the two core human fears: failure or loss.
You may be afraid you won’t do the project well enough and it subconsciously feels safer to avoid it than to try to not do it perfectly. (This is the fear that made me procrastinate publishing my book for six years. I was deathly afraid it wouldn’t be good enough and I would be a failure.)
You could also be afraid of losing your reputation, losing the respect of other people or having the failure affect the way others see you, meaning you would lose their friendship or love.
When you are overwhelmed with the size of a project, you might be afraid it’s too big and you will never complete it or that it’s just too complex. It might feel safer to put it off and avoid it so you don’t have to find out that you weren’t capable.
Here are some suggestions for conquering your fears and making yourself take action:
Recognize what you are really afraid of. Name it and even write it down on paper so you have to consciously face it. It’s easier to believe a fear when it’s only a thought. Writing it down makes you face how ridiculous it is.
Choose to trust that your value is not attached to the outcome of this project. To get over my "book fear," I had to remind myself daily that if it failed and no one liked my book, I was still the same me and my value as a human being wouldn’t be diminished. It would be a great learning experience no matter how it turned out, and my value wasn’t on the line. Your value is not attached to your performance either (unless you decide to see it that way). I recommend seeing your value as infinite and absolute and not on the line with any performance.
Stop worrying about what others think of you. Their opinions are irrelevant. You are the same you no matter what they think. Their thoughts have no power and don’t mean anything. Again, decide that your value is not in question.
Choose to trust that the universe is conspiring to serve and educate you and nothing will happen at the outcome of this, that won’t be to your ultimate benefit. This means that you can move forward without fear, because you are safe no matter how it turns out. (You could lose your job — but only if it would serve you to have that experience in your journey.) This is a powerful fundamental shift in how you see the nature of life that will change how you feel about everything. Trust that life is on your side and you are safe in this classroom.
Make sure you aren’t an adrenaline junkie who likes to wait until the last minute on projects because it’s more exciting that way. If you are, you may need to take up a hobby that creates excitement in your life, outside of work. Try to get your adrenaline needs met on the weekends.
Identify your key distractions. What do you do instead of working? You may need to set up some limits for yourself, like only check Facebook once every night after work, only give yourself relaxing time or TV time after you have done three hours of work on the project. You can reward yourself for progress with small bits of distraction time. Name your distraction weaknesses on paper, too, so you can’t spend time without consciously seeing that you are doing it.
Ask for help. Most projects could be done faster and easier if you would set your ego aside and just ask for help. Stop seeing asking for help as a weakness. Break the project down into small steps or tasks (things that could be done in an hour or less.) I break big projects down (on paper) into really small pieces I could work on in little blocks of time, instead of trying to find a day with 10 hours free. This will really help you. Set aside time on your calendar to work on these little pieces of project. Set a timer and commit to focused action for that period of time until the timer rings. The more you work on changing your fundamental beliefs about your value and your life, the less fear you will experience. You may want to take the Fear Assessment on my website — it shows the tendency to procrastinate and what the fear behind it really is. Everyone should understand their subconscious fears.
You can do this.
Kimberly Giles is the founder and president of claritypointcoaching.com. She is also the author of the new book "Choosing Clarity: The Path to Fearlessness" and is a coach and speaker.