Do or do not? Procrastination’s grip.

The ancient Greeks had a word, “akrasia,” that meant doing something against one’s better judgment. To put it another way, akrasia is a failure to do what one has intended to do and what one ought to do. Our modern word for this is procrastination.

Here are the things I do when I’m procrastinating about doing something else:

  • Check my email
  • Tell myself I can read one (just one!) chapter of a book
  • Call someone
  • Do some laundry
  • Do the crossword puzzle or Sudoko
  • Organize my desk

Here are some of the things that I should be doing instead:

  • Grading my students’ homework
  • Writing for this blog
  • Catching up on work projects
  • Scanning the documents that have been sitting in a box for 3 years

Why is it so hard to get started on these tasks? I know that I can’t really relax with the book or the puzzle while these other things are hovering in the background, yet even that unsettled feeling can’t always move me to begin.

Having just finished teaching a unit on time management to my students, I know that  researchers characterize people like me as either avoidance or arousal procrastinators. Avoidance procrastinators tend to be self-critical, often have a maladaptive sense of perfectionism, and possess irrational beliefs about the outcome that would result from actually doing the thing they avoid. Arousal procrastinators, on the other hand, claim to work best under pressure (which is usually not true) and seek the thrill that comes from doing things at the last minute.

I’m pretty sure that I’m an avoidance procrastinator, although I do have to admit that I get a little adrenaline rush when I’m working up against a deadline. We avoidance procrastinators often believe that unless our work is absolutely perfect and liked by everyone, our self-esteem will be threatened. On other tasks, we switch into avoidance mode because they require us to do something that is out of our comfort zone, and we question our ability to even accomplish them.2016-04-02 12.50.04

Those of us who struggle with procrastination could try jolting ourselves out of it with the Nike motto, “Just do it.” Or we could use Brian Tracy’s metaphor, “Eat That Frog!” which comes from a Mark Twain quote: “If the first thing you do each morning is to eat a live frog, you go through the day with the satisfaction of knowing that that is probably the worst thing that is going to happen to you all day long.” In other words, get the tough stuff done first and then it’s out of the way.

Those tricks might work for some of us some of the time, but it’s important to realize that procrastination isn’t just laziness or lack of willpower. For some people it can have lifelong consequences, such as an inability to make and achieve career or financial goals, a tendency to anxiety and depression, and poorer physical health. Fortunately, procrastination can be treated with cognitive behavior therapies such as REBT (rational emotive behavior therapy). REBT asks you to imagine doing the thing you’ve been avoiding, and then predict and label the emotion that you would experience with it. It’s like a trial run for the real thing.

Practicing mindfulness might also help. A study done by Sirois and Tosti showed that higher mindfulness scores were associated with lower levels of procrastination and with more unconditional self-acceptance. It may seem counter-intuitive that the present-moment awareness of mindfulness would be beneficial to procrastinators who already have difficulty being future-oriented and goal-directed. It’s true that many procrastinators are too focused on short-term pleasure and current rewards, but that’s not the same thing as mindfulness. When we practice mindful acceptance of our present experience, we can accept the discomfort of the difficult task and also generate more self-compassion while we do it.

As Thich Nhat Hanh has written,

“When fear manifests, we want to have the seed of mindfulness also manifest to embrace it. So we have two energies present — the first is the energy of fear, and the second is the energy of mindfulness. The fear receives a bath of mindfulness and becomes a little bit weaker before it drops back down to  the depths of our consciousness in the form of a seed.”

Navigating a disturbance in the force

Ever since the first Star Wars movie burst into our cultural consciousness almost 40 years ago, its lexicon has become a part of our conversational lives. From the moment Obi-Wan uttered the line, “I felt a great disturbance in the force,” we understood that it was possible to feel shifts in the energy that “surrounds us” and binds us together. There’s no better metaphor for describing the unsettled feeling that arises when stress hits us and our homeostasis is threatened.

I’ve been experiencing just that kind of disturbance in the “force” for the past 6 weeks or so, ever since my son announced that he was moving across the country. While I’m happy for him and feel hopeful that he will be successful in his new life, I have many moments of anxiety about both the change and the process of getting there. In addition, my own home is experiencing upheaval as the things he wants to keep, but can’t take, somehow materialize here for storage. So I decided to look for some Star Wars wisdom to help me:

“Search your feelings.” (Palpatine) This seems like a good first step. Why exactly am I feeling anxious? Is it anticipation of loss? Is it fear of his failure? Fear of my failure? Do I not have enough trust? These are uncomfortable questions, but we can’t hide from emotions that make us squirm. It’s worth sitting a while with the discomfort to gain some clarity and see the path forward.

“Fear is the path to the dark side.” (Yoda) It’s very easy to slip into darkness and inertia when we let fear take over. I recognize that my own fears and anxieties don’t help my son, yodabut only make him more anxious. If I catastrophize about this move by engaging in negative self-talk about it, that can only hurt. Focusing on strengths and practicing positive self-talk will help dispel fear, and leads to:

“Your focus determines your reality.” (Qui-Gon Jinn) If we think only about what can go wrong, something probably will go wrong. If we can stay focused on positive outcomes, our actions will move us in that direction.

“Patience you must have..” More wise guidance from Yoda. Not only must I have patience with my son, who doesn’t always follow the path I want him for him, I must have patience with the process. Transitions take time, and frequently there are bumps in the road. Not everything is on my timetable. I will take a breath, and allow things to fall into place with time.

“Many of the truths we cling to depend on our point of view.” (Obi-Wan) Or as we say in stress management, perspective is everything. Sometimes there is no universal truth, just different versions of the story. Can I shift my point of view about my son’s capabilities, about my role in his life at this point, about what is a good outcome? Can I be flexible enough to let go of beliefs that don’t serve me or him anymore?

“Do. Or do not. There is no try.” (Yoda) My naturally cautious son has suddenly adopted Yoda’s philosophy, and is just going to do this. He is letting go of fear and stepping off the diving board. As for me, there can be no “try” either when it comes to supporting him. I must just do it.

“Remember — the force will be with you always.” If we change the word “force” to “love”, this is the message I am left with. No matter what happens, I will always love my son and be here for him. I am cheering for him as he embarks on this journey, and ready to live with all the uncertainty that risks worth taking bring.

Wobbling toward trust

Bob Dylan sang, “Trust yourself …If you need somebody you can trust, trust yourself.” Somehow I think he must have known just how much many of us need to hear that.

Reckless personWhen I wobble in tree pose, or can’t bring myself into a headstand in yoga, it’s not just equilibrium or core strength holding me back – it’s lack of trust in my ability to do it. When the anxiety over my recent move took hold of me, it wasn’t because anything was going wrong — it was my failure to trust myself and my strength. When I worry about one of my kids doing something new, it’s not so much about them, but about me not trusting that I taught them well.

According to Psychology Today, not trusting ourselves often evolves out of being hurt by someone or something we trusted. We become afraid to trust anyone again, and we start to question our judgment. From there, faith in our selves begins to dwindle. So how do we rebuild trust in our own abilities, capacities and judgment?

The magazine offers this simple somatic exercise as a first step to restoring trust in yourself:

“Sit or lie down so that you are comfortable and in a safe place.
Now, how can you make it even more comfortable? Get a blanket, a pillow… whatever will make you feel relaxed and content.
Once you are settled, ask yourself: “How do I know this is comfortable?” This might appear to be a silly question, and perhaps even confusing. However, it is an important one in increasing your skills of building trust.
Continue to explore what sensation you feel that you recognize as comfort. For example, you might think, “I do not feel any pain,” “I breath easily,” or “I feel relaxed.”
You might be anticipating that this feeling won’t last, which is true. We can’t control or grasp on to this pleasurable feeling. It’s only important that you are in the present moment right now, not drifting into thoughts of the future or the past. Thinking of the future can create anxiety; thinking of the past can create depression.
Remain aware of any sounds, the temperature, the light, and your physical sensations. Can you let yourself simply enjoy the moment?
You can practice this exercise for as long as you prefer and as time allows you. Just keep checking in with your level of comfort. What feelings indicate that you are comfortable? With time, you may start to trust your feelings again.”

When we were babies, we learned to trust when our needs for food, safety, warmth and love were satisfied. This exercise takes us back to those basics. If I believe that this warm, comfy feeling I’m experiencing right now is real, then I can have faith that it will come again and I will be able to recognize it.

Great Ocean Road_23.1The other thing worth noting about this exercise is that it is very much focused on present-moment awareness. If we think about trust as the flip side of fear, then the inability to trust is all about fear of what the next moment, or the one after, might bring. By staying focused on the present, we only have to trust what we are experiencing in this moment.

Life is full of surprises, dangers, joys, hurts, disappointment, elation, boredom, passion. In order to have the good with the bad, we need to worry less about what’s around the corner and focus more on everything that is absolutely right, right now. As Thich Nhat Hanh suggests, instead of asking, “What’s wrong?”, we should learn to ask, “What’s not wrong?”

Urban decay?

The headline in the paper read, “Maybe it’s just crazy to live in a city”. Needless to say, it grabbed my attention.

While it was already known that mental health problems such as anxiety, depression and schizophrenia are more common among people who live in urban areas, new research (published in the journal Nature) looked at the brain to see how and why that happens.

Using fMRI scanners, researchers found heightened activity in the part of the brain called the amygdala when they assigned urban-dwelling participants to complete stressful tasks. One job of the amygdala is to assess social threats. People who lived in rural areas or small towns had lower levels of activity in the amygdala during the stressful tasks; in fact, the reaction increased as the size of the participant’s city increased. Researchers believe that city living may increase risk for mental illness by increasing sensitivity to social stress.

What is social stress? Basically it is any stress that occurs as a result of interaction with other people. For some it might amount to stress from events such as job interviews, public speaking, mingling at a cocktail party, or going on a date. For others, it might be triggered even in everyday interactions with people. Besides the greater risk for mental health issues, it is also linked to physical health conditions.

What is it about city life that makes it more stressful? The immediate things that come to mind are noise, pollution, and pace of life. But if the focus in this research was on social stress, how is that different in an urban environment? Certainly, crowding is one factor. Other possibilities are more diverse populations, more activities to choose from, and perhaps more roles to play. Each of these has the potential to increase the number and complexity of interactions with other people on a daily basis.

In rural areas or small towns, people may tend to see the same faces every day, have fewer choices to make about interactions, and have more personal space around them. Their potential for negative social stress is less.

Know yourself

The important thing to remember is that we all have different requirements from our environments. Some of us would be utterly bored with living in the country; others cringe at the thought of living in a city. Figuring out what suits you best sometimes takes trial and error. When I was younger, I lived in New York City for 6 months and developed the worse case of insomnia I’ve ever had. I came to the conclusion that the unremitting noise and stimulation hour after hour, day after day, was too much for me. Yet, if I spend too much time at a quiet beach retreat, I’m ready to go back to “real life” after a week or so.

This relates to something called the Yerkes-Dodson principle which shows the relationship between arousal and performance. It’s what is also called finding your “optimal level of stimulation”:

The line where stress increases to the point where performance (or quality of life) declines may be farther to the right or left, depending on each person’s capacity for stimulation.

Make space for yourself

Even if you thrive on the stimulation of city life, it’s important to protect yourself from the cumulative effects of urban stressors. For some, this might mean taking regular breaks from the city by getting away to a more rural, peaceful environment. If that’s not possible, then creating an oasis at home can help. Maybe that’s a certain space in your home that is calm and soothing. Maybe it is a space in your mind that’s created by a daily practice of meditation. It could also be achieved by finding or creating a smaller community for yourself within the larger community, people with whom you feel protected, safe, and comfortable. Whatever form it takes, the goal is to have a “place” where the stimulation is dialed down for a while.

What is your oasis? Leave me a comment to tell me how you create that space.