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The Stress Doc Letter
Cybernotes from the Online Psychohumorist ™


MAR 2007, No. I, Sec. II

Main Essay:


Based on recent talks on "Stress and Time Management" the Stress Doc is expanding his understanding of "procrastination," especially the concept of "avoidance."  This essay outlines four avoidance traps and then provides techniques for turning procrastination anxiety and anger into productive action.


Avoiding Avoidance:  Tips and Techniques for Confronting Anxiety and Channeling Aggression into Productive Action

In the past three weeks I've delivered three workshops that featured my acronym for achieving "Emancipation Procrastination or Perhaps It's "Time to PANIC?"  (Email stressdoc@aol.com for the article published in Paradigm, Summer 2006.)  And one component of the acronym especially is grabbing audience attention - the letter "A."  PANIC provides two strategic concepts per letter, e.g., "Avoidance" and "Advance."  And it's the former term that is most compelling.  To see why, let me recreate some of the workshop flavor and audience reaction while also conceptually focusing on "Four Keys of the Avoidance Trap":

1.  Distraction, Compulsion and Misattribution. 
In a program with law firm support staff I wondered aloud:  "When you have an important project looming why do we often have a sudden urge to vacuum the living room?"  I followed the silence with, "What contributes to your avoiding getting started on an important project?"  Now a Gen X-er calls out, "My X-Box."  He just can't resist playing those video games.

Without missing a beat, I acknowledge needing another "A" word.  The room broke out in laughter when I said, "Addiction."  This fellow's fallacy was basically attributing his avoidance issue to the seductive nature of technology.  Alas, it's often easier to seek external causes when explaining our errors or immature behaviors than to look within.  But what is the likely driver of this avoidant pattern?

2.  Those Underlying Undermining "A"-Words.  It's not simply finding something irresistible or that you have attention deficiencies that contribute to the development of "Habits of Rapid Distraction" (HRD) - from single-minded computer gaming to low priority cleaning or compulsive shopping.  No, there's more method to the madness.  More often than not the purpose of this HRD activity is to immediately shut down feelings of anxiety.  And procrastination anxiety is often related to grappling with what I call your "Intimate FOE:  Fear of Exposure."  In other words, you don't want to sit down and face the project, as the project has become a mirror reflecting self-doubt or feelings of inadequacy.  And if the latter, then the project is likely becoming a talking mirror, echoing past critical and demeaning authority voices.

When the size of the project and getting started seem too overwhelming, you just might find yourself saying, "I'm not up for this task."  That is, your work habits aren't the problem; it's just a particularly daunting project.  In many instances, however, if honest you might actually look within, attributing your procrastination not to a situational state but to a personality trait:  a) "I just don't have the problem-solving knowledge and ability," b) I don't have the emotional strength or maturity to tolerate project-related uncertainty and frustration," or c) "I'm not sufficiently disciplined to stay goal-focused and complete the assignment."

3.  "No Pain, No Brain."  Being able to block thinking about the project and to blunt anxious feelings provide immediate relief.  However, it is a false bargain.  Not only does the task still loom menacingly in the corner of your mind and calendar, but also such avoidant behavior may eventually sow the seeds for guilt.  Some now won't allow themselves any form of pleasurable action or distraction; others may have to resort to mind- and gut-numbing substances to shut down the angst.  Your distraction options must continually expand while your mind must self-constrict (or start racing uncontrollably).  Any subsequent thought or action that might be associated with the noxious project must be repressed or at least isolated.  Your avoidant actions become boa-like, choking off self-awareness as well as freedom of genuine thought and movement.

Eventually, these self-constricting and self-restricting choices ultimately lead to emotional muscles atrophying.  One possible consequence of such emotional dysfunction is that any thought or feeling related to the aversive project now triggers phobic or panic-like behavior that may generalize across a wider array of problem-solving or emotionally evocative arenas.  You are no longer simply grappling with your "Intimate FOE:  Fear of Exposure."  Now you have become a "prisoner of fear."

4.  "If You Bail, You Can't Fail."  In addition to the psychological "reward" of immediate relief, there's another procrastination rationalization worth noting; this one encouraged by our image conscious culture:  "If you don't risk, you can't fail."  Much better to appear cool (or potentially competent) than to be a LOSER!  And much like before, as your avoidant behavior grows, rationalizations and a false persona are driving your public presentation:  "everything's under control," "it's not worth the effort," "don't admit your wrong," "never let them see you sweat," etc. 

Now some perfectionists are "finish line" procrastinators, that is, they might get started but avoid completing a project because: a) their effort is never good enough or b) by not finishing they can't be evaluated, and in their own mind they rationalize what they could do if they really wanted to try.  Obviously, this is a defensive face-saving maneuver.  The consequence of this self-defeating coping is that your real self is driven deeper into the subconscious shadows.  And sometimes this bottled up emotion and energy not only leads to procrastination and agitation but also spirals into depression.

So how can you break the chains of self-constricting, reflexive habits and pseudo relief/pseudo image patterns?  Consider these "Four Strategic Steps for Overcoming Self-Defeating Avoidance":
1.  Sit with and Convert the Anxiety. 
Even if you give yourself a seemingly artificial or absurd time limit, just sit with the anxious feeling for, let's say, two minutes.  At minimum you've interrupted the compulsive escapist reaction.  If necessary, do some deep breathing or even some stretching.  And if possible, start to have a dialogue with yourself:  "What might the anxiety really be about?"  Am I having a flashback to an earlier unsuccessful project?  Am I reliving being ridiculed by a parent, teacher, supervisor, etc?"  A big procrastination buster occurs when you can convert irrational anxiety, laden with vague overtones of shame or dread, into more tangible and manageable fear.  When you are not so physiologically hyper or self-conscious, your thinking can be less clouded and your assessment or options more clear.  "Okay, I didn't handle that earlier project very well; I realize my performance expectations were unrealistic.  However, since then…(fill in the blank): I've had more training, I learned from past mistakes, I have a less judgmental supervisor, I can ask one of my team members for some assistance," etc.

Finally, remember the goal is not to eliminate all anxiety.  An optimal level of anxiety heightens a sense of focus and flow.  It's why they call it the "performance edge" or the "creative edge."

2.  Start Small or Experiment.  Often the key to breaking through procrastination anxiety or fear is to "think small."  When I'm feeling overwhelmed about beginning a major article, sometimes all I do is jot down a few key points for further consideration.  I may not be even close to sketching an outline.  And then I give myself permission to walk away from my computer.  However, in similar fashion to learning to just sit momentarily with the anxiety, I've now disrupted positively that amorphous sense of being overwhelmed and/or "feeling helpless getting started" dynamic.  I've generated a window for task engagement, however small, that did not previously exist.  I will not be returning to the exact problem.  Also, by purposefully walking away, maybe literally taking a walk in the park, or perhaps sleeping on the problem, I'm creating time and space for both my conscious and subconscious minds to percolate further some problem solving strategy.  Invariably this retreat yields a more invigorated return.

A kindred strategy to starting small is envisioning your next step as an experiment.  Now you are streamlining expectations, maybe even establishing your own standards for goal-related performance and success.  Consider this example.  A 30-year professional had been planning for a spring retirement; she no longer had the energy to deal with bureaucratic mismanagement and her overwhelming caseload.  Recently (in mid-winter), rumors started circulating about the possibility of a buyout if an employee stayed through the summer.  This professional couldn't afford to just walk away from this possible payoff.  A good part of her crisis involved knowing she could not keep up with all the court reports (as she had once done, by shouldering too much stress).  Now the thought of higher-level criticism regarding her somewhat reduced productivity was fueling paralysis.  Two points freed her:  a) she didn't have to live up to the expectations of the high- and small-minded authorities who seemed indifferent to this organization's near-hazardous work conditions; she would manage to do adequate paper work, and b) her clients would still benefit from her caring and responsive manner.  Two weeks later she reported that this experiment, whereby she was not allowing others' judgments to define her and was comfortable with her own "good enough" end-game expectations and standards, was "tremendously freeing."

3.  Grapple with an Anxiety to Anger Paradigm Shift.  Do you ever hate to admit when a parent, especially one who can border on the all-knowing, was actually right about one of his or her preaching points?  As a teen, often struggling with school-related procrastination, my mother would annoyingly quote the Ancient Roman poet, Horace:  To begin is to be half done; dare to know…Start!  (And you wonder why I'm such an expert on stress, guilt and neurosis.)  While ostensibly her intent was motivation, invariably the message stirred feelings of humiliation.  But it also evoked some feisty if not "daring" aggression.  In defense I hung a quote on my wall by French author, Andre Gide, from his novel, The Immoralist:  "One must allow others to be right; it consoles them for not being anything else."  I don't know about Horace, but those words often helped soothe and ignite me.

Actually, sometimes the best way to overcome anxiety, or at least momentarily push it aside, is by tapping into some vital aggression.  A state of "constructive discontent" can heighten courage and sharpen a goal-directed focus.  Conversely, anger blocked or denied, especially angry feelings that go underground, can evoke defensive defiance and moodiness or melancholy.  The result is often slow burning procrastination, a generalized lack of productivity and, eventually, burnout.  So getting in gear may involve acknowledging anger (even if you are just being angry with your avoidant self).  Then tap into and channel this potent energy source.  Consider using the abovementioned self-determining professional as a model for standing up to others' judgments as well as for defining your own expectations.  In my mind this is a daring formula for breaking out of procrastination prison.

You might even realize the radical wisdom of the artistic genius, Pablo Picasso:  "Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction."  And by "destruction," Picasso means liberating your mind by breaking down habitual ways of thinking and responding.  So remember, harness aggressive energy with purposeful (if not daring) strategy to transform anxiety and challenge familiar avoidance patterns.  You just may discover new productive pathways and unanticipated possibilities.

In closing, having said my piece, I'll let my mother have the final word.  In fact, she was extolling a profound truth.  As we've seen, whether by starting small or through experimentation, you are now engaging in a fundamentally different psychological set and problem solving strategy, i.e., you've made a paradigm shift.  You are not necessarily eliminating anxiety, but are transforming negative energy into positive drive.  You are being daring and determined despite of and in the face of anxiety.  You've overcome the biggest hurdle.  You indeed are "half done."  So "start!"

4.  Pause for Progress and Reap the Real Rewards.  In contrast to the pseudo reward or relief of putting things off till later or working on a low priority item and avoiding the tougher task, making meaningful progress on the necessary project both relieves stress and builds confidence.  And while completing the task is the true prize and a genuine source of pride, reward doesn't have to be an "all or none" proposition.  Try working in segments, whether based on the nature of the problem or the longevity of your attention span.  My productivity mantra:  "Incremental is fundamental." 

In addition, acknowledge or celebrate reaching target objectives along the project path.  (Catching a good movie almost always works for me.)  Actually, sometimes your best reward is taking a break and getting off the path, especially when seeking an unconventional approach or original outcome.  And as briefly noted above, taking a time out is especially valuable when your subconscious mind is allowed to wander freely and play.  Such a retreat from logical analysis or strategic effort not only refreshes but may also help generate a fresh problem solving perspective.  Ultimately, rest and relaxation are their own rewards, both sustaining drive and allowing you to entertain new direction.

Closing Summary

Through workshop trial and error, my understanding of "procrastination," especially the concept of "avoidance," has been growing.  This essay has outlined four avoidance traps and then provides tips and techniques for turning procrastination anxiety and anger into productive action.  The "Four Keys of the Avoidance Trap":
1. Distraction, Compulsion and Misattribution
2. Those Underlying Undermining "A"-Words 
3. No Pain, No Gain" 
4. "If You Bail, You Can't Fail"

The "Four Strategic Steps for Overcoming Self-Defeating Avoidance":
1. Sit with and Convert the Anxiety
2. Start Small or Experiment
3. Grapple with an Anxiety to Anger Paradigm Shift
4. Pause for Progress and Reap the Real Rewards

Surely, these are insights and strategies for achieving "Emancipation Procrastination."  And they are also heartfelt ideas to help one and all…Practice Safe Stress!
 


Finally, for some who may have missed, it my "Shrink Rap" Ditty called Procraastination...Procrastination.  Love to hear any impressions.  Will print a bunch of the feedback in next month's newsletter.

Procrastination...Procrastination

Procrastination...Procrastination

It's like mental constipation.
Try to move, just get through
But you're stuck in deep "to do"...

Do the report, stop the whining
There might be some life after deadlining.
And your answer to this doom and gloom,
"Oh, I'll just vacuum the living room."

Procrastination...Procrastination

Another name for some addiction.
Numb the brain, escape the pain
Where's my xBox computer game?

Oh, hard to say "No" or reach closure
With an "Intimate FOE:  Fear of Exposure."
Now you're desperate, so go and pray
For that 11th hour miracle or just a Snow Day.

Procrastination...Procrastination

In disguise rigid perfection?
You're indispensable!  Well, if it's true
Then no one can do like you can do...

Do know your limits, don't limit your "No's"
Despite your fear, step on some toes.
The irony of being free:
One must confront anxiety.

Procrastination...Procrastination

Are you churning aggravation...yet
Still without a clue?
"A firm 'No' a day keeps the ulcers away
And the hostilities, too."

Procrastination...Procrastination

Poetic lines for liberation.
To have begun is to be half done. **
And small goal steps are smart.
So relax and go with the ebb and flow.
Most of all take heart..."Dare to know -- start!" **

To declare everywhere and to everyone
You're no longer blocked or on the run.
You've seen the light if not the sun
And finally made it to number one.

Emancipation...Emancipation

Now it's time for celebration.
You're relieved, you've conceived and mercifully have achieved
"Emancipation...Procrastination."

(c)  Mark Gorkin  2007
Shrink Rap ™ Productions


** [Words from or variations upon a saying of the ancient Roman poet, Horace]
 


Offerings:

1.  Stress Doc Books:

Pay by Pay Pal from website - www.stressdoc.com or

Make check to:  Mark Gorkin
Send to:

9629 Elrod Road
Kensington, MD  20895
---------------

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Practicing Safe Stress:  Healing and Laughing in the Face of Stress, Burnout, & Depression; Stress Doc Enterprises

Published:  2004; Pages:  372

Price:  $20 + $5.00 priority shipping in US; $7 for shipping in Mexico and Canada; other international destinations to be determined

E-book Price:  $15

Practice Safe Stress tackles the "Toxic-Traumatic Trio" -- stress, burnout, and depression.  Learn practical and playful, inspiring and insightful strategies for transforming these toxins into life-affirming energy, creative focus, and goal-achievement.  Bringing a personal, professional, and organizational perspective, the book is alive with imaginative language and memorable "how to" ideas for:

§ Understanding the "Four Stages of Burnout," the "Erosive Spiral"
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Safe Stress provides many discrete "Top Ten" lists and "strategic tips" essays useful as educational/informational handouts.  To quote the Internet Newsroom:  Your Guide to the World of Electronic Factgathering:  "The most outstanding feature…is his 'psychohumor' essays.  Always witty, thought-provoking, and helpful."  With this easy-to-follow, fast-paced, and fun health and wellness guide, you'll return often to Practice Safe Stress.
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Transforming Anger, Rage and Conflict Into Inspiring Attitude and Behavior

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Ø Identify self-defeating styles of anger and violence-prone personalities
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Ø Bust the guilt not burst a gut
Ø Prevent emails from becoming e-missiles

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Seek the higher power of Stress Doc humor…May the Farce Be With You!

Published:  2004; Pages:  116  [Book size:  9"x12"]

Paperback:  Price:  $20 + $5.00 priority shipping in US; $7 for shipping in Mexico and Canada; other international destinations to be determined

E-Book:  $15
 


Mark Gorkin, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™,
is a psychotherapist and "Motivational Humorist" whose Interactive Keynotes and Kickoffs draw wide and "amazing" acclaim -- from Fortune 100s and Federal Agencies to around the world with Celebrity Cruise Lines.   An OD/Team Building Consultant, Mark is the author of Practice Safe Stress:  Healing and Laughing in the Face of Stress, Burnout & Depression and of The Four Faces of Anger: Transforming Anger, Rage, and Conflict Into Inspiring Attitude and Behavior.  Also, the Doc is AOL's "Online Psychohumorist" ™ running his weekly "Shrink Rap ™ and Group Chat."  See his award winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" -- www.stressdoc.com -- cited as a workplace resource by National Public Radio (NPR).  Finally, Mark is an advisor to The Bright Side ™ -- www.the-bright-side.org -- a multi-award winning mental health resource.  Email for his monthly newsletter showcased on List-a-Day.com.  For more info on the Doc's speaking and training programs, call or email the "Stress Doc":  301-946-0865 or stressdoc@aol.com .  And to view web video highlights of a Stress Doc Keynote, go to http://www.stressdoc.com/media_downloads.htm .

(c)  Mark Gorkin  2007

Shrink Rap Productions