The Stress Doc Letter
Cybernotes from the Online Psychohumorist
MAR 2007, No. I, Sec. II
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.
Tips and Techniques for Confronting Anxiety and Channeling Aggression into
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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."
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.
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.
Are you churning aggravation...yet
Still without a clue?
"A firm 'No' a day keeps the ulcers away
And the hostilities, too."
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.
Now it's time for celebration.
You're relieved, you've conceived and mercifully have achieved
(c) Mark Gorkin 2007
Shrink Rap ™ Productions
** [Words from or variations upon a saying of the ancient Roman poet, Horace]
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(c) Mark Gorkin 2007
Shrink Rap Productions