Procrastination has nothing to do with laziness or self-control, and everything to do with emotional overwhelm.
I knew this ahead of time. All year, I dutifully collected receipts from work expenses and logged miles. I filed information I’d need for taxes as soon as I received it. And yet, when April 11 rolled around, I hadn’t even begun.
It’s not that I hadn’t tried — I logged into TurboTax at least a dozen times. But each time I’d get stuck on a question I didn’t know how to answer or a choice I wasn’t sure of. It was confusing and overwhelming, so I’d decide to ask someone about it. Then I’d walk away, promising myself I’d come back to it when I had the answer.
This is not the first time I’ve procrastinated on something important. If we were keeping track, it was probably be the 62,897th time. Procrastination is something I’m uniquely gifted at … which is not a point of pride. Like most procrastinators, I’ve always been ashamed of it, secretly convinced that it signified inherent laziness.
But here’s the thing: I’m not lazy. I’m not afraid to work hard — in fact, I embrace it. I don’t sit around doing nothing. I can hardly even Netflix-and-chill through a single episode of American Ninja Warrior without finding something to keep my hands busy, whether it’s matching socks or folding laundry. So when I read an article at the New York Times explaining that procrastination isn’t a self-control or time-management problem but an emotional regulation problem, I was both profoundly relieved and profoundly discouraged.
Emotional regulation is definitely something I struggle with. Doing my taxes was overwhelming not because of the task itself, but because of the emotions surrounding it: fear, anxiety, uncertainty, doubt, and despair.
Fortunately, I’ve spent enough time in therapy to know what I need to do to face distressing emotions and keep moving. Of course, I don’t always do these things — sometimes I give up and let the emotions overwhelm me, stop me in my tracks, and arrest all forward movement. But when I make myself actually look at what’s going on instead of just trying to avoid it through procrastination, these two simple things are enough to get me moving again.
1Say it out loud
This is the single most reliable way to get myself unstuck — and yes, sometimes doing it makes me feel a little unhinged. But it’s actually the opposite. Naming the emotion I’m struggling with and why the task at hand is prompting that emotion is the equivalent of putting myself firmly back on solid ground.
At 8 p.m. on April 11, I told my parents that I hadn’t done my taxes because I was overwhelmed by financial stress, and feeling hopeless and helpless. They didn’t laugh at me or ridicule me or tell me to buckle down and get it done, because those emotions that felt stupid when they were locked inside my head didn’t seem stupid at all when I said them out loud. They were understandable. And once I admitted them out loud, I knew the only way to actually deal with these emotions was to stop procrastinating and do the stupid taxes. My parents didn’t even have to say anything at all — I said it myself.
2Ask for help
In January, my parents told me to go to a family friend who’s also a CPA, because she could offer me help with my taxes. I said I would, but I never did. I told myself that taxes were just one more thing I could figure out … despite the fact that I’ve never done my taxes before, and my life has changed dramatically over the last two years. I actually did need help, and when I finally admitted it, I realized that I’d been afraid all along. Afraid of being judged lazy, inept, or a failure — groundless fears, but fears that had prevented me from doing a simple, painless thing.
That night, my dad sat down with me and went through all my tax information, collecting it into a form to take to their CPA. He wasn’t upset that it hadn’t been done — he was patient, understanding, and encouraging. The next day I took all my tax information to our family friend. In less than an hour, she had it finished and ready for me to mail in. She was kind, understanding, informative, and above all, encouraging.
The emotional overwhelm that causes us to procrastinate is magnified when we keep it locked inside our own heads. We can’t see a way a out, because it seems as though we are uniquely afflicted with these overwhelming emotions. But we’re not. Everyone struggles with overwhelming emotions. That’s one of the reasons Christ gave us the golden rule: to love the Lord with all our hearts, souls and minds, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Compassion is the antidote to difficult emotions that keep us stuck in one place. But before we can experience the compassion of others, we have to have compassion for ourselves — enough compassion to know that we’re not failures, and that we’re never so mired in faults that we can’t trust God and other people to help us through them.
So the next time you find yourself procrastinating, stop alphabetizing the spice rack and pick up the phone instead. Call a friend, a priest, or your mom. Tell them what’s going on and ask for help. I promise, the thing you are avoiding will seem infinitely less imposing. You might even find that it was pretty easy to do all along.
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