Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist who specializes in helping clients deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses.
Chad’s doctor gave him what seemed like a pretty reasonable self-care plan. They went through each item on the list, one by one, and Chad left his doctor’s office feeling like they were all doable.
That was yesterday. And the agreement was that he would get started right away. Meaning tomorrow.
But tomorrow is today. In fact, the day is almost over. And Chad is ashamed of himself for not yet having accomplished one thing on the list. “Not one thing!” his critical inner voice has said to him over and over. Now, he is hoping no one will ask him how he is doing on his first day because he doesn’t want to tell the truth and he doesn’t want to lie.
Yes, that’s right: Chad is procrastinating. I don’t know anyone, including myself, who doesn’t procrastinate. Maybe once in a while. Or some of the time. Or even all of the time. It’s just part of being human.
My take on procrastination is that it’s a way of having control in our lives. We don’t like to be told what to do. We don’t want to do things we don’t like to do. And so, we maintain control by deciding when we will get started on an undesired task. Unfortunately, as in Chad’s case, “when I get started” can turn into “if I get started.”
Procrastination is also a way of avoiding failure. After all, if you never get started in the first place, you don’t have to worry about experiencing defeat. So Chad may have had some fear about whether he was really capable of making these changes in his life and was avoiding putting himself to the test.
And here’s a third reason for procrastination: Human beings get attached to our day-to-day routines, even if they aren’t working that well for us. We like to stay with what’s familiar. Change means stepping into the unknown. What will life be like without our routines and habits? Chad may have feared what his life would be like with his new self-care routine in place, and so may have been procrastinating to avoid the unknown that results from change.
Okay, so what about you? In what areas of your life are you most likely to procrastinate? And a second question: is your self-care plan one of those areas?
A common issue
In my experience, newly diagnosed patients often struggle with procrastination. But so do those who are more experienced—maybe as a result of a major change in the requirements around their regimen. Or because they are feeling worn out by their routine.
If you are struggling with procrastination, you are not alone—and you can do something about it. Here’s help:
First, don’t use this as a reason to criticize yourself. Getting down on yourself for procrastinating doesn’t help anything. It’s like criticizing yourself for being human. Self-criticism leads to feelings of hopelessness and a question that’s never going to motivate you: “Why even bother?”
Take a look at your perspective. You might be putting off taking good care of yourself because you’re lumping all the things you need to do into one giant iceberg you have to find a way to chip away at. You may call it something like “too much work,” or, worse yet, “almost impossible.” Who wouldn’t be inclined to procrastinate with a challenge like that?
Focus on the benefits of adherence. Between the time when you left your doctor’s office and the time when you faced your self-care plan, you may have lost sight of why you are embarking on this plan. Your emotional mind may have told you that this whole thing is about making your life miserable. But your rational mind knows otherwise. This plan is all about helping you to stay as healthy as possible, to have quality of life, to be there for yourself and for others. That’s a reason to get going, right?
Break your self-care plan down into its parts. Shift your perspective away from that big iceberg you may be turning your self-care plan into. Instead, consider the elements that make up your self-care plan. Just as you originally did when you first went over it with your doctor. This might include medication regimen, diet, physical activity, self-monitoring, and other tasks.
Select the most important priorities. You might ask your doctor to help you. To best take care of yourself, what are the elements of your self-care plan that you need to address every day? Your medication regimen is probably at the top of the list. Self-monitoring may be high on the list also.
Be clear with your doctor about what the highest priorities are; don’t make assumptions.
Commit to a manageable number of priorities. And get started. Decide to start today with the basic elements of your plan. Not a complete overnight change in the way you live your life, but the beginning of needed adjustments to take best possible care of yourself. This should make your self-care plan feel less daunting.
Build in accountability. Being accountable in some way for maintaining your commitments can help you to stay on the path. For example, asking a friend or family member if you can check in with them as you complete your self-care tasks every day, or asking them to check in with you, can be a great incentive. This doesn’t mean asking for punishment. Make it about receiving some encouragement—an “attagirl” or “attaboy.” It can also be about having a listening ear—without judgement—if you aren’t successful.
Watch your labels. Notice I said “if you aren’t successful” and not “failure.” Be careful about the words you use to describe your progress in meeting your daily self-care goals. Again, avoid creating reasons to get down on yourself.
Give yourself some encouragement. It’s nice to hear positive words from others, but you’ll be even more successful if you can take advantage of your own inner motivation. So create your own positive self-talk and use it often. “Note to self: You’re doing a great job” is a good place to start.
Develop a plan for increasing your adherence. Success creates more success. A good way to counter the urge to procrastinate is to work with yourself step by step to continue to master your self-care plan. Each time you take a step forward, give yourself some encouragement. Shout it from the rooftop! Think of how you’ll feel even more empowered when you tackle that next task in your plan.
Take a step back. Procrastination might not be the only reason you aren’t successful with your self-care plan. It may be too aggressive, with an unreasonable number of changes expected all at once. Or there may be aspects of your plan that are just too difficult for you to accomplish. Or maybe there’s something that just plain doesn’t fit with the way you live your life. If so, this might be an opportunity to talk to your doctor about adjustments you can make in your plan that could help you be more successful.
Learn from those times when you don’t quite get around to it. Not achieving your self-care goals might also be a learning experience. Is there additional support you need? More accountability? Are you trying to accomplish too much? Work with your urge to procrastinate. Don’t fight it.
This approach can work in other areas of life. Again, it’s human to procrastinate. You may also find yourself dealing with procrastination in other parts of your life. If so, welcome to the club. You might find these guidelines will help there too.
You, your self-care plan, and the urge to procrastinate. Talk to your doctor about a phased-in approach to staying on track with your self-care. Get help in setting priorities. Build in both accountability and encouragement. Keep your eyes on the prize. Success is a process, taken one step at a time.
Share your procrastination success story! Add a comment below to tell us about something you kept putting off and what finally helped you to do it.