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Procrastination and Anxiety Explained

Posted on August 31, 2018 by michael

Anxiety can impact every aspect of our daily lives. The pervasiveness of anxiety can make it difficult for us to complete even the simplest of day-to-day activities. This can be frustrating, and oftentimes we might feel as though we’re just “lazy” or that we’re incompetent. Neither of these are true. In fact, when anxiety becomes commonplace, it’s easy to forget when procrastinated tasks are the result of our own reluctance or the result of our anxiety, which lurks in the background. But this is an important distinction which can impact our self-esteem.

The National Institute of Mental Health describes occasional anxiety as a normal part of life. According to NIMH, “you might feel anxious when faced with a problem at work, before taking a test, or making an important decision.” However, they note an important distinction between occasional anxiety and an anxiety disorder. The latter can significantly impact the quality of one’s life by acting as a constant interference and hindrance. NIMH explains that “anxiety disorders involve more than temporary worry or fear. For a person with an anxiety disorder, the anxiety does not go away and can get worse over time. The feelings can interfere with daily activities such as job performance, school work, and relationships.”

There are several different kinds of anxiety disorders. The most common disorders include panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, phobias, and social anxiety disorder. All of these can impact our ability to complete even seemingly mundane tasks. Therapy can help with treating anxiety disorders by teaching us better strategies to cope with their symptoms. Moreover, therapy can help uncover the underlying causes of anxiety, which can further increase our chances of overcoming these recurring negative thoughts and feelings.

When anxiety causes us to procrastinate, we might feel as though we are doing something wrong, or worse, aren’t doing enough. Luckily, professionals like Dr. Alice Boyes, social psychologist, has pointed out 6 different kinds of anxiety-induced procrastination that she’s observed during the course of her career:

Procrastination Because of Uncertainty

Being unsure of something can make us hesitant to begin a task, no matter how important it is. We can recognize if we are procrastinating due to uncertainty if we notice any of the following warning signs:


  • Pausing or “getting stuck” every time we feel uncertain about something.


  • Avoiding situations or tasks that cause us to feel unsure.


  • Overcomplicating things, resulting in not knowing where to start. (If we decide that we don’t know how to do all of the steps, we avoid taking the first one.)


  • Mentally working through every possible outcome before taking a step forward.


  • You try to do everything yourself because letting others help means relinquishing certainty of control.

Every task includes a certain level of uncertainty, but rather than putting the whole responsibility of the outcome on our shoulders, we must learn to recognize and accept variables that are outside of our control. In this way, we can realize that we are not at fault for everything that we cannot control.

Procrastination Because of Overestimating How Much Can Be Done in a Short Amount of Time

It might be comforting to believe that we can do everything we need to do in the amount of time that we have but sometimes this is simply impossible. It might be surprising to know that we are capable of both positive and negative cognitive biases. Too much positive bias may mean overestimating how much we can get done in a realistic amount of time. This is essentially what is known as “biting off more than you can chew.” This is a common cause of anxiety and task-avoidance. Overestimating due to anxiety could be the result of an expectation that some disaster will occur if we can’t get everything done right away.

Procrastinating Due to an Overwhelmed Working Memory

If we have too many upcoming events, tasks, responsibilities, and notices on our mind, it can get pretty overwhelming pretty quickly. Combine the sensation of being overwhelmed with anxiety and we have essentially concocted a recipe for procrastination. Sometimes, even putting things on the calendar, when we have a lot of things on our plate, can overwhelm us by cluttering our calendars and giving us too much to worry about at once. The solution? Dr. Boyes suggests that we “find a way to be reliably reminded only at the time you need to think about something.” In other words, prioritize. By doing this we can reduce our need to constantly make decisions about new information. Thus, we can free up our time and increase our willpower to accomplish things.

Procrastinating Because of a Predicted Negative Outcome

Another sign of anxiety-induced procrastination is if we’re hesitating to begin a task due to a negative outcome that we’ve predicted. Oftentimes, this is not the real result of our actions, but we assume it will be anyway, because we’re immediately inclined to assume the worst. Some of these assumptions may include:


  • Expecting to struggle with a large task.


  • Expecting a task won’t go smoothly.


  • Expecting that someone will react badly when an important issue is raised.

To overcome procrastination due to negative predictions, one must first recognize that one is making the negative prediction in the first place. Bad outcomes are only one of many possible ones, so why assume they are the only possible result of our actions?

Procrastination Because of Unrelenting Standards (the All-or-Nothing Approach)

Dr. Boyes explains that “all-or-nothing thinking is a hallmark of anxiety.” As such, we might alleviate some of the stress placed on us by anxiety by approaching a task in a more moderate way. For example, if we need to read 30 pages to study for an exam, rather than attempt to read all 30 pages at once, we might break it down into sets of 5. If we have 20 tasks to complete in a week, rather than think of them all at once, we might assign a few tasks per day, and so on. Reducing these impossible standards can help make us less likely to procrastinate or avoid the task as a whole.

Procrastination Because of Cognitive Difficulty

Having difficulties with certain things such as initiating tasks, planning, or organizing things into a particular order doesn’t mean that we’re not smart or capable. Anxiety has a way of impairing our cognitive processing capacity. In other words, when we’re anxious, we might find it difficult to complete certain cognitive functions, such as those mentioned earlier. We’re more likely to notice this impairment during unfamiliar tasks, particularly if we’re trying to decide how to proceed. This cognitive difficulty is also more likely to be heightened if we are working in an area that already makes us anxious. For example, if someone is anxious while working on computers, their anxiety is likely to be heightened if they are given an unfamiliar, computer-based task. Anxiety-induced cognitive difficulties are often misconstrued for laziness or lack of intelligence but this is not at all the case. In fact, finding some tasks challenging to cognitively process does not make them impossible, nor does it reflect poorly on us as individuals. It just means that there exists an obstacle that with careful consideration can be overcome one step at a time.

Categories: The Teen Corner, Wellness
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