“I’ll (blank)…as soon as I (blank).”

Image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/DavidCastilloDominici

Image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/DavidCastilloDominici

Complete the statement.

How often do you find yourself saying (or thinking) that?  I included blanks because there are so many common examples.

“I’ll play with you…as soon as I clean up the kitchen”… “I’ll do my work…as soon as I finish these episodes of Game of Thrones”… “I’ll go to bed…as soon as I finish scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed”… “I’ll eat better…as soon as all of these holiday leftovers are out of the fridge”.

I’ll bet at least one sounds familiar.  There are two common behaviors that I wanted to talk about here.  The first is that we may want to do something, like play with our kids or get a good night’s sleep, but we feel there is always something (usually work) that has to be done first.  Chances are we have some anxiety or obsessive-compulsive tendencies (“I can’t play or relax until the kitchen or house is clean”, etc.), and we have developed some internal rules that say we can’t relax or have fun until something else is done.  You’re probably perfectionistic and having a “perfect house” is important to you, or having all of the work done is important.  There is nothing wrong with that, but you could benefit from relaxing your standards.

The problem is that work is almost never done, things will never be perfect, and we will continue to think of new things that “need” to get done.  As a result, we rarely get to do what we want to do, and this can leave us feeling sad, guilty, angry, or unfulfilled.

The second behavior is procrastination, or avoiding something we don’t necessarily want to do in favor of something we view as better.  We may have every intention of doing our homework, cleaning the house, making that (dreaded) phone call, or going to the gym- when we get around to it.  We might not really enjoy playing with our kids, so we subconsciously look for things that are more important at the moment.  Most of us procrastinate at one point or another, making rationalizations that we do our best work under pressure, that some of the most successful people do it, that this other thing we feel we have to do really is important, and so on.  But most of us do eventually get the job done, which reinforces the behavior.

Sometimes the job doesn’t get done, though.  We might say we want to play with our kids more, have more alone time with our partner, eat healthier, exercise more, drink less, or get more done.  But as long as we’re engaging in procrastination (as a regular habit), we’re unlikely to make much progress.  And this again leads to us feeling bad, whichever specific label you put on it.

If any of this resonates with you, you may fall into one category or the other, or you could even engage in both types of behavior.  I would encourage you to think about what you do most often.  Do you feel like there’s not enough time in the day to do the things you really want to do?  Do you often feel overwhelmed or guilty because you don’t get to do more of what you would like to?  OR, do you often avoid things you just don’t feel like doing?  Do you have a hard time bringing yourself to do them, or do you truly feel like you can’t focus until it’s crunch time?  Is it hard to admit any of this because it just feels bad?

There is nothing wrong with not wanting to do dishes, or do laundry, or write a report for school or work- even playing with your kids.  We’re human and we have an inherent desire to do things that are pleasurable.  And in today’s fast-paced, responsibility-filled world, we long for more fun time, more time for relaxation, or even just mindless entertainment.  Feeling so bad that you can’t acknowledge the problem isn’t going to help.  So acknowledging it is the first step- at least to yourself.  Evaluating what you do and why is the second step.  And then finding some ways to counter it would be the third.

As January 1st is just around the corner and I know people are feeling energized and thinking about making changes, here are a few strategies for each behavior.  Try applying them to your own life to see if they help you to feel better.  I will tell you that changing any behavior is hard.  Why do you think most New Year’s resolutions are unsuccessful?  I encourage you to pick one or two things and stick to them for a solid month.  If you catch yourself slipping, start again.  Chances are you will notice something positive and you will be able to take it even farther.

Perfectionism:

1) Set a time limit.  If you’re in the kitchen, set a timer for 5 or 10 minutes, get done what you can, and then go do something else that is more enjoyable.  My wife and I like to do this.  It’s actually fun to race against time to see what you can finish before it goes off.

2) Go and do the other thing, but set a limit on it.  Tell your child you can play for 15 or 20 minutes, or you will read 1 or 2 books, or just tell yourself you will sit and only listen to your child for 10 minutes.  Take a 20 or 30 minute run or walk and then come back to what you were doing.  And I know it’s hard, but watch just one episode of your favorite show before going back to work.

3) Try to plan your time better.  Schedule fun time, alone time, or family time in your day.  If you  feel guilty that these things get skipped, boring because you seem to do nothing but work, or some other way, mix it up.  Make these things priorities and then ensure that they get done.  If this is hard or you think you’re not getting enough work done, take a look at home you spend your days.  Are you wasting time or being unproductive?  Sometimes that is why there seems like so much to do.

4) Include your partner or family in the work.  Sounds fun, right?  Delegate some responsibilities.  Ask your partner or children to do a few things.  Try setting the timer or making it some kind of competition.  Tell them you’ll do something as a family or offer the children some type of reward for helping out.  In 2014 (almost 2015), there is no reason why any one person should be doing all of the housework- and that children (especially teens or pre-teens) cannot take on a little responsibility.

Procrastination/Avoidance:

1) Be honest with yourself.  Procrastination is an enemy of productivity and leads to unnecessary stress- guilt when you’re avoiding the task, then stress/anxiety/or anger with yourself for having done so.  Make a plan to stop.  Write down tasks, when they’re due, and try breaking it up into parts.  Start early and try to get a certain amount done per day or time you spend working on it.

2) Use distractors as rewards.  Tell yourself you will (watch a TV show, check your e-mail or social media, go outside, etc.) after either accomplishing a set amount of work or working for a designated time.  Set a timer if you need to.

3) Try to find enjoyment in the things you were avoiding.  If you don’t love getting on the floor and playing with your kids, try to find something that you all will like.  Go outside, throw a ball, take a walk, play with the dog, play a board game- even play a video game together.  Find common bonds and you’ll enjoy more time together.  Find ways to make work fun.  Set a timer and race the clock.  Find a creative way to get a job done.  Do intervals… 5 minutes of work, 5 or 10 minutes of running on a treadmill or running/walking around the block.  Turn on (and up) some music!

4) Include your partner or children.  Delegate responsibilities.  I think “many hands make light work” is the saying?  This can help the work to get done more quickly and can make it easier for you, making it not so bad and giving you more time for the things you really want to do.

These, of course, are not the only strategies, but can certainly help.  There is a third problem- when there is a disconnect between our actions and our priorities.  I’ll address that in my next post, though.  If you find that making these changes is too difficult, research more strategies or talk to a professional like a psychologist or life coach.  Best wishes and here’s to a happy and healthy 2015!

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About Dr. Jesse Matthews

I'm a private practice psychologist in Chester Springs, PA. I provide counseling and coaching services to people ages 12 and up. Specialties include: depression; addiction/substance abuse; relationships; anxiety; ADHD and behavioral issues; and Autism/Asperger's.
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