Maybe I’m fooling myself, but I don’t think I was a procrastinator in my younger years. If anything, I was always in a hurry to get to the next thing. When I was a kid I admired the teenaged girls who worked for my parents’ business, and I always wanted to follow them around and talk to them, to prove to myself that I would eventually be beautiful and cool like them. I’m sure I was a pain to them, always seeking their attention as a form of validation. When I was a high school student myself I was, for the most part, just as confident as they seemed to be, but I still felt addicted to the validation of others, to being noticed and known. To some degree that is still a motivator for me.
But adulthood makes busyness and striving a lot less attractive. There is a paradox that moves in with goal-driven thinking that inevitably dulls my urge to move forward, to reach goals, and to get things, anything, done and accomplished. The hopeful bubble of childhood – the idea that we can do big things and be happy and proud of ourselves – doesn’t seem to pan out. We do do big things, and often we do them well and complete them, but instead of a sense of achievement we just give ourselves five minutes of self-satisfaction and then we’re forced to move on to the next thing. For a kid who used to get a sticker or a lollipop after a routine vaccination, spending days or weeks to complete a project or presentation, or a lifetime raising a child, the lack of day to day encouragement and reward for our hard work, any accomplishment that doesn’t come with reward or fanfare seems insignificant. And when it seems like all the work we put into doing what we do, all of the time and effort and attention we pour into it, goes unacknowledged, day after day and year after year, we start to question why we even bother doing anything at all.
It’s like dog hair on the floor. We spent a lot of money to have hardwood floors installed in our house when we moved in a couple years ago, but most of the time it’s hard to see the floors under copious layers of dog and cat hair. (We have two dogs and three cats. Yes, I’m crazy.) No big deal, I have a good vacuum that does a great job on it. But when I make the time to vacuum it, I always end up sighing a lot and reciting quotes from mid-century existential fiction, because there is always more hair on the floor.
The relentless forward motion of time and chains of days and weeks and years of hard work often leave me weary of life in general. We live, we work, we die. But for a person suffering from depression and anxiety, or recovering from trauma, or caring for others who are experiencing these things, allowing that mindset to move in and put down roots in our hearts is dangerous. Such low, hopeless, thoughts can become habits that will yield patterns of disfunction in how I see myself and the work I do, how I see others, and how I view the world.
I’m not proud of it, but I can become so enmeshed in my own negative view of myself and the world that, by my thoughts, words, and behaviors, I become a danger to myself and others. It took me years to realize that the longer I allow that sort of mindset to take control of my thinking and actions, the more damage it causes. By welcoming that sort of fear and anger into my soul for long periods of time, I am opening a spiritual door into my soul, allowing the evil of the world to move into my heart and mind and spread like a virus, hijacking my thinking and motivation, and forcefully displacing the work God is doing by the Holy Spirit within me.
Learning to recognize the elements of this kind of disillusionment when it’s in its earliest stages is a skill. It is certainly a gift God willingly provides, but it isn’t given without careful, introspective work and self-discipline on our part. Our world, so controlled by the corrupt nature of our souls, does not teach us to confront our emotions with truth, but God does.
Receiving anything that is unwanted – bad news, a car that won’t start, illness of any kind, unexpected changes of plans, anything – will almost always trigger a negative reaction. We are busy people with plans, goals, and responsibilities that can so easily be derailed by the unexpected. Even positive developments or changes of plans can produce a negative response simply because they force us to stop moving forward with our own plans and routines and make a change on the spot. Some people are able to make shifts like this with relative ease, but I sure can’t, and a sudden wrinkle or disaster that threatens to take away something that helps you feel safe and secure will, by nature, trigger a response of anxiety, fear, frustration, or anger. Depending on the severity and suddenness of the change, it may even trigger a fight, flight, or freeze response, or create a moment in time that marks your life forever.
Yet there is a certain skill to navigating the unexpected, and like most learned skills, you need to start by practicing the approach in smaller, simpler ways before you can apply it to more complicated situations. I’ve found that the same approach is needed when I’m working to change my thinking around the tasks and situations I’d prefer to avoid. In short, by confronting myself with certain facts about an unwanted situation and doing my best to view it from a more objective, emotionally-detached perspective, I am able to apply myself and do unwanted tasks and confront unwelcome circumstances.
The approach I take with the tasks and circumstances that I wish to avoid, but nevertheless need to confront, are not based on any psychological research or experience beyond my own. I’m not a doctor, a psychologist, or a therapist. This, and anything else you read on Post-Traumatic Grace, isn’t medical or mental health advice. It’s mom advice. It’s caring-understanding-wanting-to-help-you friend advice. In my experience, we all need a little of both. In this case, I’m using a skill-building approach, similar to the methods you’d use to learn to ride a bike, become a public speaker, or dance.
Step 1: Start with the easy stuff.
If you find yourself avoiding certain tasks, responsibilities, or conversations, it’s likely that there are some smaller, simpler things you’re avoiding as well. If you’re a natural born rebel, like me, you may even find yourself avoiding simple, non-problematic things just because you can. (I tried to think of an example of something I’ve avoided just because I could, but I couldn’t think of anything that didn’t sound either disgusting or antisocial.)
Let’s take laundry for an example. It’s a chore that I don’t usually mind doing, but a lot of people do, and avoiding it for too long will always create bigger problems – set-in stains and smells, avoidable wrinkles, dress code violations, having to wear clothes you don’t like or that don’t fit properly, or a generally disheveled appearance. These are short term problems that are not likely to severely impact your life, and that is why it’s a good starting point, providing a template for harder, more emotionally complicated tasks that have a more severe or long-lasting impact on your life.
Step 2: Acknowledge that you don’t want to do it WITHOUT an explanation or excuse.
I have a real propensity for self-justification. If I disagree with a popular opinion, or if you ask me to do something I don’t want to do, I will have a full thesis defense prepared to explain why I can’t do it. But don’t do that; you’re only defending your knee-jerk reaction, and knowing why you don’t want to do the laundry doesn’t excuse you from doing it, nor does it get the job done.
Instead, give yourself a few seconds to acknowledge your feelings about this unwanted task that needs to get done. Seconds, not minutes. The longer you allow yourself to complain, and thereby avoid, an unwanted task or situation, the more your resistance grows, making it even harder to overcome. Depending on what you’re avoiding, extending the time you spend making excuses (because that is what you’re doing when you’re avoiding the inevitable) will compound the problem or make the task more difficult, expensive, and time-consuming.
In the case of our laundry example, step 2 would be something like this:
“I hate doing laundry. I wish I didn’t have to do it. But today I have to do it.”
Acknowledge the thought and emotion without any need to justify or excuse yourself for feeling how you feel. Then, immediately confront the feeling with a plain, simple fact that is completely devoid of emotion. In this case, “I hate doing laundry” is an acknowledgment and validation of your emotional reaction to the unwanted situation, and “Today I have to do it,” acknowledges that the feeling and the action can coexist. In other words, you are telling yourself, “I am (frustrated, unhappy, irritated, etc.) because I need to do the laundry today. It’s OK for me to feel this way. I will do the laundry anyway.”
Step 3: IMMEDIATELY do the unwanted task.
Do not pass go, do not collect $200, do not find something more fun to do, do not look at your phone, do not get distracted. If you’re interrupted in any way in this moment, you will miss the most important step in training yourself to push through task resistance.
The last step is to do the thing you don’t want to do right away. Do it the right way and do it completely. In a multi-step task like laundry, when you need to perform one step and then wait for the machine to cycle before doing the next one, you may have to repeat these three steps each time you return to the machine for the next part of the cycle. That’s why I used this simple example as a template. When you apply these steps to more complex tasks you may go through these three steps with every individual task within the whole, but the three steps themselves don’t change; they only become more specific.
This model works for any type of task you’re avoiding, not just concrete, everyday examples like laundry. You can use this simple framework for things like apologizing and making amends in a damaged relationship, developing a physical exercise routine, attending an event you’d rather not go to, or attending social events that induce anxiety. You can use it in both short and long term responsibilities. The more often you use it in smaller, simpler situations, the easier and more natural it will be to use in more complex circumstances. Over time you will build a sense of mental and emotional stamina with each successful effort, improving your resilience and confidence. It works for me.
P.S. The “just do the thing” method developed gradually based on a memory of something funny my son (now almost 18) said when he was only 3. I’ll tell that story in my next newsletter. To subscribe, go to https://melaniemakovsky.com to sign up.