We’ve probably all put off an important task at some point, not because of laziness or bad time management, but because of the challenging emotions involved. This choice to delay something, even when we know there might be negative consequences, is procrastination. It’s a common behavior in general, but it can be especially common among people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
You can think of procrastination as a safety-seeking behavior. It’s understandable, and it might even feel good at the time. The problem with procrastination, however, is that the uncomfortable feelings we have about a task will still be there when we come back to it. And if you have OCD, they’ll often be more intense. You might find yourself struggling with rumination and heightened anxiety in the wake of procrastination.
So, how do you resist the urge to procrastinate and break this pattern of self-sabotage? To start, it can help to identify when you’re procrastinating, along with what might be making you want to avoid a task. Here are a few tips that can guide you in identifying and managing this behavior:
1. Identify what triggers your procrastination.
If you have OCD and tend to procrastinate, it’s imperative to become aware of the internal and external factors that can contribute to this behavior. Do you have certain stressors in your life that make you more likely to be avoidant or put things off? If so, what are they?
It can also help to examine the types of thoughts that lead you to procrastinate. For example, many people with OCD struggle with perfectionism. No matter what task is at hand, OCD can try to insert uncertainty and doubt. You might doubt your capabilities, think that things have to be done “just right,” or have the unfounded belief that you’re simply “not good enough.” These thoughts can become paralyzing, leading to inaction. One problem with this rigid thinking is how can you define what’s “right”? Your definition could vary greatly from someone else’s.
Indecisiveness can be another sign that OCD is at work. If you struggle with the urge to procrastinate due to indecisiveness, you may feel as though you need to achieve certainty or feel sure enough about a choice. Even when you do make a choice, you might find yourself ruminating on whether it was the “right” choice. If you notice thoughts rooted in perfectionism or indecisiveness, try utilizing the following strategies.
2. Be realistic.
Remember the old adage, “Rome wasn’t built in a day?” Well, that’s also true for many tasks that we encounter. Any accomplishment you can think of was achieved through a series of small steps. Everybody has to start somewhere.
When you’re fixated on the end result of any task, you risk losing sight of the process. The pieces leading up to the outcome are often just as important, if not more so, but OCD can make you focus on the big picture instead. You may notice this tendency as the sense that you have to be in the “right” headspace or feel a certain way before beginning the task at hand. Setting smaller, more manageable goals can help counteract this “all or nothing” thinking.
3. Set attainable goals.
This goes hand-in-hand with being realistic, but takes it one step further. To illustrate how setting attainable goals can help with procrastination, here’s another phrase you may have heard: “Motivation follows action.” What that means is that taking small steps towards your goal can help you build positive momentum.
If you break a larger task into smaller ones and celebrate each of those small tasks that you complete, you may find yourself making more progress than you otherwise would have, and being more motivated to keep going. This can strengthen your confidence in your abilities, which can make a world of difference.
4. Minimize distractions.
The world is full of distractions. It doesn’t take much to pull our attention away from one activity to another, and it can be even easier to become distracted when an activity brings up unpleasant emotions.
And when you have OCD, your inner monologue is likely distracting enough as it is. Why not try to make things as easy as possible for yourself by minimizing other distractions? Try silencing phone notifications, turning off computer sounds, and removing anything that draws your attention away from what you’re actively working on. Make your task at hand the priority, even if it’s just for a set amount of time.
Removing distractions from your environment may also help with the sense of mental confusion that can coincide with OCD symptoms. When your brain is in constant fight-or-flight mode, it can be difficult to concentrate. You may feel like you have brain fog or a general feeling of confusion at times. If that’s the case, minimizing external stimuli might be helpful.
5. Speak kindly to yourself.
What you say to yourself matters. Negative self-talk only perpetuates procrastination, and can lead you to feel less and less capable over time. The more you talk yourself out of believing in yourself or your ability to complete a task, the less likely you are to try in the first place. If you notice you’re having self-critical thoughts, a good rule of thumb can be to ask yourself, “What would I say to someone I care about in regards to this issue?” Chances are that your words to them would be much less harsh than what you’re repeatedly telling yourself.
Those of us who have OCD often deal with some level of anxiety. We often also struggle to tolerate that distress, which can lead us to spend a great deal of time avoiding anything that might bring up uncomfortable emotions. It makes sense, then, that we might procrastinate when we encounter something that we feel could increase our stress levels or obsessive thinking.
But the more we anticipate the feeling of anxiety and judge it as being “bad,” the more likely we are to continue to avoid it. This continues the cycle of procrastination, as well as the cycle of OCD. When we allow ourselves self-compassion and cultivate a non-critical inner dialogue, we can set ourselves up to break this pattern.
Remember that changing a behavior is easier said than done, as most things are. But with practice and persistence, you can get to a place where you’re able to confront tasks head-on, in spite of how OCD makes you feel. You can tolerate the anxiety and distress that come along with perfectionistic thinking or the obsessions surrounding the task you want to complete. You can learn how to not avoid things that are important to you, even if it means you will feel uncomfortable for a time. That discomfort will only ever be temporary.
You can learn to tolerate hard feelings as you move towards your goals
As you work on managing procrastination, it’s important to not be hard on yourself. This behavior is not a character flaw. It’s a coping mechanism that can be caused by stress or unfounded negative beliefs we have about ourselves. If you notice yourself procrastinating or feeling frustrated by the times you might have procrastinated in the past, please forgive yourself. Allow yourself to move forward without the burden of past actions.
Additionally, consider seeking the expertise of a specialty-trained, qualified, and licensed OCD specialist. A qualified OCD specialist will have training in exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy, the most effective OCD treatment. At NOCD, our licensed therapists deeply understand all OCD themes and are specialty-trained in treating OCD with ERP. They can work with you to develop more effective ways to manage OCD symptoms, including the feelings that typically trigger procrastination.
To learn more about getting matched with a NOCD Therapist and starting treatment that can help you conquer OCD, book a free 15-minute call with our team.