What procrastination looks like
You hate your job. You feel stuck and demoralized at work. You dread Mondays. You might have even gotten laid off in the prime years of your career and you are agonizing over it.
Have you ever found yourself feeling this way?
Some of us endure these painful experiences for much longer than necessary. We tell ourselves all sorts of reasons for why our sustained dissatisfaction at work or unemployment is acceptable.
We’ll wait and see if our job gets better.
The promotion, or the raise, will solve our problems.
We just need to get transferred so we can work under a different boss.
The right new job just hasn’t come around yet.
I’m waiting for some companies to get back to me on my applications.
These might be perfectly acceptable reasons to delay looking for a new job. Sometimes the situation warrants a bit of patience. However, this patience should only be exercised for so long. You may deem it perfectly rational to wait and be comfortable. Perhaps the consequences are not incredibly apparent and blatantly staring you in the face. In most cases, however, those consequences are indeed present. Perplexingly, when the stakes are high, we cannot always bring ourselves to take action to do what is necessary for our well-being.
We wrote this article to address this challenge.
As a mental health therapist at a large public university, Anil Coumar ran a therapy group focused on procrastination for more than 10 years. Most of the participants in the group were graduate students. Over the years, the same story appeared again and again: the final paper for the quarter has to be turned in by the end of the month. Instead of working on the project that is due, many students find themselves reading news, watching YouTube videos, cleaning the apartment, taking naps, or researching endlessly online for more and more “resources” for their paper instead of actually writing the paper.
In helping people make changes in their careers, Arun has watched people make many excuses for why they haven’t completed his recommended activities. Arun promotes a high sense of urgency in one’s job search in a quest for maximum job satisfaction, life satisfaction, and impact on the world, but that sense of urgency can be easily overshadowed by hundreds of different reasons why delaying action on one’s job search is acceptable, or even desirable.
This is classic procrastination. We have all done it. The price we pay can be enormous.
Why you are procrastinating
One of the most common causes of procrastination is an underlying fear. This can be a fear of failure, fear of embarrassment, fear of success, or fear of accessing one's true capabilities. It is often true that the person who is procrastinating sometimes has no clue what underlying psychological issue is bothering and hindering her or him. We convince ourselves of rational explanations to cover up these fears. Nothing we produce is ever good enough. We keep waiting and thinking about how to get it “just right.” We have many internal “what ifs” and “if only’s” and often get lost in our internal world of negative thoughts.
Size of the task
Procrastination is common when the task before us is a big project that involves multiple people or even multiple steps. We are at a loss and don’t know how to start or where to start. The sheer size of the task at hand gets blown out of proportion in our head. Then we lose confidence. We beat ourselves up for wasting time, which then ends up wasting more time.
There is another kind of procrastination that is often encountered in students who were brought up by well-meaning parents who wanted their children to succeed in life. These kids had someone else monitoring their to-do’s and making sure that they complete their tasks on time. They seem to do well as long as parental supervision is there. However, when they leave home for college or work, their lives fall apart quickly. They find it hard to be disciplined and focused enough to complete their assignments on time with no one watching. They lack the ability to prioritize their time.
What is the cost?
Longer time unemployed. More of your career is spent frustrated and unproductive at work. The frustration resulting in poor performance and slowed career development. Missed opportunities for a great new job. These are all costs to you and your career, for sure. Additionally, Arun believes that your time disengaged with, or out of the workforce costs society from your lack of contribution and development.
How to stop procrastinating
No one wants to procrastinate. Here are 6 ways to stop procrastinating on your job search.
Make a Plan
Prior to jumping into action, plan out your desired next move. This will get you excited about your job search and combat the first level of procrastination.
Arun breaks down a job search into an 8-step blueprint. Learn about the entire blueprint in his book: findprofessionalsuccess.com/book.
Think about your long-term career goals. What do you want to be doing in 5 years? What world-afflicting issues do you want to solve? What are you good at? What have you learned from your past work experience about personally suitable work environments, team structures, and company cultures?
Do your research. Find companies you’re interested in. Figure out how you can learn more about them. Think about which roles are likely to be in demand, and which aren’t. How would your skills, experience, and motivations be a good fit for that company?
Update your resume and LinkedIn profile to make yourself a desirable candidate for the job you want. Find people to speak with who has knowledge about your desired role. Build a network and get referrals.
Once you have come up with a plan, you can take action.
Anil is familiar with every excuse in the book for not starting a big project. Here are some of the ways he recommends combating even the strongest procrastinating urges, developed over his 30+ year career as a mental health therapist.
Getting Things Done (GTD) Method
Many years ago, while having lunch with David Allen, he made a statement that surprised me. He said: “Getting Things Done [the method] is not about getting things done, it is about clearing your mind so that you can focus and be with what is important to you.” I was a little confused at first but quickly realized the wisdom in what he had just said. The GTD Method was created by David about two decades ago and is still useful and relevant today. I encourage you to explore it more at his website: gettingthingsdone.com
To summarize the GTD method, when we write things down that are swirling around in our heads, we get more clarity and the mind has a tendency to become quieter. I have never met anyone who can write/type faster than they can think, so just the act of putting down your thoughts on paper tends to slow the mind. Also when we write down what is on our minds, we are giving form to what is basically formless - our thoughts. We feel better when we write things down because there is no more worrying about forgetting it. So there is less compulsive background thinking when we write things down. Lastly, if we have a busy, distracted mind, we can always come back to where we got lost in our distraction if we write things down.
As you are going through Arun’s planning blueprint, as described above, I recommend the practice of writing down every thought you can as it arises during your job search. This will then allow you to make time for useful reflection and organization. Take all of those scrambled thoughts about your job search and organize them into a theme or message. Draw out whatever conclusions about yourself that you can. Those conclusions will give you the additional information that can direct you to more specific, targeted job searching activities.
Check Writing Method
The Check Writing Method is a technique that I have used in my psychotherapy practice for more than 20 years. It has never failed.
How to perform the Check Writing Method:
Pick a trustworthy friend or mentor. Someone who can hold you to your promise with tough love.
Identify the task you have been procrastinating on - the job application, updating your resume, or making your portfolio. Think about how much time you would reasonably take to complete it (in terms of days) and multiply it by two. For tasks that take less than one day, give yourself two days, maximum. Commit to that date as your final completion date and write it down.
Next, pick a person or an organization that you don’t like or have strong negative feelings about. For example, your opposing political party or an association whose message or mission you disapprove of.
Consider a monetary amount that if you lose, it would sting you, but not bankrupt you. Write a check for that amount you pick and make the check out to the person or organization that you picked above.
Give the check to the person you picked and ask them to mail the check to the organization or person you chose in step 3, if they are not informed by the date you picked in step 2 that you have completed your task.
Watch the miracle happen.
Decision Matrix Method
Many folks who seek professional help do so because they’re having trouble making a decision. I recall trying to decide whether to continue my career as a physician or become a psychotherapist when I first moved to Seattle, WA from London, UK. The decision-making process was so stressful, I got really ill. I wish I had known about the Decision Matrix then.
However, I got to use the Decision Matrix when I was trying to decide whether to quit my job at the university and go into private practice or not. I have been working at the Health Center on campus for almost 18 years. I loved the clients I was working with and enjoyed being on campus with smart colleagues. On the other hand, I wanted to be my own boss and not be limited by the government bureaucracy and I was tired of managing people. It was a very hard decision to leave behind the good salary and benefits and launch into private practice. I used the Decision Matrix and worked through each one of my fears in the list before sending in my resignation email. It turned out to be an excellent decision.
Decision making is often very stressful whether it is in our personal or professional life. Many of my clients have found the Decision Matrix below very helpful. Similar to the GTD Method, the benefits of writing down your thoughts apply here as well.
The decision matrix is below and is very self-explanatory. Simply reflect upon and fill out each box. Discretely and precisely define two different options for your decision, and then write down your hopes and fears for each option.
For many people just the act of self-reflection and completing the Decision Matrix above is sufficient. Once they complete the exercise they have clarity about the course of action they intend to take. However, for others, there is still no clear decision after they complete the exercise above. The underlying fears listed in the right column may be still paralyzing for them. Don’t worry, here is where Inquiry-Based Stress Reduction, which is really a clinical application of The Work of Byron Katie, comes in very helpful.
The Work of Byron Katie
I have specialized in The Work of Byron Katie for over 20 years.
The Work is the most useful tool I have found among all the therapy methods that I have been trained in, though Katie would insist The Work is not therapy. I agree - it is much more than that. It is a wonderful way to work through the fears that hold us back from living a stress-free life. Before doing The Work, it is useful to get really still internally using the ancient technique of 3-Minute Breathing Space Meditation described below.
Three-minute Breathing Meditation Exercise:
Minute 1 - Taking Stock:
After adopting a comfortable posture, sitting, or standing, ask yourself: a) What thoughts are going through my mind? b) What emotions am I aware of right now? c) What bodily sensations are arising at this moment that I am experiencing? The important task here is to simply notice. Labeling is less important. It is ok if you cannot name the emotions. It is not necessary to follow your thoughts or push them away.
Minute 2 - Focusing:
For the next minute, gently direct your attention to your solar plexus area in the center of your chest. Keep your attention focused on this area and notice the physical sensations as the breath naturally moves in and out of your body. There is no need to control or regulate your breath, however tempting it may be. This is about paying attention, not controlling anything.
Step 3 - Expanding:
During this last step, imagine the ripples that happen when you throw a rock into a still pond. Allow attention to move from the middle of your chest, in all directions to include your whole body. Be very gentle as you do this. Simple noticing is enough. Becoming aware of the physical sensations in the body helps to anchor our attention in the present moment and calms the “monkey mind”.
We are both car enthusiasts. So we're going to use a car analogy to explain how the mind works under stress.
Imagine driving a car at 140 mph. When you're driving that fast there is a sense of excitement and even fun. Physiologically, we experience what is called tunnel vision and our eyes focus on the road directly in front of us. Even though this is exciting, in the long run, it is not good for our mind, body, or the car. Also if we make an error at that speed there is very little time to recover and the price we pay may be disastrous. Now imagine slowing down the car to 60 or 65 mph. Our field of vision broadens and we are able to take in more of the scenery that is passing by. It is good for the car's engine and for gas mileage. Our body and our mind are also more relaxed as we drive at that speed because there is more time to respond and take evasive actions if something happens.
When we are anxious our mind tends to go at very high speeds and it is very exciting and energizing in the short run. However in the long run it can have disastrous consequences both for the body and the mind. In our experience, Inquiry or The Work of Byron Katie helps us to identify the underlying beliefs that are causing us to rev up our thinking and behavior. As we question those assumptions and beliefs, our mind tends to slow down and we get more clarity, and our ability to respond appropriately also improves.
Sometimes it might be difficult to identify what are the underlying assumptions or beliefs that are causing the mind to speed up. There are some ways we can get beneath the surface. Let's take the example of you procrastinating about applying for jobs or updating your resume:
What do you think you would have if you got the job?
What is the worst that could happen if you got the job?
What does it mean to you if you didn’t get the job?
What do you believe you should do before you think you're ready to apply for the job?
The above questions may help you to go a little deeper and identify the underlying beliefs that are holding you back and driving the tendency for procrastination. You can put these assumptions to inquiry using the steps we described below.
The Work or Inquiry is a powerful technique to gain clarity. We like it for the following reasons:
All the resources you need to do it are free and available in many languages on thework.com
It is simple to learn, use, and teach.
It really works if you do it sincerely. All it takes is an open mind.
So, here is how we use it. We take the fears that clients listed in the Decision Matrix above and put it to Inquiry using the One-Belief-At-A-Time worksheet. The instructions for how to complete the worksheet are provided in the worksheet. The first step is to identify the underlying belief that is causing the fear (Remember FEAR stands for False Evidence Appearing Real). An example would be - “Everyone is more qualified for the position than me, or I will make a fool of myself in the interview.”
Ask yourself (or have a facilitator ask you) the following questions:
Is it true?
Can you absolutely know that it is true?
How do you react when you believe that thought?
Who would you be without that thought?
The first two questions in the worksheet help us to put the brakes on the run-away mind by exploring the validity of our fearful assumption. The third question helps us to see the price we pay for holding onto our belief - the negative emotions, our behaviors towards others or ourselves, and the end result of our negative belief. The fourth question can be a little tricky for beginners and people who think a lot. It gives us a glimpse of reality as it really is before we superimpose our beliefs and assumptions about it.
We recommend the above tools given our combined experience with career coaching and psychotherapy. Reflect, plan, and develop effective strategies to combat your procrastination. Job searching is a daunting, demoralizing, personal, and fearful process. We are very aware that procrastination is common, given these defining characteristics.
We hope that you can use these tools to stop procrastinating in your job search. Once practiced in one initiative, feel free to use the tools in other activities well beyond the job search.
At the very least, give it a try. You’re reading this article because the headline resonated with you and you’re looking for ways to complete your job search. Feel free to ask questions or relay your feedback and stories to us on this article. You can find more information about Arun’s work on findprofessionalsuccess.com, and Anil’s work on coumar.org.
Anil Coumar is a mental health therapist with over 30 years of experience working with clients of all ages. He has run a procrastination and perfectionism group for the last 15 years.
Arun Coumar is a career coach who, over the last 5 years, has worked with clients who are looking to discover and pursue their perfect careers. He is the author of Professional Success - the Career Building Blueprint.