You need two sets of skills to get started on a task: behavioural skills that help you take actions and emotional skills that help you manage the feelings that come up when you start something new.
These emotional skills help you overcome avoidance, which is one of the biggest issues in procrastination. Sometimes avoidance is about avoiding tasks, sometimes it’s about avoiding decisions, but mostly, it’s about avoiding feelings.
No matter what form avoidance takes in your life, the techniques in this article are designed to help you overcome it and move forward with your goals.
What Is Avoidance Behaviour?
At its root, procrastination is about avoiding tasks or decisions because they feel uncomfortable in some way—because they’re monotonous, challenging, disorganized, gross, intimidating, confusing, or lonely.
In fact, procrastination is more about avoiding those feelings than it is about avoiding the task itself.
These feelings come in at two different points in time: when we’re actually doing the task and when we think about doing the task. Because we’re motivated to minimize feelings of discomfort, we will sometimes choose to avoid them as a way of managing those feelings.
For example, if I decide not to give the dog a bath tonight, I feel relieved right now (I don’t have to dread giving the dog a bath later) and I know I’ll feel relieved tonight, too (because I won’t have to do the unpleasant task).
Avoidance is extremely common among people with anxiety. Your brain is wired to make you avoid what scares you because it assumes whatever you fear is legitimately life-threatening. Staying away means you’re staying alive. But the biggest thing people with anxiety avoid is uncertainty.
By taking no action and making no change, they eliminate uncertainty, which relieves anxiety. Avoidance is also common in depression, where maintaining the status quo conserves energy and avoiding decisions reduces the likelihood of regret.
Mia had frequent panic attacks and was terrified of triggering future ones. Seeking an easy way to manage her panic disorder, she avoided all sorts of things she believed might set off a panic attack: exercising, attending client meetings, driving on the freeway.
She became physically unhealthy, missed opportunities to grow her business, and wasted hours driving indirect routes. And while this strategy did help her avoid new panic attacks, she also avoided overcoming her panic disorder.
The treatment for the disorder required that she do the exact things she was afraid of doing, like driving on the freeway. To overcome panic, she needed to learn to cope not only with panic attacks themselves but, more importantly, with her fear of triggering a panic attack.
Indecisiveness is a special form of avoidance. In this case, rather than avoiding a task, you’re avoiding making a decision. Sometimes, delaying decisions can be strategic and prudent: You may get more information later that will allow you to make a more informed choice, or you may get a better deal from a salesperson who is really motivated to sell to you.
But when you have all the relevant information and choose not to make a decision, that’s just decisional procrastination.
This type of indecisiveness is deeply rooted in avoidance. Postponing decisions means you avoid the responsibility and the aftermath of making a decision. You also get to avoid any anticipated regret or fear from making the “wrong” decision. No decision = no action = no change = no regret. Except, you end up regretting the indecisiveness and the time and opportunities wasted.
We trick ourselves into this type of avoidance by saying we just haven’t made up our minds yet, when the reality is that a non-decision is really a decision in itself. If you haven’t decided whether you want to break up with your boyfriend, each day you put off that decision is a day you’re choosing to stay in the relationship.
The nondecision to separate is a decision to remain together. Same thing with your goals: The nondecision about starting your next side hustle is a decision not to get started.
Best Ways To Overcome Avoidance Behaviour
Ultimately, the only way to overcome avoidance is to manage your feelings. If you want to stop procrastinating, you have to learn how to cope with the unpleasant emotions associated with doing a task, be willing to feel unpleasant emotions in the future, and accept the reality that you may sometimes regret your decisions.
That last part might actually be the hardest. We want things to be perfect and we want to succeed, and sometimes, it feels like we can prevent failure by not taking action.
But inaction is its own form of failure. When you don’t take action, you deprive yourself of the opportunity to succeed, or at least to learn. The following strategies are designed to help you take steps to manage those feelings that freeze you up and keep you from moving toward your goals.
1. Identify Your Resources
We sometimes avoid tasks because we anticipate setbacks that we don’t feel prepared to deal with. Many people avoid even trying to start a diet because they worry that there will be a day when they won’t follow the diet and this will derail their entire effort. Why even bother if you won’t make it to the end?
You can address this concern by anticipating potential setbacks and identifying the resources you have to respond to them. You probably have more resources than you realize: technology, money, people (e.g., people you know and trust or people who are experts in what you’re trying to do), and your own knowledge from prior experience or education.
But your greatest resource may be your psychological capital. Psychological capital is the amount of hope you have that you’ll reach your goals, how well you bounce back from setbacks and adversity, and how optimistic and confident you are that you will succeed.
When you are trying to commit to a new task but find yourself worrying about anticipated setbacks, remember your resources. Remind yourself that you know the steps to reach your goal, you have enough resilience to manage obstacles, and you believe in yourself enough to make this happen.
Once you realize how many resources you have, you will feel more prepared to tackle the task and you will be less likely to avoid it.
2. Break The Tasks Down Further
One giant task can be intimidating, but several smaller tasks can feel more manageable. However, if you’ve broken down your task into more manageable steps but still feel overwhelmed, then your first step might still be too big. Break it down even further.
If a goal of “Clean the house” feels overwhelming, that’s a cue to break it down into cleaning individual rooms. If “Clean the kitchen” is still overwhelming, then break that down, too. Now you’re at “Wash the dishes.” Still overwhelmed? Try “Wash one fork.” Any step can be broken down until you’re comfortable with it.
Try not to judge yourself for breaking tasks down into the tiniest of steps. It’s better to take one tiny step forward and build momentum from there than to stay stuck. Even if all you do is wash one fork, that’s still one more fork than was clean a few minutes ago. And you’ve shown yourself that you can deal with tough feelings, which builds confidence for the next task.
3. Monitor Your Negative
Have you ever waved at someone you know on the street, only to have them not wave back? What did you tell yourself after it happened? The story you tell yourself to explain any situation in your life is self-talk, and the kind of self-talk you use plays a major role in how you feel about and respond to situations.
Positive self-talk will inspire you towards action, while negative self-talk will discourage you. If you tell yourself, “My friend probably didn’t wave back because she’s mad at me,” you’ll feel insecure and probably avoid waving to her in the future. If you tell yourself, “She might not have seen me,” you might feel optimistic and decide to approach her to say hello.
The same thinking applies to difficult tasks you have been avoiding. If you tell yourself, “I can’t do this,” “I can’t stand the way this makes me feel,” or “I shouldn’t have to do this,” you’ll feel discouraged, apprehensive, and aggravated and most likely avoid the task.
But if you tell yourself, “This will be a challenge, but I can do hard things,” you might feel more assured, determined, or confident. The encouraging thoughts lead to encouraging feelings, which help move us toward attempting difficult tasks.
When you’re noticing negative self-talk, writing the thoughts down is a good idea. It’s easier to see how unhelpful these thoughts are when they’re written down. Writing also makes it easier to replace them with more helpful thoughts.
4. Ask Yourself The Miracle Question
Derived from solution-focused brief therapy (SFBT), the miracle question is a technique to use when you’re feeling indecisive.
Suppose tonight while you are sleeping, a miracle occurs, and the decision you are avoiding has been made for you. You are asleep, so, of course, you don’t know the miracle has happened. When you wake up the next morning, what would be the first sign that a miracle had occurred?
Maybe you have been avoiding making a decision about which law school to attend. When you wake up the next morning, a miracle has happened:
You’re wearing pajamas with one school’s insignia, there’s a welcome packet from the school on your nightstand, and you’ve rented an apartment in that school’s city. When you imagined it, which school did you see first and which city did you see yourself living in?
The miracle question helps us imagine what our lives would be like if the decision were already made. We can imagine the details of a life spent living with that decision.
We can then use that information to determine which decision is the best for us. If one imagined miracle life feels more consistent with your goals or values than the other, that decision is likely the best.
5. Acknowledge The Outcomes of Indecisiveness
Be honest with yourself about how indecisiveness is affecting you and your life. Often, we avoid making decisions because we don’t want to limit our options. We think that if we choose one career path, we’ll miss out on other opportunities, or if we choose one person to date, we might miss out on a better fit.
It’s true that sometimes committing to one path does limit other opportunities, but not committing can also limit us. Consider the effect of each decision, and also consider the effect of doing nothing, of not deciding.
Another way to think about this is to ask yourself how you will feel about your indecisiveness in a week, a month, or a year. Will you be grateful you waited? Or would it have been better to have made a decision and moved forward with your life?
This can also be applied to tasks you are avoiding. Consider the effect of doing the task and also consider the effect of not doing the task.
Ask yourself how you will feel in the future about avoiding the task, whether you’ll be grateful you avoided it or if it would have been better to have committed to a course and moved forward. A classic example is exercise: What are the consequences of not exercising, and is it better to get started or to avoid it and be in the same place physically a year from now?
6. Be Content With Your Decisions
One of the main drivers of indecisiveness is a fear of making the “wrong” choice or regretting your decisions later. The best way to deal with this?
Accept that you aren’t prophetic and that you have less information right now than you’ll have in the future. Remember that the decision you’re making now is the one that is best given the available information.
Hindsight may make you wonder whether a different decision would have been better, but practice self-compassion by recognizing that you made a thoughtful decision with limited information.
When you’re making a tough choice, document your rationale for choosing this option over another so you can refer to your thought process in the future and recall what made this path the best at the time.
7. Soothe Yourself
We usually avoid tasks because we’re trying to avoid how it feels to do them. If you’re feeling distressed about making a therapy appointment, attending a social gathering, or asking for help, focus on soothing the emotional distress.
Sure, one way to relieve the distress is to avoid the activity. But there’s a reason you want to do this activity, so look for another soothing strategy you can use. Sing, hug yourself, laugh, or smile before you get started.
Continue to soothe yourself while you’re doing the task with those same strategies or by playing soothing music, lighting a scented candle, or drinking a soothing drink (e.g., hot chocolate, herbal tea).
Be careful to choose soothing strategies that won’t distract you from the task itself—you can get started on the task while listening to soothing music, but getting out your guitar might perpetuate your procrastination and avoidance.
Another strategy for soothing emotional distress is to train yourself to relax. This strategy is most effective if you train yourself to relax on a regular basis. Practicing slow, deep breathing can quickly calm emotional distress and help you start a task you might be tempted to avoid.
8. Make A Coping Card
Remember when your teacher would let you bring an index-card cheat sheet to your exam? Your handwriting was never tinier or neater than when you were cramming everything you could think of on that card.
A coping card is the same thing, but for coping with difficult situations. Having this type of quick-reference guide ready can help us get through difficult feelings that make us want to abandon a task.
To start, grab an index card, tear a sheet of paper into quarters, or open a new note file in your phone. At the top, write the situation you’re coping with. For example, “Coping Card for When I’m Doubting Myself.”
Then, list all the strategies you can use to cope with that situation. You might include strategies from this book or other strategies from your own research or personal experience. Next, list people, you can contact for support, like a friend, relative, or mentor who can give you a little motivational boost.
Finally, list three positive things you can focus on to help yourself cope (e.g., reasons you want to cope with the feeling rather than avoid it, an inspirational quote or idea, or something positive happening in your life).
If you notice yourself avoiding a task or a decision, examine whether it’s due to an uncomfortable feeling. Then, follow the strategies on your coping card to manage the discomfort and keep going with the task.
The strategies in this article are not easy to do, and they certainly don’t feel good. But they’re incredibly important and can aid you in your journey to overcome procrastination and achieve your personal and professional goals.
I hope you’ll spend some extra time with these proven techniques—remember, the more you practice something, the easier it will become. Give yourself the opportunity to learn these strategies, put them into action, and feel how free your life becomes when avoidance and indecisiveness aren’t holding you back.
Now that you’ve developed skills to get your tasks started, your next objective is to keep that momentum alive and follow through to the end.