Q: I'm a big procrastinator and have trouble finishing projects and programs. I get all excited about trying something new and fling myself into it headlong, only to drop it again and forget it quickly. Out of sight, out of mind. Can you think of anything that would be helpful to me?

A: Well, if it's any comfort, you have some fabulous company. The ranks of procrastinators tend to be filled with very bright and talented people (otherwise, they probably couldn't get away with it). Often they've had such high expectations placed on them by themselves or others that there's some internal self-intimidation about not measuring up.

I noticed in my own clinical practice that many of the procrastinators I saw were perfectionists so demanding of themselves, they couldn't bear to complete anything because the end product just wouldn't be good enough. Finally, they'd rush to meet a deadline at the last minute, only able to tolerate the less-than-perfect quality of their work with the rationalization that they had to scramble to get it done.

There's also a signature quality of relentless self-torture that's usually characteristic of this process. I don't know if this describes you or not, but usually it's not like the procrastinator is off at the beach, having some wicked fun while procrastinating. Au contraire, there's a nagging, internal subtext tape playing all the time that has the person painfully aware of what he or she is not doing. Yech. It's really horrid.

So it's the worst of both worlds: not finishing the task, but not enjoying the time out either. And there's usually a certain self-flagellation with it, a judgment about how the procrastination is evidence of a flawed character.

Some theorists think there's actually some anxiety about the joy of completion, not unlike the way some people are fearful of pleasure and fulfillment. In any case, it does become a painful habit that feeds itself, and it's important to break out of it.

Perverse as it may sound, one way to do this is to fight perversity with perversity--in other words, give yourself permission to enjoy the time you're taking away from the task.

That will trump that negative payoff, the defeating self-talk ("I am lazy; I am bad. Yo, look at what I'm not doing right now...yadda yadda yadda"), and, at the same time, provide some genuine respite that can feed the creativity and energy needed for the project. By doing this, you're breaking the cycle. Just notice when the negative self-talk starts and return your focus to enjoying what you're doing, turning "presence" into a virtue that can go mano a mano against "accomplishment."

I would also recommend that you try working with some guided imagery. But instead of focusing on the outcome or product you're trying to create, imagine instead how it feels inside of you when you're working effortlessly and unselfconsciously. Every athlete, writer, and show business performer understands that this is where you want your mind to be, and then the work product--whatever it is--evolves seamlessly. Of course, you need to have the basic skills and information--I'm not suggesting that feeling comfortable or joyful is a substitute for doing your homework. But the combination is unbeatable.

That's what I think about this. Good luck!

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