We Were on a Break: Procrastination and Perspective

By Liat Clark

Dear Reader,

Hey! It’s been a minute, but we’re back in the game.

You may be wondering what took us so long. To just say “senioritis” and leave it at that would be unfair to you, to the integrity and value of Perspective, and to myself. It also wouldn’t be the full story to our little break.

Often when we take breaks — when we take a mental health morning instead of goingto class, when we veg or unwind with some TV, even when we have a do-nothing weekend because we’re so tired — we don’t actually feel refreshed when we come back. Why is that?

Burnout is more than itching for the end of midterms or needing some “me” time. It is caused by relentless and ongoing stress. That stress turns into much more serious emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion than sleeping in and ditching your first class of the morning can cure. Why? Because the feeling of constant demands will still be with you.

Say you take the morning off — you’ll still have to make up that material, except now you have to find notes, have someone record the lecture, and email the teacher in hopes that they won’t lower your participation grade because you’ve used more excused absences than you’ve been allowed. If you do nothing all weekend to try to rest up, you come in Monday morning feeling extra stressed about all of the assignments due this week and that you didn’t do anything for them all weekend.

Those of us who “work best under pressure,” pride ourselves on being last-minute, and can’t be productive without an immediately impending deadline, are especially in danger. We procrastinate and even claim that we are being economical with our time — because “why work for a week on something that can be accomplished in one night?”

If all of this sounds familiar, I urge you to keep reading.

A friend recently sent me a New York Times article about procrastination, explaining that we avoid tasks not because we’re lazy or have poor time-management skills. Procrastination often results from “deeper feelings related to the task, such as self-doubt, low self-esteem, anxiety or insecurity. Staring at a blank document, you might be thinking, ‘I’m not smart enough to write this. Even if I am, what will people think of it? Writing is so hard. What if I do a bad job?’” The danger of attempting to regulate these negative emotions by pushing off the tasks is that it compounds the negativity we will associate with performing it: we are adding more pressure and self-blame about avoiding into the Molotov cocktail of negative emotions.

So why do we still procrastinate? Because we are rewarded for it with momentary relief! And when faced with a task that causes us negativity and anxiety, our brains detect a threat to our being that pushes us to remove the threat immediately. Thus, we end up in a cycle of chronic procrastination, which has “measurably destructive effects on our mental and physical health.”

Imagine (or, if this resonated with you, simply realize) that you have been in this cycle for years of your schooling experience, facing constant demands and assignments with low self-esteem and low self-compassion. Perhaps you don’t give 100% to your schoolwork or studying, not because you’re lazy, but because secretly you fear trying hard and finding that your “all” isn’t enough to get the perfect grade. Better that you get a lower grade because you didn’t try so hard, than you tried and weren’t enough. And if you get the perfect score — GREAT! Even more reward for procrastinating and falling deeper into the cycle. This is only one example of a chronic problem.

None of this is to say that you must write every paper the day it is assigned. Prioritizing and making time to do things for yourself are of course keys to success. But the key to feeling successful is rooted in our ability to deal with the negative emotions causing our procrastination. Productive procrastination (procrastinating one stress-inducing task with other tasks that need to get done) does not address the emotions sparking the desire to avoid, even if you’re decreasing the potential stress of those less important tasks.

The most helpful tool I have learned from the Counseling Center at Stern is talking back to irrational and negative thoughts. Ask yourself why you want to procrastinate — what are you feeling about the task at hand? Why don’t you want to accomplish it now? Be honest with yourself and dig to the deep-rooted emotions. If those emotions reveal negative self-image, talk back to them — even out loud.  If you’ve procrastinated, say out loud that you forgive yourself for procrastinating until now. Exercise self-compassion, committing to meeting your own challenges with acceptance and kindness, and studies show you will procrastinate less next time.

When it comes to Perspective, I have struggled with my own self-worth, and my self-doubt cost me my motivation. Negative thoughts spiraled in my mind for months, and eventually I needed to remove Perspective in order to address the cycle of self-doubt, stress, procrastination that accompanied it.

But we are back to finish out the year strong, with more honesty, forgiveness, and self-awareness than ever. We believe in the power of Perspective for the YU community, and we are proud to present this month’s issue.

All the best,

Liat

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