Procrastination, anxiety, and the ugly truth about “just starting”

Lots of people insist that the way to deal with procrastination is just to get started. “Once you sit down and get started, it’s never as bad as you expect,” they’ll say.

Well, not so helpful. Not for me. Because sometimes, depending on the creative project, the sitting down is unpleasant, the getting started is unpleasant, and the unpleasantness continues for a good long while.

I’m often struck by how intense the anxiety is. How emotionally and physically draining. The feeling of pervasive dread. The prospect of imagined failure, never mind all the past successes. The prickliness in my arms. The tension in my neck and shoulders.

So, just get started? Pfft. Once I start, I might be looking at two hours or more of this extreme unpleasantness before I get into some kind of momentum. And by momentum, I don’t mean a satisfying flow state—I just mean that the cacophony and prickliness have settled down enough for me to produce some rough work that I can then go back and revise.

I resent this ramp-up time. I hate it. Of course I want to avoid it.

Here’s the tangle, the paradox. Overwhelming anxiety makes it impossible to focus. I really can’t think, concentrate, brainstorm, explore, create, produce, problem-solve, have interesting insights when in the grip of raging self-doubt and coursing adrenaline.

Yet the noise doesn’t die down until I’ve reached some momentum—until I have something mapped out, or written down, however unusable and imperfect, to show me that I am capable of addressing the creative problem.

So, basically, the only way to get past the anxiety is to work in the presence of anxiety. Ugh.

I’m really frustrated by this. Not only is it painful, it’s inefficient! (It also seems to make brief work sessions—like Robert Boice’s recommended 15 minutes—kind of impractical. By the time the work session ends, I haven’t even stopped spinning my wheels. What’s the point of that?) Why do other people find that just starting is enough? Why does the ramp-up time take so damn long? How can I make the pain stop?

The big shift

Last week, the marvelous Cairene MacDonald pointed out to me that this ramp-up time may be hardwired, and that wishing otherwise might be adding to my difficulty.

And it dawned on me that anxiety management is actually part of the creative process. It’s not taking time away from the work. It’s part of the work. And I need to allow time for it.

Unfortunately, how to manage anxiety is not so clear yet. But framing it this way—giving it legitimacy—helps me be less surprised and upset by the time and energy it takes up.

What might work: The how-to part

One thing that’s becoming clear as I mull over this idea, is that managing anxiety does not mean “finding a way to make it go away before I start work.” It does mean taking seriously how much kindness and support I need to give myself as I proceed into the unknown, frustration upon frustration, until the struggle gives way just a little and I start to find my pace.

Slow, calming breaths.

Standing up when I need to, i.e., every few minutes. (But without fleeing to the kitchen for sugar. Walking around the room is good.)

The compassionate-parent approach: “Wow, you’re really worried about this and not wanting to do it! It doesn’t feel good right now! And, you know you need to stay with it! Not fun! Hang in there!”

A pillow on my lap, for easy clutching.

For as long as it takes.


  1. Tim Brownson says:

    A really interesting post Fabeku and I agree that the ‘Just do it’ mentality is seldom helpful.

    I don’t agree about it being hard-wired though, i think that is bad advice. Check out The Brain That Changes Itself and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

    I always thought I was a born worrier, but I have changed that in time by working my but off and undermining the belief. It’s all about beliefs mate!

    Anxiety can be reduced to a manageable level for the vast majority of people.

  2. Tim Brownson says:

    Oops sorry Janet I copied the wrong name! I followed Fabeku’s Tweet and though it was his blog!! I am suitably embarrassed 😉

  3. Char Brooks says:

    This is so true – and I love what you said about how managing this anxiety is part of the creative process.

  4. I’m a world-class procastinator. I’ll do ANYTHING but want I’m supposed to be doing – getting a lot done that way — unfortunately it is not the things I SHOULD be doing or onesthat will create actual income. I really like your “com[assionate parent approach” will have to try that.

  5. JoVE says:

    I agree. Though I also think that once you’ve got that creative outline, rough draft or whatever, Boice’s 15 minutes at a time approach can be a very helpful way of getting from there to done.

    And that is the part I’ve been focusing on with my people so far. But you make me realize that I need to talk more about the other part.

    Because I work with academics, I tend to work with the rhythm of their year. And they have periods when more time is available and periods when working for 15 minutes at a time is probably all they’ll get.

    Maybe you could construct that kind of thing, too. Create momentum in the “getting started” phase. So once you have the draft or whatever of one project, instead of continuing with that project, you use the momentum to start another one.

    Then you have a pile of stuff started, and can have a long period of doing the 15 minutes at a time thing (perhaps cycling through your projects when you get stuck) to get them from draft to done.

    I also think Boice’s focus on mindfulness bears further thinking. It seems related to your compassionate parent approach somehow.

  6. I have struggled with this most of my life too. Lately I have been using physical activity as a means to cut this anxiety down. A brief work out, yard work, intense house cleaning or even love making have all worn me down to the point where I could focus on the work at hand instead of the anxiety about doing it.

    Now the struggle is not letting THAT stuff get in the way of my getting back to work. 😉

  7. Wow, this blog post is an eye-opener!

    Working as a web developer I am struggling for years with the problem of talking to prospects or new clients on the phone. Until we have created something together (a concept, a layout – anything), I simply dread calling them.

    Now the term “anxiety management” just hit me with a flash of enlightenment: Accept, that anxiety is part of the process, give it time and space and acknowledgment and acceptance – as you put it: “giving it legitimacy”. That’s just it!

    My tool(s):
    Sit down with a pen and paper and write down furiously, what I ‘hate’ in this client, this project, myself, my work, my life. Exhaust myself, cry if necessary.
    Then take a new piece of paper and brainstorm the project at hand: Write everything down what comes to my mind. Now that all the negative stuff is out of my head, I usually come up with something useful.
    Prepare the calls. Write everything out: what I want, what he might say, ask, or remark. My answers.
    Finally: call.

    This sometimes takes up to an hour or even two. It drains me. I hate it, every minute of it. But it works. And I hope, that by time I will get better.

    Maybe the acceptance is the key: It’s just the way it is now. You don’t have to like it, but fighting it won’t help either. Take it seriously and give it/yourself the support and kindness you need right in that moment.

    Thank you for this one!

  8. Janet, I think your realization about anxiety management being a legitimate part of the creative process is pure gold.

    It helps remove some of the “shoulds”…the feeling that you should finish the blog post (or freelance article, or book chapter, or whatever) might not go away, but if you build in the expectation that you’ll experience some (or a lot of) anxiety, you won’t feel that you **should** somehow be able to avoid that, that you **should** write it faster than the anxiety is letting you, etc.

    As far as practical suggestions go, I agree with Jonathan that physical movement helps. (It might be interesting to recruit a partner’s help using his last example!) But rather than doing something that’s workout-level intense, I’ll sometimes do a mundane and mindless task like folding the laundry. You can alternate the task with writing without losing the thread of your…well, your anxiety.

    Take the laundry basket to the computer. Write a few sentences. Breathe deeply. Fold a couple of shirts while you’re mulling over your next thought. Tap out another sentence or two. Match some socks. Soon you’ve got the laundry done, and if you’re lucky, a couple more paragraphs of writing. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll have at least gotten past the cacophony and prickliness to the point where you can finish the piece.

    I like your pillow idea, too. I have a pretty little rainbow-colored hacky-sack that sits on my desk which I sometimes use as a squeeze toy for the same purpose. It feels good in my palm.

    Thanks, Janet, for telling the truth about how “just starting” feels for you. It’s the same for me, and while I’m still hoping that blogging does get easier over time, reading what you wrote gives me a sense of validation that it’s OK to still feel uncomfortable about the process.

  9. This post really speaks to me. Sometimes the 15-minute blocks work, but usually that’s because I’m not really capital-P Procrastinating. The capital P comes out for projects that make me anxious, that drain me before I even begin them. And I really like this approach.

    Havi’s Procrastination Dissolve-O-Matic goes into the compassionate-parent approach in great detail, but I think this post is a great sort of intro to that idea. I’m working on developing time-management coaching myself, and I think the challenge will be finding the right combination of practical tactics and woo approaches for each client.

    Great post!

  10. I love this compassionate parent approach and the specific words you used here! Especially when I imagine YOU actually saying them to me. (It has to be you–I annoy myself because I’ve got a track record of bossing myself around all the time. So, while I get into the habit of being kinder to myself so I trust my inner voice more, a tiny Janet will be fulfilling compassionate parent role by delivering the lines of the voices in my head. Hope you don’t mind!)

  11. Janet Bailey says:

    @Tim – No problem, I’m flattered to be confused with Fabeku!

    I don’t use “hard-wired” to mean that people can’t change—it’s more about naming and meeting the problem, and making room for it as a way of moving through it. I think that makes lasting change more likely. Rather than hiding from it or getting mired in fighting with it.

    @Char – Glad this speaks to you!

    @Kathy – Sounds like you’re a follower of the Structured Procrastination approach! (seems to work pretty well for Stanford Prof John Perry, but has its drawbacks as you note)

    @JoVE: Hm, so maybe Boice’s 15 minutes are more suited to certain parts of a project, after you’ve gotten through the most concentration-intensive part. I haven’t given up on Boice—this might be a way to get his approach to work better.

    @Jonathan – People talk about exercise as a stress reliever, but I’d never thought about it from the tire-yourself-out-so-the-anxiety-can’t-lift-its-head-anymore perspective. I like it!

    @Astrid – That process of writing it all out—you’re right, it’s really helpful, and it does take a long time (sigh). I’m realizing that this investment of time probably saves a lot of wheel-spinning time. Sounds like you’re noticing that too. Also, interesting to see that it applies not just to solo creative work, but collaborative work as well.

    @Michelle – OK, so I need to come up with a selection of mindless escape tasks that won’t hook me (folding laundry is good; washing dishes not so much, since it gets me into the kitchen—danger!) Great idea.

    @Catherine – Combination of practical and woo, that’s the ticket! Havi’s stuff is great.

    @Kelly – You can borrow my compassionate parent voice anytime!

  12. Quotesqueen says:

    I really love this blog, and especially this post. I think you are dead-on that acceptance of the anxiety and compassion for oneself are the keys.

    It reminded me of this passage from Brenda Ueland’s classic book, If You Want to Write, about willing oneself to “just do it”: “When you will, make a resolution, set your jaw, you are expressing an imaginative fear that you won’t do the thing. If you knew you would do the thing, you would smile happily and set about it.”(More at It’s a kind of violence, the opposite of compassion and acceptance.

    Thanks for reminding us!

  13. Anna says:

    You have described exactly how I feel. Right down to the tensing neck and prickling arms. I *hate* the prickling of the arms. I can positively hear those highly evolved nerves of mine screaming for me to RUN across the savannah and climb a tree and not come down again.

    Tree climbing. That’s what I call anxiety management.

    Here’s what I think is going on in my head at these times. First of all, I know I haven’t sorted out how this thing is gonna look yet, and it’s floating way out there in the realm of the unknown. Second, I’m *upset* that I don’t know (even though it is plainly impossible to know, at this stage) and I’m frightened of wading out into that unknown realm to go fetch the thing and, you know, drag it back onto the beach. I don’t like being out there!

    I guess the compassionate parent would come in at this point. (But really I wish my parent if she’s so great would swim out there and get the thing for me. Hmmpppph.) Not happy about this, clearly. But *very grateful* to know I’m not alone.

  14. Walter Hawn says:

    It occurred to me, as I read your post, that the sort of rituals that many writers report doing before actually writing may be anxiety management in drag. The compulsive sharpening of pencils (back in the day. What’s a ‘pencil,’ daddy?) or the minute re-ordering of desk drawers and counting of paper clips. For myself, I putter around, returning books to shelves, dusting picture frames, cleaning the monitor screen and all that sort of thing for sometimes an hour before I actually sit down to work.

    And I can finally get to work because, I now think, I’ve bored the anxiety crew beyond ennui and they’ve gone off to bug somebody more interesting. I’ve always resented the huge amount of time I put in before actually putting in my time, but now I’m seeing that maybe it’s time not wasted.

    So, adding your ‘compassionate parent’ I can say to myself, “Okay, this dithering isn’t really dithering. It’s preparation and it’s good to do.”

  15. Janet Bailey says:

    @Quotesqueen – Ohhh, the wonderful Brenda Uehland. I still have my copy of her book from years ago, with the moodling part underlined. Thanks for reminding me to dip in there again.

    @Anna – Ha, tree-climbing—we should add that to @Jonathan’s exercise list. Yes, wading into the unknown, upset over not knowing—this all sounds very familiar. Seems like the compassionate parent could at least be waving from the shore, saying “You’re doing great! It’s just a few feet out in front of you! We’re right here!” Or wade/swim alongside or something. That would be nice. (Gasp, splutter, flail)

    @Walter – I love the idea of honoring the puttering rituals. And boring the anxiety so it goes looking for another target.

  16. […] This article from “Health Insurance Info” should give you most of the basics. 88. Procrastination, Anxiety and the Ugly Truth “About Just Starting” – Relief for entrepreneurs and creative professionals and mindful time management advice from […]

  17. […] Procrastination, Anxiety and the Ugly Truth About “Just Starting”. on Mindful Time Management. […]

  18. Reva says:

    fantastic blog.
    I could relate so much with all that u hav written… it was as if u were reading my mind. Especially the part where ú say..”Standing up when I need to, i.e., every few minutes. (But without fleeing to the kitchen for sugar. Walking around the room is good.)” omg!! i had a grin on my face!! it was like u reading my thoughts!!
    Although i keep wondering if there are any other reasons for my procastination..dont i like my wrk,doesnt it keep me enough occupied..etc.. but i could never come up with satisfying answers to these doubts!!
    Anyway, Keep up the good wrk. 🙂

  19. Janet Bailey says:

    @Reva – Procrastination has multiple causes, and not liking your work could certainly be one of them. Whatever the cause, self-kindness is a good place to start. Thanks for your friendly words!

Leave a Reply