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.