Faces of Home
BY DONNA HOKE
DR. BERNADETTE MCCOURT EXPLAINS WHY WE PUT OFF
THINGS WE WANT TO DO
THIS ISSUE’S THEME OF GET IT DONE WOULDN’T BE COMPLETE (or
possible) without that theme’s natural enemy: procrastination. It seemed only right,
then, that this month’s Faces subject be someone who can talk to us both about why we
procrastinate and how we can stop—or try to stop. Or at least not put off trying to stop.
Dr. Bernadette McCourt is a private practice licensed psychologist who works with
a number of clients who procrastinate. Procrastination is common with anxiety and
depressive disorders, and can create a vicious cycle: “People procrastinate because they’re
stressed or anxious about doing something, and then the result of not doing it can be
increased levels of stress,” says McCourt.
Why do we procrastinate?
Usually, because something is distasteful, or something we
don’t like to do, so we’re trying to avoid feelings of distress
or discomfort that the task brings up. In order to avoid
discomfort, we keep coming up with excuses or rationales to
put it off.
Sometimes, people have life assumptions about why they
shouldn’t have to do these tasks, or having to do these tasks
overcomes any feelings of satisfaction afterward. Other people
are perfectionists; they want to do it, but they want to wait
until they can do it perfectly, and the perfectionism affects
their decision to act.
Some people don’t have self-confidence. Can I do this task?
Do I know how to hang a curtain rod? Some will say, “I would like to do this, but I’m so
tired. When I have the energy, I’ll do it.” And some people are like, “I shouldn’t have to do
these kinds of things; why should I have to do that? That’s not fair.”
Procrastination differs in the sense of your underlying belief about the world. The
world and how you are in the world gives you the rationale for why you procrastinate.
Does it take different forms?
Yes, in the sense that there are people who try to do pleasurable activities that will take
them away from the unappealing or discomforting tasks—like watch TV or read a book
or talk to a friend. Some choose a lesser task, like instead of replacing the curtain, they’ll
fold the laundry, which helps them avoid the procrastinated task.
But, in the case of our Home writers—many of whom put off small projects for
double-digit years—it wasn’t necessarily about discomfort. Is there another kind of
Yes, and that’s more about keeping something on the back burner because you have
more pressing issues to tend to; it’s a matter of internal prioritization. It’s just free
floating out there and you keep meaning to do it, but you just don’t. Maybe it’s not a high
priority task that means a great deal to your view of yourself, and there are other things
that are more meaningful. But, once you have to do it, “now it’s part of our job,” [it moves
up the list], whereas before, it never seemed to have an importance that motivated you.
It was like, “Oh brother, I could watch a TV show or go out with my friends, rather than
tend to the curtains.”
And then we do it, and it’s just not that bad.
Procrastination and anxiety are closely linked, because, with anxiety, we always think
something is going to be worse than it is. We put it off because we keep imagining it’s
going to be worse, and then you do it, and it’s often, “This is fine; this is nothing.”
How can we continue the success?
You felt such a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction when it’s done; that can
motivate you to tackle other things as they come up.
and anxiety are
going to be
worse than it is.
What if this isn’t an isolated thing? What
if we have whole lists of things we don’t
want to do?
Make a list of the things you have to do
or want to do, over the next week, month,
even a year, and just put it on that list
so it’s visible to you. Having a visual list
makes it more concrete and salient, where
other times, the things are just floating
around in the back of your brain.
How can we create more motivation
The thing to do is recognize that you are
going to feel a great deal of satisfaction
and relief after you complete the task. A
lot of people are very self-critical when
they think of all the things they haven’t
done, so they become like, “You’re lazy.
You’re such a bum,” but try to talk to
yourself in a kind and encouraging way.
Rather than approaching with guilt and
shame, approach with motivation and
Then make that list of all the things you
want to do that you’ve been putting off,
and prioritize it. Number one, go to the
dentist, if that’s the most important. Then
start tackling. You might want to do the
worst first, so that it’s out of the way and
out of your brain.
Another way has to do with time. If
you have to study, say, “I don’t want to do
it, but I’m going to make myself for five
minutes.” Once you do it for five minutes,
you get a little motivated, so you do it
for five more, and you keep adding five-minute increments, until you get to the
point where you disengage. Sometimes, if
you have something you don’t like to do, if
you say, “I’ll do it for thirty minutes and be
done with it for the day,” knowing there is
a stop time can help you get started.
Do things when you have the most
energy. I’m a morning person, so it’s
best for me to try to tackle things in
the morning when I have more coping
skills and I’m better able to combat my
resistance. At night, it’s not good for me to
try to do things, because I don’t have the
wherewithal to combat the resistance.
You can also reward yourself for doing
an onerous task you’ve put off: “if I study
for half an hour, then I’m going to allow
myself to watch a TV show for an hour,”
or, “if I get that curtain hung, I’ll treat
myself to a mani/pedi.” If you visualize
yourself getting it done and how good
you’ll feel, that can help. It’s a lot about
mindset and being kind to yourself. People
think if they beat themselves up about it,
they’re more like to do it, but the opposite
is true. Be supportive with yourself as you
would with a friend.”