Why Do I Compulsively Avoid And Procrastinate Simple Tasks When It’s Actually Easier To Just GET THEM DONE?

What is wrong with me? Am I sabotaging myself into a three-hour RMV wait as a form of punishment for putting it off? Do I perhaps think I’m too good for a valid driver’s license or clean teeth?
Publish date:
March 5, 2014
productivity, anxiety, avoidance, two minute rule

I’ve needed to reschedule a dentist appointment for cleanings for my husband and I for two months. Literally. Two months. I managed to put off a two-minute -- IF THAT -- phone call for two months. I kept rationalizing: they are only open certain days of the week, and whatever day it is, they are probably closed anyway. This just isn’t a top priority. I don’t really have time to go. There's more important stuff I need to do.

Eventually I realized my dentist-appointment paralysis was becoming absurd and finally one morning I yelled at my husband to do it, under the guise of complaining that I am always the one who calls to make appointments for the dentist or the vet or whatever, and can you just help just this once that’s all I’m asking, as though it is his fault I turned this simple phone call into a massive albatross of stress and guilt, an oddly oversize obstruction to basic life skills swinging from my own neck.

I also did this with my driver’s license. Back in December I received a notice that my license was expiring and I needed to renew it. I went on the Massachusetts RMV (yes, it’s the REGISTRY of motor vehicles up here, because MA is so bloody special) website and filled out the online form, feeling all proud of myself for taking care of business like a grownup. Except when I got to the end, I received a message saying I needed to print my form and take it to an actual RMV location to get my photo updated. Simple enough, right?

Except I didn’t do it. I did nothing. I didn’t print the form. I didn’t even make a note to remind myself. It’s like I went, OOPS, BEING AN ADULT FAILED, LET’S PRETEND THIS NEVER HAPPENED and I just erased the need to renew from my mind.

Until late January, when I abruptly realized I had been driving with an expired license for two weeks. And even THEN I didn’t do anything right away. It’s like every time I thought about it, the worry over not having done it caused a panic short-circuit in my brain, which responded by literally shutting down on the issue. I didn’t get to the RMV until my license had been expired for a full month, and still, the day I was supposed to go, I procrastinated with Actual Important Work half the morning so that instead of getting there early before the wait times were atrocious, I ensured that I would be sitting in the RMV waiting hell for three full hours to have a five-minute interaction which resulted in what is easily the worst picture -- ID-based or otherwise -- of me OF ALL TIME.

What is wrong with me? Am I sabotaging myself into a three-hour RMV wait as a form of punishment for putting it off? Do I perhaps think I’m too good for a valid driver’s license or clean teeth?

This is pretty classic avoidance behavior, although what I do is sort of odd because the things I put off are not generally huge intense stuff. With big unpleasant issues, I tend to drop everything I am doing and tackle them right away, whether they’re a work dilemma or a friend having a crisis.

Psychologically speaking, avoidance behaviors are most often associated with anxiety disorders -- avoidant people will sometimes to go extremes to avoid situations (like places or events that remind them of a traumatic event, or circumstances in which they are expected to engage with people in social activities) that may cause stress. If they can’t get away from the situation, they will often resort to coping via safety behaviors that are like small avoidances in themselves -- imagine the socially-anxious person who managed to get herself to a party, but then spends most of her time there standing off to one side, pretending to be deeply engrossed in her phone (here’s a hint: she looks exactly like me).

The irony is that these behaviors actually make the anxiety worse, because they allow the avoidant person to dodge the situations in which they might confront their anxiety, bit by bit. They feel safer, but they’re just reinforcing the fear that keeps us from dealing with the issue, be it a traumatic memory or a desperate dread of imminent rejection.

Personally, I’m very good about confronting the big stuff. I just seem to have traded my willingness to take on the big stuff for setting aside the smaller things, sometimes -- like making a phone call for a dentist appointment. It’s not that these things are hard, quite the opposite: they are boring. In some cases, they ping one of my social anxieties (for example, talking to a stranger on the phone) which I would gamely confront in a situation with more gravitas, but which for a small minor silly thing, I can easily push aside as unimportant and therefore something I don’t need to worry about attacking right away.

Adding to the frustration is that I am more likely to avoid these tasks when I am more stressed. Logically I would expect that the more stressed I am, the more likely I would be to tackle the small mundane problems just to get them out of my life, but on the contrary, I avoid them, creating an atmosphere in which worrying over not having done something small and seemingly innocuous becomes a fixed point around which all my anxiety revolves. Maybe it’s easier to stress about a small thing I know I can hypothetically fix, than it is to angst about big stuff that is beyond my control.

Lately I’ve been confronting this habit using something called the two-minute rule. Well, actually for me I make it a five-minute rule, but the idea is the same -- the rule is that if whatever you need to do can be done in less than two (or five, or whatever) minutes, just do it now.

The original two-minute rule comes from David Allen’s ubiquitous productivity book, “Getting Things Done,” which I have never read (although I’ve been meaning to get around to it, RIMSHOT). I believe I first read about this idea in Real Simple (I LOVE REAL SIMPLE, OKAY), and for such a banal, obvious bit of advice, it was kind of a revolution in my brain.

I find this rule particularly useful because it gives me a straightforward method of instantly assessing each task, instead of mentally throwing every new thing on top of the heap of Things I Need To Do, such that it looks like a lot more work than the individual task might actually entail.

Just asking myself, Will this take longer than five minutes to finish? starts me on the accomplishing-stuff path, because it thwarts my usual push-it-aside-and-pretend-it-doesn’t-exist urge just long enough to let me seriously think about JUST DOING THE THING.

For example, last night I found out we need to get some minor work done in our condo to bring everything in line with the updated condo rules. Typically, if I’m already feeling stressed, I would panic and shove this aside for a week before dealing with it, even though I know intellectually that taking care of it right away would mean I didn’t have to think about doing it at some future time.

So first thing this morning, I just made the call to get the work done. And I felt so much better. The relief was actually THRILLING -- it was almost like being high, which should probably tell you something about how rarely I experience THAT sensation. As much as I want to convince myself that procrastination is a stress management technique, it’s simply not true. Nothing eradicates anxiety like just taking care of the stressor and striking it from that terrible to-do list.

Oh, and by the time you read this today, I will be at the dentist, getting that long overdue cleaning. Take that, avoidance. I’m slaying my small-things stress, one tiny task at a time.