Chad’s doctor gave him what seemed like a pretty reasonable self-care plan to support his HIV medication regimen. They went through each item on the list, one by one, and Chad left his doctor’s office feeling like they were all doable.
That was yesterday. And the agreement was that he would get started right away. Meaning tomorrow.
But tomorrow is today. In fact, the day is almost over. And Chad is ashamed of himself for not yet having accomplished one thing on the list. “Not one thing!” his critical inner voice has said to him over and over. Now, he is hoping no one will ask him how he is doing on his first day because he doesn’t want to tell the truth and he doesn’t want to lie.
Yes, that’s right. Chad is procrastinating. I don’t know anyone, including myself, who doesn’t procrastinate. Maybe once in awhile. Or some of the time. Or even all of the time. It’s just part of being human.
Procrastination Doesn’t Come Out of the Blue. What’s Behind Yours?
My take on procrastination is that it’s a way of having control in our lives. We don’t like to be told what to do. We don’t want to do things we don’t like to do. And so, we maintain control by deciding when we will get started on an undesired task. Unfortunately, as in Chad’s case, when I’ll get started can turn into if I’ll get started.
Procrastination is also a way of avoiding failure. After all, if you never get started in the first place, you don’t have to worry about experiencing defeat. So Chad may have had some fear about whether he was really capable of making these changes in his life, and was avoiding putting himself to the test.
And here’s a third reason for procrastination. Human beings get attached to our day-to-day routines, even if they aren’t working that well for us. We like to stay with what’s familiar. Change means stepping into the unknown. What will life be like without our routines and habits? Chad may have had a fear of what his life would be like with his new self-care routine in place, and so may have been procrastinating to avoid the unknown that results from change.
Okay, so what about you? In what areas of your life are you most likely to procrastinate? And a second question. Is your self-care plan one of those areas?
It has been my experience that patients who are newly-diagnosed often struggle with procrastination. But so do those who are more experienced, maybe as a result of a major change in the requirements around their regimen. Or because they are feeling worn out on their routine.
So if you are struggling with procrastination, you are not alone. And, if so, you can do something about your procrastination. Here’s help:
First, don’t use this as a reason to criticize yourself. Getting down on yourself for procrastinating doesn’t help anything. It’s like criticizing yourself for being human. Actually, self-criticism leads to feelings of hopelessness, and the question, “why even bother?” That’s never going to motivate you.
Take a look at your perspective. One of the reasons you might be procrastinating on doing what you need to do to take care of yourself is that may be lumping all the things you need to into one giant iceberg you have to find a way to chip away at, and calling it something like “too much work” or worse yet, “almost impossible.” Who wouldn’t be inclined to procrastinate with a challenge like that?
Focus on the benefit of adherence. Between when you left your doctor’s office and faced your self-care plan, you may have lost sight of why you are embarking on this plan. Your mind may have told you that this whole thing is about making your life miserable. But your rational mind knows otherwise. This plan is all about helping you to stay as healthy as possible, to have quality of life, to be there for yourself and for others. That’s a reason to get going, right?
Break your self-care plan down into the elements. Shift your perspective away from that big iceberg you may be turning your self-care plan into. Instead, consider the elements that make up your self-care plan. Just as you have originally have done when you first went over it with your doctor. This might include medication regimen, diet, activity, self-monitoring, and other tasks.
Select the most important priorities. You might ask your doctor to help you. To best take care of yourself, what are the elements of your self-care plan that you need to address every day? Your medication regimen is probably at the top of the list. Self-monitoring may be high on the list also. Again, be clear with your doctor what the highest priorities are, don’t make assumptions.
Commit to a manageable number of priorities. And get started. Decide to start today with the basic elements of your plan. Not a complete overnight change in the way you live your life, but the beginning of needed adjustments to take best possible care of yourself. This should make your self-care plan feel less daunting.
Build in accountability. Being accountable in some way for maintaining our commitments can help you to stay on the path. This doesn’t mean asking for punishment? For example, asking a friend or family member if you can check in with them as you complete your self-care tasks every day, or asking them to check in with you, can be a great incentive. Make this about receiving an “attagirl” or an “attaboy,” some encouragement. As well as a listening ear – without judgement – if you aren’t successful.
Watch your labels. Notice I said “not successful” and not “failure.” Be careful about the words you use to describe your progress in meeting your self-care daily goals. Again, avoid creating reasons to get down on yourself.
Give yourself some encouragement. It’s nice to hear positive words from others, but you’ll be that much more successful if you can create your own inner motivation. So create your own positive self-talk and use it often. “Note to self: You’re doing a great job” is a good place to start.
Develop a plan for increasing your adherence. Success creates more success. A good way to counter the urge to procrastinate is to work with yourself to continue to master your self-care plan, one more step by one more step. Each time you take a step forward, give yourself some encouragement. Shout it from the rooftop! Think of how you’ll feel even more empowered when you take tackle that next task in your plan.
Take a step back. Procrastination might not be the only reason you aren’t successful with your self-care plan. It may be too aggressive, with an unreasonable number of changes expected all at once. You may have aspects of your plan that are just too difficult for you to accomplish. Or that just plain don’t fit with the way you live your life. If so, this might be an opportunity to talk to your doctor about adjustments you can make that could help you to be more successful.
Learn from those times when you don’t quite get around to it. Not achieving your self-care goals might also be a learning experience. Is there additional support you need? More accountability? Trying to accomplish too much? Work with your urge to procrastinate. Don’t fight it.
This approach will work in other areas of your life as well. Again, it’s human to procrastinate. You may find yourself dealing with procrastination in other areas of your life as well. If so, welcome to the club. You might find the guidelines I provided regarding your self-care plan will work in other areas of your life as well.
You, your self-care plan, and the urge to procrastinate. Talk to your doctor about a phased-in approach to staying on track with your self-care. Get help in setting priorities. Build in both accountability and encouragement. Keep your eyes on the prize. Success is a process, taken one step at a time.
Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist, patient advocate, and author in New York City, who specializes in working with individuals diagnosed with chronic and catastrophic medical conditions, their caregivers, and professionals. He maintains a website: Just Diagnosed.