Chad’s doctor gave him what seemed like a reasonable self-care plan to support his HIV-medication regimen. They went through each item on the list, one by one, and Chad (not his real name) left his doctor’s office feeling like the items were all doable.
That was yesterday. He agreed to start tomorrow. Now tomorrow is today. The day is almost over and Chad is ashamed of not yet having accomplished one single item on the list.
His critical inner voice has berated him over and over. Now, he’s hoping no one will ask him how he is doing, because he doesn’t want to tell the truth and he doesn’t want to lie.
Chad is procrastinating. I don’t know anyone, including myself, who hasn’t procrastinated at some point. It’s just human nature.
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’ll get started on an undesirable task. Unfortunately, as in Chad’s case, when we’ll get started can turn into if we’ll get started.
Procrastination is also a way of avoiding failure. If you never get started, you don’t have to worry about experiencing defeat. Chad may have some fears about being capable of making these changes and would rather not put himself to the test.
And there’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. Chad may fear what his life would be like with his new self-care routine in place, and so may be avoiding the unknown.
OK, so what about you? In what areas of your life are you most likely to procrastinate? Is your self-care plan one of those areas?
It’s 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 treatment regimen. Or because they are feeling worn out on their routine.
If you are struggling with procrastination, know you are not alone. And you can do something about it.
First, don’t use your procrastination as a reason to criticize yourself. Getting down on yourself for not doing what you should doesn’t help anything. It’s like criticizing yourself for being human. Actually, self-criticism can lead to feelings of hopelessness, and questions like, “Why even bother?” That’s never going to motivate you.
Instead, focus on the benefit of achieving the goal. Since you left your doctor’s office, you may have lost sight of why you are embarking on this plan. You may tell yourself that this whole thing is about making your life miserable. But your rational mind knows that’s not true. 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 good reason to get going, right? Keep your eyes on the prize.
Next, take a look at your perspective. One of the reasons you might be procrastinating on what you need to do to take care of yourself is that you may be lumping all the things you need to do into one giant iceberg. It becomes so big you think trying to chip away at it is simply pointless. Who wouldn’t be inclined to procrastinate with a challenge like that?
Break your self-care plan down into smaller, more manageable elements. Shift your perspective away from that big iceberg. Instead, consider the elements that make up your self-care plan. Just as you originally did when you went over it with your doctor. Reaching your goal may include adhering to your medication regimen, maintaining a particular diet, increasing physical activity, or doing self-monitoring; each of which may be broken into even smaller tasks.
Select the most important priorities. You can ask your doctor to help you prioritize those goals. Is it more important to eat right or exercise? To best take care of yourself, what are the elements of your self-care plan that you need to address every day? What can be done on a weekly basis instead? Your medication regimen is probably at the top of the list. Self-monitoring may be high too. Be clear with your doctor about what the highest priorities are; don’t make assumptions.
Commit to a manageable number of priorities. Then 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 the adjustments needed to take the best possible care of yourself. Talk to your doctor about a phased-in approach to staying on track with your self-care. What’s the first step? Take it. This should make your self-care less daunting.
Build in accountability. Being accountable in some way can help us stay on the path. Ask a friend or family member if they can check in with you on your progress or find a partner who will join you in maintaining a diet or exercise routine. There are even apps that can help if you need more accountability. This isn’t about punishing you when you’re not successful but encouraging you to succeed by knowing someone else is rooting for you or counting on you.
Watch your labels. Notice I said “not successful” and not “a 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 tackle that next task in your plan.
Take a step back and reassess. Procrastination might not be the only reason you aren’t successful in reaching 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 goals that are just too difficult for you to accomplish. Or goals 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? Are you trying to accomplish too much? Work with your urge to procrastinate. Don’t blindly fight it. Success is a process, let it unfold.
Gary McClain, MS, PhD, LMHC, is a therapist, patient advocate, blogger, and author, specializing in helping clients and their families deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses. (JustGotDiagnosed.com)